The Schools minister Nick Gibb has great expectations of Britain's 11-year-olds, singling out Charles Dickens' classic as one of the books all children should read before they leave primary school. But on the eve of Dickens' 200th birthday, his biographer has 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. But she added: "Today's children have very short attention-spans because they are being reared on dreadful TV programmes. They are not being educated for long attention-spans."
Nick Gibb, the minister of state for Schools, said Dickens' works, some of which run to 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 Mr 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."
Ms Tomalin, who will attend a wreath-laying ceremony at Dickens' grave in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, London, tomorrow, said of the author: "Very simply, he is, after Shakespeare, the greatest creator of English literature.
"He has gone on entertaining people since the the 1830s. You only have to look at our society.
"Everything he wrote about in the 1840s is still relevant: the great gulf between rich and poor, corrupt financiers, corrupt members of Parliament, how the country is run by old Etonians – you name it, he said it."
Mr Gibb also told The Independent 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."
Mr Gibb has chosen Dickens' bi-centenary to launch a campaign to improve reading standards.
Last week he visited Thomas Jones primary school in Ladbroke Grove, west London, where pupils had chosen their favourite books to read to the minister. The most popular authors were: Michael Morpurgo and Jacqueline Wilson.
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