Schools are 'failing to introduce the classics'

Children's reading habits: Government survey finds preference for romance, horror and contemporary fiction
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Education Editor

Children read few classics at school and their favourite leisure-time books are romances and horror stories, says a new government survey to be published next week. The findings will revive fears that Britain's literary heritage is in danger because schools are failing to introduce pupils to great authors.

Only 6 of the 74 classes of 13-year-olds and only 7 of 62 classes of 16-year-olds surveyed had studied any fiction written before 1900. However, they were reading a wide range of good modern fiction.

The survey of 84 schools in 10 local authorities from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the Government's curriculum advisers, examined what children were reading at school and at home in one week in March this year. Teachers were also asked to list all the texts studied by their classes during the spring term. The study was done before the introduction of the revised national curriculum for English which aims to put more emphasis on classic literature.

Dr Nick Tate, the authority's chief executive, said he was worried by the difference between what was happening in the classroom and the reading envisaged in the new curriculum. "I am not suggesting that children should read only Dickens, George Eliot, Keats and Shakespeare; a balance of reading is essential and it is perfectly reasonable to concentrate more on contemporary than earlier literature. However, the evidence of this survey suggests that we have shifted too far."

Modern poetry and books from other cultures were read as rarely as the classics.

For seven-year-olds, teachers used Roald Dahl and Janet and Allan Ahlberg most frequently. At 11, it was Ted Hughes, by 13, Betsy Byars came top and by 16, Barry Hines and John Steinbeck. The survey also shows that children read less and less widely as they move up the school until, for 16-year-olds, "individual reading had almost entirely given way to the reading of set examination texts".

At seven, pupils were reading a total of 137 authors but by the time they took GCSE the number had fallen to 27. "There was considerable reliance on the anthologies provided by the GCSE boards. Little wider reading, reading of pre-1900 fiction or texts from other cultures and traditions, took place in this term."

Thirteen-year-olds' reading in school is the most limited of all. And on their own, even the ablest in this age group read books based on films such as Jurassic Park or connected to CD-Roms.

It is not surprising, the report says, that seven-year-olds who are just beginning to read should be using modern fiction of all types but "it is surprising that they were not choosing or being introduced to the wide range of modern poetry and traditional stories available".

Teachers of 16-year-olds often had little idea which books their pupils were reading outside class despite a national curriculum requirement that individual reading must be monitored.

Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "If teenagers read at all, that is a good starting point. It is inappropriate for adults to ... tell children what to read."

Most schools, she said, did read literature from the "canon" of great works and pupils should not go through their school careers without reading some classics, "but there are some teachers who have decided to apply the lowest common denominator".