Podium; Beware the educational Luddite

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The Independent Culture
Helena Kennedy

From the Orange Prize for Fiction lecture by the Chair of the British Council at the London Festival of Literature

I, LIKE others, believe that one of the values of literature is to do with democracy.

It has a role in the creation of what my Scottish teachers called "the democratic intellect", which is the development of critical faculties. It helps us to understand the power of language. As Graham Martin of the Open University says: "Literature leads people to have more self-confidence, more understanding of moral and other experience."

However, most adults receive no further learning opportunities after completing their initial education; over half our young people come out of school and start adult life in need of compensatory education. When I was receiving evidence in 1997 for the Learning Works report, I travelled around the country to the real unemployment black spots, where whole swaths of the community have been laid waste.

What became clear to me was that the trick is to bring learning to the learners. Adult learners often prefer to learn alongside their peers and women returners blossom in courses specifically designed for them.

But the learning should not be confined to computer skills and "training" for employment. Likewise, in schools, squeezed curricula leave little room for library browsing or trips out to the theatre. And why should teachers be prepared to do extra-curricular when they are so undermined by the Chief Inspector, an educational Luddite who seems intent on smashing the very machinery which will deliver progress and who treats his role as if he were inspecting taxes rather than the creative process of teaching?

Frequently people explain to me the terror they have of setting foot inside institutions. Therefore, the invitation has to be very clever if it is to overcome that terror. Our inventiveness should see no limits in creating all kinds of community learning centres. It should be one of our aims that all the large corporations and public- sector employers are equipped with learning resource centres, part of the new University for Industry.

In a Knowsley housing estate in Merseyside, I saw Portakabins in playgrounds being used as family rooms for basic skills classes. Parents coming along because they wanted to know how to help their own children with reading grew in confidence, felt more comfortable in the school precincts.

The local library has all the potential of being at the hub of a lifelong learning project - if it is to be more than rhetoric. I cannot believe that we are seeing the closure of so many libraries. In my own London borough of Camden the struggle against cuts continues. The local library is the ordinary working-class person's lifeline. The notion that books are now cheap and there are bookshops on every corner and, therefore, libraries have lost their role, is a fallacy. A decent paperback costs over pounds 5, which is a lot of money to the young or the less well-off.

The issues of access to literature and public libraries are inseparable. Local authorities maintain they only close libraries which are underused. Yet it may be that the library is not working hard enough to overcome the barriers which hold back large numbers of the least privileged members of society.

Creative librarians find so many ways to draw people in, holding special events around children or special days like Mother's Day and Valentine's Day and inviting along writers.

I have often thought libraries should be used more for public and balloon debates. They should invite popular figures to talk about books they like - I bet you Ginger Spice has a thing or two to say about the ones she has enjoyed.

Many have been arguing that the libraries should be extended to include computer use because there is such a serious risk that in the brave new world of technology we are going to create techno-rich kids and techno- poor. The closing of libraries in the midst of talk about social exclusion suggests that all the claims about joined up government have a long way to go.

We have wonderful projects taking place. There is the Writers in Prison scheme. There are now 100 literature development workers around the country; there are writers in residence and there are writers in schools.

I do have a sense of alarm about huge publishing conglomerates controlling everything, an unease about the relegating of the book to a commodity in an increasingly bland airport market, but when I return to the earth I have no doubts that literature will survive. People will always feel the desire to write with truth and imagination, and others the desire to read their creations. The challenge is to widen the net of readership.