My trip to Sainsbury’s this week reminded me of something. On the shelf where the supermarket used to offer families a good variety of children’s books, full of stories, poems and interesting artwork, all that was on sale was a set of booklets full of maths and language exercises.
There were, for example, stacks of a series called “English Made Easy”, boasting on the cover that it supports “curriculum teaching” and “national testing preparation”. Some of these even manage to turn jokes and poems into numbered drills, asking children to write out lists of puns and metaphors.
Parents wanting to do the best by their children are led by a giant corporation to believe that sitting down doing these exercises is a better way of getting their children to do well than reading and talking about stories.
In fact, it doesn’t give them the choice. The books have gone.
In itself, this switch in what a supermarket chain offers its customers might not seem hugely significant. But let’s look at what else is going on with how the political culture is treating children.
The return to school this week in England and Wales marks a moment when the government will bear down yet more heavily on teachers, determining the way the very youngest children will learn how to read.
The way we write English is only partly logical. That’s to say, we can’t say that this or that letter ALWAYS makes this or that sound. And we can’t say that this or that sound is ALWAYS made in the same way. Here’s an illustration. Look at the letters “ou” in “round” and in “soup”. Same letters, different sound.
Meanwhile, if you want to make the sound that’s in the middle of “round”, you could write it as “ow”, as in “town”.
There is no logic behind this. These differences grew up for historical reasons going back hundreds of years.
A key part of learning how to read “round” and “soup” is from the context of the sentence, the paragraph and the whole book.
But the system the government is forcing on teachers and children does pretend that the way we write is logical—apart from what they call “alternatives” or “exceptions”.
This is either nonsense or a lie. In my experience, this leaves some children, in particular those who don’t come across a lot of books, without the strategies they need to read willingly, enthusiastically and with understanding.
Instead, these children find that they are given more and more exercises, more and more drilling and so have less and less motive for wanting to read in the first place.
Now if all this wasn’t bad enough, for the last few years the reading of books in most schools has been clogged up with dull reading-scheme booklets, exercises and box-ticking.
These are all laughably called “the basics”, while the reading of whole books and talking about them has become an optional extra.
The very children who need to be reminded of the fun and variety of books miss out.
And surprise, surprise, the government has just discovered that all this dry rigidity can’t deliver the very improvements they said they wanted.
So they’re going to make it yet more rigid! Children who come from families with little experience of reading often and widely, end up with nothing better than these exercises and booklets.
Then, as they sit in class, many of these young children are now confronted by a ghastly incentive scheme made up of stars, smiley faces and certificates.
Each child is listed on a giant sheet that sits on the wall above where they sit, announcing to all and sundry, day after day, who is winning and who is losing.
And believe me, they know! My six year old can tell me exactly which children are tops and which are bottoms.
Meanwhile, a political rage is being directed towards children. Failing children should be kept down a year in primary school, say the Tories. Thousands of them are criminals, say the press, and should be locked up.
If you want to guarantee children’s disaffection from school, humiliate them. Keeping so-called failures hanging about in primary schools would do just that.
If you want to detach certain children from their friends, families and support, then insert them into the criminal justice system where we know they will become much more likely to harm themselves and others.
Overall, what’s going on in all these areas is a process of battening down on the people who have the least money, live in the worst housing, have the least spare time and have the least experience of written culture. The combination of it all bullies and impoverishes the poorest and the least educated.
Luckily, there are parents, teachers, children, writers, youth workers and all kinds of people working with families who pit themselves against all this.
In the next few months of public sector action and political campaigning, there will be plenty of opportunities to raise all these questions.