When literature opens its doors to children

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THIS week's heatwave and the ongoing row over national school testing prompted me to turn up a favourite piece of literature. It is a poem called 'Peelly' and was written by Roger McGough. It runs like this:

Watch out for the sun

He's a strange one really

Get too close

And he'll make you peelly.

For me this verse functions as a useful reminder in an age of standardisation in education of how individualistic the whole delicate process of children's learning and development really is.

To explain. This slender poem was the first thing that one of my daughters read, unprompted and unaided, for pleasure. It had long-lasting consequences. She was given a cheap Puffin paperback, Pillow Talk, for her seventh birthday last August. Earlier, during the summer term, she had done her seven-year-olds' attainment test. I had been amazed at the complexity and, indeed, the irrelevance of it to her ability.

At the point of testing she was resolutely refusing to open a book without being prompted in class, or to write more than a couple of words. If it wasn't a computer game, she wasn't interested.

Her school, baffled by this hostility, had even started extra one-to-one reading sessions, but these were having no great impact. The 'Peelly' poem, however, read at a kitchen table while on holiday, was the spark which lit a fire. The verse was relevant because at the time the whole family was peeling from taking too much sun on the beach.

Through Pillow Talk she discovered that poetry - or rather comic verse - was both fun and her sort of thing. At every mealtime she started to read poems aloud. One of the McGough collection was even called 'Moany Margaret' (Moany Margaret/Day and night/One's too dark/One's too bright).

Before my children started school I assumed that, provided you found a decent place with committed teachers and did your bit at home reading stories, talking and playing games, everything would work out. But each child charts their own course and develops at his or her own speed. A child about to be seven, for example, can be at a very different stage from one aged seven years 11 months. But both could be facing the same arid test.

The age at which children start to read is, I've noticed, one of the greatest sources of parental angst, at least before the teenage phase starts. Neither of my eldest children read much before seven and my eldest, now 10, was tempted, I freely admit it now, not with comic verse but with comics. But once launched and secure that they have a new skill, children often take off.

This is why I was fascinated to hear Kaye Webb, the pioneering founding editor of Puffin Books, on Desert Island Discs last week. In a revealing aside, the patron saint of children's literature voiced her concern about the new national curriculum with its list of approved texts. It was too narrow. Children should be encouraged to read more widely.

It so happened that while I was listening to the radio my seven-year-old, who is still poem mad, was buried in an old Kaye Webb-edited Puffin called I Like this Poem, an anthology chosen by children for children. In its 190 pages this book displays all the light touches and breadth you would expect from such an astute editor who understands small children well.

Consider this way of drawing in a child: on two facing pages there are two skinny poems, one about cats (Cats leap/Anywhere), and mice (I think mice/Are rather nice). But turn the page and the child is pitched straight into one of the great classics: Faster than fairies, faster than witches/Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches, Robert Louis Stevenson, 'From a Railway Carriage'.

Mulling this over has crystallised my own fears about the new, rather soulless approach to education that the Government seems intent on pushing through. I think that parents expected tests to check on bad teachers and schools, to ensure that their children, as pupils, had a fair deal. But, as devised and practised, they seem to be distracting both pupils and teachers from their normal classroom duties.

Testing my child for technology skills when what she needed was a dose of comic verse is just one small example of why some parents and not just teachers are alienated by them.

Or, to paraphrase another selection from Kaye Webb's book:

The lark's on the wing;

the snail's on the thorn:

God is not in his heaven

All is not right in his schools.