Library Doctor

It was enough to make me want to cry, or bash my head against something hard. Michael Rosen on BBC4 on Sunday reminded me of Ann Maurice, of House Doctor fame. The words ‘bleeding obvious’ are not part of my normal vocabulary, but they keep popping up in my brain. Because that’s what it was. Obvious library doctoring.

Once Michael had left his first class train in Cardiff, he did what I would expect him to do. He worried about the state of reading at Springwood primary school, and about the lack of access to books. Then he did the whole enthusiastic Michael Rosen thing that’s expected of him and the school metamorphosed into a book loving haven.

But what about all the other schools in the country? They can’t all have the Children’s Laureate come round in person to enthuse. Would watching the programme have a House Doctor effect? And where did the money come from? Did the BBC help, or did the school have surplus funds? They did have a surplus classroom that could become the new library. The schools I know personally use shoe horns just to get rooms for lessons, let alone for colourful libraries.

I felt sad over the school staff who had lost any interest in reading a long time ago. If they don’t have it, they can’t pass it on to the children. It was sort of sad to see the non-reading children’s parents saying how they hoped their children would do better than they had. They had ambition, at least, if no experience, and possibly no money with which to buy  books.

But the saddest of all was the confident reader who had lost interest. Her Mum was more than willing to spend, spend on books. But the books the girl owned were so desperately too young and too boring. The girl didn’t understand that that’s why she no longer wanted to read. Did the parents think ‘she’s got books, why doesn’t she read them?’.

The selling of books at school didn’t go well, to begin with, and I’m not surprised. They were expensive. Thank goodness for the member of staff who found cheaper books and started selling them at cost, and who was very successful. It reminded me of our ‘Learning Resource Centre’, where the librarian isn’t allowed to save the school, the LEA and the taxpayers money by buying cheap. She has to buy from approved places that can issue the right kind of invoice. Never mind that you could have five times as many books from somewhere else, or cut the cost by 80%.

Springwood had lots of computers. So does ‘our’ LRC. They are what school staff and school governors are proud of. You get out of a school what you put into it. In this case computer literate children who like games better than books.

And was it just me, but I thought the books they had at Springwood were baby-ish? As with the girl with the generous mother, you need to know what books would be right for the children. At least they got Francesca Simon to visit, the lucky souls. I’d say Horrid Henry was about right for Springwood. Mature enough to be interesting, while young enough not to be too hard to read. And fun.

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27 responses to “Library Doctor

  1. The way that reading for pleasure has been squeezed out of the curriculum is as nonsensical as abolishing school lunches would be (on the basis that, if the kids don’t waste time eating, they’d have more time to learn).

  2. I do heartily agree with everything you say, Ann, but just give a thought to the writers of those highly discounted books who are now getting fractions of pennies as their share. If gifted writers give up and do something else – or shoot themselves if they are too old to learn a new trade – there will be no more inspiring books for children to read. Just the same celebrity drivel and cloned series fiction which is OK as long as there is some more substantial for kids to discover too.

  3. Oh, I know, Mary. I’m afraid I was only looking at it from one angle, and the situation is stupid whichever way you turn.

    I think higher taxes would be the way forward!!

    Any authors out there willing to share what they get for the Book People type of package, where I can buy your ten most popular books for £9.99?

  4. I don’t think authors get any royalties from the Book People, or very little. The reason this is worth doing is a) free advertising b) higher print runs, which mean your publishers earn more per book sold, and like you more and c) the hope that someone who buys book one from the Book People will go and buy book two from Waterstones.
    Or at least tell their friends about you.

  5. I didn’t see the programme but have a good idea of it from comments here and elsewhere. I agree entirely, Ann, that the root cause of children not reading is teachers not being in the least interested in reading. Or appearing not to be interested. I have visited more schools than I care to count and the numbers of teachers who HAVEN’T READ any of my books, even though I’m a visitor, is astonishing.
    And as for the Book People, I agree with Mary about the scandalous money they offer writers. None, basically. My reason for always agreeing to let them have a book is simple. I figure: 10,000 children might read something by me if I say yes. I get no money, but lots of readers. If I say no, the next thing is: the book is out of print. A no-brainer as they say.

  6. Well, I quite like it when my stats here go up, and up. I don’t get any money no matter how many people come here, but it IS nice to know someone bothers to read my drivel.

    In fact, I’ve just had an idea for something else, in relation to the BBC4 programme and the Book People. Watch this space.

  7. I was disappointed in the programme. I had hoped for a Jamie’s School Dinners type affair. Michael is charismatic of course but there was something that wasn’t quite right about it I can’t put my finger on it. The cameras were in the school a lot but Michael wasn’t always there (other commitments I’m sure). I noted that the non reader didn’t start to read so there was no happy ending there.
    I would like to see something like this done for Secondary Schools and wonder who might be our champion? It would have to be someone with pazzazz so that knocks a lot of us out. Mainly it would have to be someone with a mission. Who? Because it needs doing.

  8. The discounted books issue is a difficult one.
    We buy a lot of books in my house but we couldn’t if Red House & co didn’t exist. The price of books in France, my native country, shocks me (they still have the equivalent to the net book agreement there); for example the new book of one of France’s most prolific teen authors retails at 23 euros! There is no way we could afford so many books if I still lived there, and I don’t know how most people do. But then again, they still have lots of independent bookshops there, including some fantastic children’s bookshops. This is only possible because the big stores cannot offer big discounts either.

