SACK the teachers! Expel nonreading parents! Carpet-bomb the inner city with copies of The Cat in the Hat! These are just a few of the more colourful responses to the Evening Standard's investigation into London's literacy crisis, published last week.
Our reports -- which highlighted the jaw-dropping facts that one in three children has no books at home, that one in four 11-year- olds cannot read or write properly and that one in five leaves secondary school still unable to read with confidence -- have united the Standard's readers in shock.
Hearteningly, for every howl there is a thoughtful suggestion, often in the same email. Encouraged by this reaction -- and by pledges of support from Britain's best loved writers -- the Evening Standard today launches its Get London Reading campaign, which will, we hope, channel the passions roused into effective change.
Michael Rosen, the prize-winning children's author, applauds the Standard for zeroing in on the heart of the problem: homes without books. "Nothing is as crucial as this. If you go into a classroom, put books of poetry in front of a bunch of eight- or nine-year-olds and ask them to choose a favourite, you will see instantly which of them have books around them at home. They're the ones who flick confidently through the pages, they scan, they know what to do without even thinking about it. The others just can't get started. And since schooling is all about words, browsing them, extracting them, that's a problem."
He points to a recent study by the University of Nevada, which shows that the overriding predictor of a child's educational success is the number of books at home. As few as 20 books make a huge difference, while a child brought up in a household with more than 500 books is likely to spend on average three years longer in education than a child from a bookless home, after controlling for other factors. "The key to social mobility is not social class or race, it's not wealth, it's not even parental educational levels: it's books," says Rosen. "The evidence is there -- the survey looked at 70,000 children in 27 countries over 20 years. Now all we have to do is act on it."
But how? Rosen's suggestion -- born of his experience as Britain's official children's laureate -- is beguilingly direct: "Use the schools. If you go into most schools, you get no sense that books are important: there's no vibe, no physical evidence that books matter. Yet that's where parents come with their kids, every day. And that's where they can be reached. If we could just get every school in the land to set itself the challenge of interesting whole families in books -- through book-swaps, book fairs, reading competitions, anything -- then books will get to those hard-to- reach homes." Apparently, kidnapping parents at pickup time for impromptu story-reading sessions works pretty well too.
His suggestion that every primary school enrol all its pupils as members of the local municipal library, issuing all schoolchildren with their own library card, showing them, and their parents, just how easy it is to take home fresh free books every week, has a simplicity bordering on genius. …