Michael Rosen: 'Give children books, not SATs'

The children's laureate, Michael Rosen, is a fierce critic of the Government's education policies. He's against testing – and wants pupils to be excited by literature again. Andy Sharman talks to him
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The Independent Online

Michael Rosen, the children's laureate, can't help but feel a tinge of glee at the recent SATs fiasco. "There is a bit of schadenfreude, if you like," he says, "a bit of celebration at their misfortune" – meaning the misfortune of the Government; or the Department for Children, Schools and Families; or ETS; or head teachers; or advocates of testing. Take your pick, Rosen has multiple gripes with multiple people when it comes our education system.

The writer and broadcaster has for years been the patron of stressed-out children and an arch critic of formal testing for under-16s. His daughter Elsie, aged seven, has just completed her Key Stage 1 tests, which he says has given him an added sympathy for confused parents. "The teacher starts talking to me about various marks," he says in his north London rasp. "Now, I'm immersed in education but she started saying, 'level this' and 'attainment target that' and all the rest of it and I had no idea what she was talking about. Then I said, 'Well, how's Elsie getting on?' and we began to have a proper conversation and got a sense of where she was at."

Modern-day assessment jargon is just the thing to rile a man whose life, since childhood, has revolved around education, language, debate and a hatred of testing. From lying awake in fear of the 11-plus to going through SATs as a parent, he knows the vice-like grip of examinations.

"Testing does something to children, something to teachers, something to parents, something to the whole conversation about education," he says. His everyday speech, you notice, has the same lively stream of consciousness as his poetry.

But by far his biggest concern is what testing has done to his greatest love: books. Literacy standards at 14 fell this year, according to Key Stage 3 tests. Rosen is currently tub-thumping on behalf of the National Year of Reading, a campaign to celebrate the written word, and has written a poem for the cause – printed exclusively today (see box, right) . What he wants above all is to re-inject a sense of enthusiasm into the study of literature in schools. Love books, he says, and school will be a cinch; over-test children, sterilise the English language, and you only make it harder.

"The questions on English SATs papers are not about stories, they're about factual accounts and reproducing the sequence of stories," he says. "The basic process of response, of feeling, and of letting children share that feeling has been pushed to one side. All this effort and money that has gone into SATs has gone away from the enjoyment of books. They are so obsessed with getting the SATs scores and with satisfying Ofsted."

Again, the "they" to which Rosen refers is that same bureaucratic chimera: any centralised, top-down force. Rather than disrupting the natural process of education with testing, targets and governmental edicts, he would prefer to see sampling: assessing students' work to get a sense of standards within a school. After all, testing was always about holding teachers accountable, not challenging pupils.

Rosen deplores the Government's academies programme. "I don't understand why it's thought that you improve education by taking it away from public control," he says. He argues that academies are taking democracy away from education by creating a locally differentiated system. Though academies are not based on either income or ability, they are a step too far from Rosen's ideal of local comprehensive schools for local people. Throwing ourselves in with the scheme, Rosen says, is akin to selling off the family silver.

"This stuff was hard fought for and belongs to us. And yet subtly, the ownership of these schools is passing into the hands of PFIs [private finance initiatives] and PPPs [public-private partnerships] and all kinds of things that are hard for local people to find out about. People are going to wake up in 20 years and find out that they don't actually own the school – it's in the hands of cartels."

So what would the curriculum look like in the Michael Rosen Comprehensive? Well, there wouldn't really be a curriculum, of course. "One of the things I would do is put the enjoyment and pleasure in books of all kinds right at the centre. You would get teachers sitting round saying, 'Look, here is this massive historical body of books going back 3,000 years, full of stories and knowledge. How can we make the grabbing hold of that stuff absolutely central?' It's not through drawing up a specific curriculum. It's through the teachers working out, with advisers and researchers, how to do that. We've lost the ability to put those processes in place. What we think we have to do is produce directives from central government."

