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Home > Culture and Society

Education: Reading Is A Class Issue

16 March 2007

Alistair Campbell once criticised the media for being relentlessly cynical about the government. This was an amazing bit of double-think by Campbell, who came up with the 'dodgy dossier', but on a more general level it's often true, with the media putting a negative spin on *anything* the government does. If Blair reintroduced free milk in schools, you can bet some paper would run the headline: 'FREE MILK DEATH SENTENCE FOR LACTOSE INTOLERANT TOTS'.

Thus it's nice to come across a government policy that actually seems to merit praise. This week education secretary Alan Johnson said that every secondary school should have a 'boys' bookshelf' - a section of the library with spy novels and action stories to encourage more boys to read. 'Boys like books which depict them in powerful roles, often as sporting, spying or fighting heroes - not just Jane Austen, but a necessary dose of Anthony Horowitz as well,' he told the Fabian Society.

In the past, TFT has bemoaned the fact that the books you read at school appeared to be calculated to be put you off reading for life. Not only this, but if some kids aren't reading *anything*, they may as well be reading Chris Ryan, Jackie Collins or even, dare we say it, Clive Barker. All reading (except stuff that's too adult, or illiterate Internet shit) is good for kids and helps develop reading skills, so it's surely good news that a government minister realises this?

Well, yes and no. Johnson went on to put a curious emphasis on 'working class boys' in his reading plans. 'We need an educational strategy that builds a positive identity for working class boys, instilling in them pride and a love of learning,' he said.

OK, working class boys have been shown to be failing educationally, but are working class girls all voracious readers? The assumption seems to be that because Jane Austen (etc.) writes about women, all girls automatically thrill to her works. They don't. Also, you'd think an overall drive to make reading more appealing would be enough of a policy on its own, so why complicate it with creating 'a positive identity for working class boys'? Deconstruct the emphasis a bit and it looks like yet another sop to the right-wing press, which never tires of telling us how white boys are falling behind, how traditional education is dead, how men in general are suffering at the hands of a feminised culture, and how the PC brigade want to make Dan Dare gay, or something.

It'll be interesting to see what, if anything, comes of Johnson's plans, because introducing more accessible or just plain interesting books in schools shouldn't be that difficult. Unless of course it's a policy that's been announced with the aim of placating the right-wing press, but just happens to be a good idea in the first place...

Fuck it, we're going back to relentless cynicism.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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