Parents, not schools, must teach their children to read

Blunkett's campaign is well intentioned but confused as to what is understood by `literacy'
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The Independent Culture
"READING," Francis Bacon declared, "maketh a full man." Fullness is evidently the Government's worry of the week, David Blunkett has announced a "National Reading Campaign". Every school in the country will receive pounds 1,000 with which to galvanise the reading habit among our young.

This is New Labour's favourite tactic - a cheap but, well-aimed "stimulus", which (like a Tomahawk missile) targets its objective so pin-point precisely that improvement is, after impact, self-sustaining. Create a few super- nurses or super-teachers as "role models" or throw a few sexy books at school children and reform will follow as surely as day follows night. No need for all that expensive infrastructural investment.

The thinking behind Blunkett's campaign is well-intentioned but confused as to what is understood by "literacy". It goes back to what is the most fundamental, but uninvestigated, split in our education system: the point where it all starts. Where the home meets kindergarten, that is. Most readers of this and other quality newspapers will have been taught to read by their mothers (or their fathers) before they went to school. Once enrolled in school, most of them will have been taught to write by paid teachers, building on the parental literacy foundation.

Students of the history of the novel are familiar with that peculiar phenomenon in the 18th and 19th centuries - the illiterate female reader. There were large audiences of women for writers like Richardson or Jane Austen who could read fluently, but hardly write at all. Writing was reserved for the male sex as an occupational skill. There were, one is told, women who could read Shakespeare but who would sign the marriage register with a cross. They had been taught to read by their mothers - it was passed down as a household skill like darning or dumpling making. No need for girls to learn penmanship. "Clerks" and "scriveners" (like scribes before them) were exclusively male trades. You could earn your living by being able to write or even "copy" accurately. There was no demand for readers - except as passive consumers of novels or cookery books.

All this changed with two momentous events: the 1870 universal education act, which gave girls equal educational rights, and the typewriter. The new stenographic machines of the 1890s required a dexterity which girls (trained in needlework by their mothers) had, and boys singularly didn't. The keyboard was feminine - women at last had a profession (apart from the traditional marriage, seamstressing, or prostitution) to call their own. Until quite recently, men didn't like having computers in their private offices, since "typing" was woman's work. Being able to five-finger touch- type was as unmanly as knowing how to work a dishwasher, or a steam iron.

By the same kind of cultural inertia, women have retained their historical edge as readers. On Wednesday's Radio 4 Today programme, David Blunkett noted the curious phenomenon that girls have less problem with reading than boys who tend to see the activity as degradingly "sissy". Keyboards, on the other hand, have been masculinized in the last decade by computers and, more particularly, computer games. No one ever played Flight Simulator or Kombat on a typewriter. We have, I suspect, a rising generation of little boys with advanced keyboard skills to rival those of the 1890s "typewriter girl", but who can't read worth a damn.

The middle and upper classes still have a great advantage over the under classes (this week's term is "the excluded"): they feel the obligation to teach their kids to read before sending them off to school. The head start is rarely overtaken by lower-class children.

This middle-class pre-school advantage is, however, being sadly eroded by the 1990s epidemic of divorce and single-parenthood. Lone parents, however omnicompetent and well intending, do not have the hundreds of hours necessary to recruit their offspring into the reading habit.

When David Blunkett talks about the necessity of a "culture change" to reinvigorate the reading habit, I suspect that what he means, although he daren't say it (remembering the "Back to Basics" and "Victorian Values" fiascos), is "less divorce" and "bring back the nuclear family, and the house-bound mother". These are deep waters. It's easier to give each school pounds 1,000, spout some uplifting slogans, and hope for the best.

The reading skills of the British population in the 1990s present a strangely mixed picture. As publishers, particularly reprint publishers of "`classic" books, will tell you, business has never been better. My local Dillon's, for example, has no fewer than five editions of Oliver Twist, Emma, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Middlemarch all costing less than pounds 5 (one, the "Wordsworth" edition, costing less than a pound). Each is selling on average 20,000 copies a year.

If you do the sums, Dickens (with his dozen titles) is selling over a million copies a year - infinitely more than he ever sold in his Victorian heyday. There are 700 titles listed in the catalogues of the two market leaders, World's Classics and Penguin Classics. At one point in the early 1990s (it's cooled off a bit now), sales were expanding at 30 per cent a year. Take this with the fact that over 100,000 new titles are produced annually for the British market (plus half a million "in-print" titles) and what you do not see is a country that has somehow lost the reading habit. More reading is happening than at any time in history.

But who is doing the reading? The over-forties and, particularly, the over-flfties. All those school teachers who took early retirement, who saved up their "serious reading" for when they had time and a bit of pocket money, which (with the kids off their hands) they now do. This is the generation whose mothers taught them to read, who benefitted from the 1944 Education Act and all the new text books, who cut their teeth on text- (not picture-) based comics like the Wizard, Rover and Hotspur. Look at today's kids weaned on The Teletubbies, banging away at interactive computer games, and reading picture books.

Project forward fifty years. Will they be reading Middlemarch (or even Trainspotting)? If he really wants to invest in long-term remedies for the future reading deficit, Mr Blunkett should amend the tax and benefit laws to allow mothers (particularly) to spend more time, and better time, with their pre-school infants.