Rosen, who sees learning as an organic process, seems to have gleaned much from his father, Harold Rosen, the eminent educationalist, latterly of London University's Institute of Education, who died recently, aged 89. In fact, Michael's entire vision of education would not seem so left-wing, so utopian, if all parents were as committed as Connie and Harold Rosen.

His childhood home was, "a non-stop educative youth club", he says, with his parents constantly debating, "constantly putting stuff in front of us, constantly trying to awaken our interest in things". The young Michael would bring home essay questions and immediately be challenged by his father about what he was going to write. Elder brother, Brian, recently described their father as an "egocentric, demanding personality". The family home was "a crucible". Didn't all this become rather tiring?

"Well, that was the other thing: my parents were amazingly libertarian," says Michael. "I did all that wonderfully 'meaningless' play, where you just goof about with your mates, all day Saturday, all day Sunday. My parents had the idea that you develop through free play and this was part of their education philosophy. And while you were having free play, you would get into discussions with your mates about what it was that your parents had said. So the two things sort of merged."

This merging has continued for Michael Rosen to this day: he is the funny poet mixed with the radical politician (he was a Respect Party candidate in 2004); the silly children's writer who says, "don't put the mustard in the custard", and the serious author who confronted grief at the death of his son in "Michael Rosen's Sad Book"; the darling of middle-class parents, and the contributor to Socialist Worker ; the intellectual teenager who could never get enough of mucking about; the 62-year-old wearing Converse trainers and a denim bucket hat.

Then there is the infectious enthusiasm which he possesses. Like father, like son: "Any new enthusiasm, my father would have to share," says Rosen. "Interesting things in the newspaper, something he'd found on a dump somewhere, a church he'd found in the guidebook. All that stuff he just shared with you as if it was going to be obvious that you'd be interested. And in a way, the old man was right. He was able to pass on those enthusiasms by being wildly enthusiastic."

'Words Are Us', by Michael Rosen

In the beginning was
the word
And the word is ours:

The names of places
The names of flowers
The names of names

Words are ours

For early learners

How to boil an egg
Or mend a leg

Words are ours

Wall charts
Love hearts

Sports reports
Short retorts

Jam jar labels

Words are ours

Following the
For furniture

Ancient mythologies
Online anthologies

Who she wrote for
Who to vote for

Joke collections
Results of elections

Words are ours

The tale's got you
Have you learned your script?

The method of an
Ingredients for

W8n 4ur txt
Re: whts nxt

Print media

Words are ours

Subtitles on TV
Details on your CV

Book of great
Guide to the best

Looking for chapters
on velociraptors

Words are ours

The mystery of
The history of

The views of news
The news of views

Words to explain
the words for pain

Doing geography

What to do in
Goodbyes on

Words are ours.


Words of wisdom: Michael Rosen on...

Heat magazine

You should encourage children to read everything. I say bring Heat into school and talk about it and ask, 'Is your life reflected in there? If you did a Heat magazine of this school, how would that differ?' Always create a debate.

Rap music

It's a fantastic form. If rap is how kids want to write things, then I'll go with it. Essentially it's a rhyming couplet, which was invented many, many years ago. What's new is the style, feel, and the rhythms that are put into it.

Amy Winehouse

She's become auto-destructive art. There are these incredible words, and she's just destroying herself in front of you. You can see the drama of it – these girls in the front row living her drama. It's utterly fascinating and I hope she can pull through it.

Harry Potter

I've found some of them absolutely wonderful. All the hype – which some people find utterly repulsive – I think is actually one of the things that's going to mean the print form will survive.

George W Bush

Not a great success, is our George. I think he's really only a cipher for a group of people who have a great imperial project for America to survive. I think he himself only half perceives what's going on – that's the muddle in his speech.


Oh, I'm a complete addict. I've got internet on my phone, so when you're watching a film, and somebody says, 'Isn't that so-and-so,' and you quickly tap-tap-tap type in the film on Wikipedia.