The Schools Minister has great expectations of Britain's 11-year-olds, singling out Charles Dickens's classic as one of the books all children should read before they leave primary school. But on the eve of Dickens's 200th birthday, his biographer warned that young readers do not have the attention span to appreciate his work.
Claire Tomalin, whose book, Charles Dickens: A Life, was shortlisted for 2011's Costa Book Awards biography prize, said the author's works depicting an unfair society were "amazingly relevant" today. However, she added: "Today's children have very short attention spans because they are being reared on dreadful TV programmes."
Nick Gibb, the Minister for Schools, said Dickens' works, some of which cover more than 500 pages, could have a transformative effective on children's reading habits. "Every child ought to read a Dickens novel by the age of 11," he said.
But his call also prompted a senior academic to add his voice to the debate over Dickens' place in the classroom. John Bangs, visiting professor at London University's Institute of Education, said: "Dickens is fantastic and to introduce children to him at an appropriate age is a really good idea. The trouble with Gibb is he thinks everyone in the class should read Dickens – and this is the kind of top-down, tunnel-visioned approach we could do without."
Mr Gibb also told i the current review of the national curriculum should give primary school teachers more guidance on which books children should be encouraged to read.
"It is very difficult for government to prescribe a list of books that children should read by a certain age," he said. "But there are books that we all ought to be encouraged to read."
Events taking place to mark the anniversary of Charles Dickens's birth tomorrow include a street party in the road where he was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, and a ceremony at his grave in Westminster Abbey.