    As a school librarian, I do manage to buy from discounted places sometimes, if they invoice us or I manage to get someone to write a cheque. As my budget is near non-existent at the moment, that’s the only way of getting some new fiction on the shelves. I have just ordered 9 newly published books for £35!
    Many schools are now realising that there is money to be saved and have a school credit card, which allows them to buy from online retailers (not my school unfortunately).

    I recorded the programme but I haven’t’ watched it yet, but will very soon.

  9. Anne, I wasn’t there because it wasn’t my job to be there! It was the teachers’ job to run with the 23 suggestions that they came up with. I deliberately ducked out of it being an ego-trip and tried to make the process as ‘reproducible’ as possible ie any school watching that could think: we could give that a go…we don’t need a Mr X or a Mz Y to come in and do this for us…we could do it.

    The BBC didn’t provide funds. We’re not allowed to. It helped me provide a focus and a sense of purpose. But that came mostly through the very fact that it was a ‘project’, it was going to filmed, and there was an end point.

    re getting books cheap. I don’t think that teacher can be pilloried for that. We all allow our books to be sold by the tens of thousand through book clubs and discounted catalogues and fairs. She was just doing the same thing herself. And it put books into children’s hands, books that they can keep.

    re the kinds of book the children were reading. It wasn’t possible to show every book, every child was reading. I would very much like to do a follow-up programme where we focus on what children are reading and what they think of it. I wanted to involve the CLPE ‘Power of Reading’ programme but the school thought that it was one too many initiatives.

    What I did, was nothing more than what any adviser, consultant, reading agency or headteacher could do. The problem is as I said on the programme: we have a policy for ‘Reading’ in most parts of the UK but no policy on ‘Reading Books’. This means that there are vast swathes of the country that are like Springwood, ‘delivering’ the curriculum but not getting kids engaged in books – any books of any kind.

    This is discriminatory. Parents and homes that have the kind of education ‘capital’ to get their kids reading and to go on encouraging them right through their school lives, hand their children over to a school curriculum that is based on ‘book learning’. (I could be more specific here about abstract ideas, complex ideas, empathy and the rest).

    Those children who don’t come from that kind of home are now disadvantaged, as schools no longer have any need, or priority to get those kids reading in their spare time. I’ve put this to Ed Balls and Jim Knight and they agree – kind of. Orally, they have agreed that there could be ways in which they could give central encouragement and approval to the idea that every locality should develop policies on reading books.

    We are in the process of losing school libraries and local libraries. There are hundreds of schools where teachers don’t read whole stories, whole novels to children, and where ‘topics’ aren’t resourced with books. This means that the particular processes that children engage with through print (eg slowness, ease of cross referencing between books, or within books, the linear quality of words, sentences, paragraphs ie its ‘one-at-a-timeness’) are getting sidelined for a large chunk of the population. The educated elite got it, get it, will get it. The rest are being left out to dry.

  10. Lovely to see so much fighting, I mean discussion, over here.

    Thanks, Michael, for the info on the BBC not funding the whole thing. We viewers wonder sometimes.

    And yes, maybe anyone could have done it. Many of us may have the know-how, but we aren’t all funny, rapping poets, who can get both children and adults enthusiastic. I’m so boring that nobody would do anything if I asked them to. One other name pops into my mind; Benjamin Zephaniah. There are many lovely writers, but to pinpoint one who would appeal to lots of different kinds of students and teachers, is hard.

  11. Both Frank Cottrell Boyce and Joe Craig have had articles in the Times lately about secondary schools and reading/writing – http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article5682895.ece
    and http://timesonline.typepad.com/schoolgate/2009/02/how-secondary-s.html

    It’s how to build this stuff from the ground up, rather than injecting the “reading is fun” thing as an optional added extra, that is not being encouraged. Talking to primary teachers I know, they say they aren’t sure they could find time these days in the classroom to do the quiest 15 mins of reading (plus the teacher reading) every day that I grew up with. And I think most are completely unfamiliar with children’s books themselves.

  12. I don’t think anyone was pillorying the teacher, Mike. I certainly wasn’t. After all some independent bookshops have been reduced to buying books at high discount in supermarkets in order to make a decent return themselves on selling them.

    But this, although a bit off topic from the programme and post, is a real issue for authors. I don’t “allow” my books to be sold by the Book People. I am not told until after the deal is done! And by getting 80-90% discount deals, leaving the writer with .003p per book or something of that order, Ted Smart has become a multi-millionaire.

    He’s a nice grandfatherly type and doesn’t seem to realise that he has made his fortune on the backs of the workers (that’s the writers who are on an average of under £10K per annum).

    The argument in favour of TBP that they target people who would never go into bookshops rings a bit hollow when their catalogues fall out of my Radio Times or broadsheet paper.

    But back on topic, we can’t take seriously any government initiative on reading when they are willing to let 11 libraries close in the Wirral and would rather prescriptively supply Synthetic Phonics material to school than real books for the readers to read if and when they sucessfully emerge from the other side.

  13. I watched this and thought it was wonderful how the children responded to Michael’s enthusiasm. What I felt sad about was the fact that so few of the adults who worked with the children every day had any real enthusiam for children’s literature themselves. If primary schools have really reduced reading to a mechanical process that is only necessary for functional reasons, they have only themselves to blame if children can’t see the point of reading. I was listening to little Lauren talking about how she wasn’t interested in books and I wanted to say to her: ‘Inside those books you are going to find friends, people who will live inside your head with you for the rest of your life, characters you can turn to to cheer you up when you are feeling down, or bolster your courage when you are scared.’ Or, er, maybe that’s just me. I don’t think so though, I’m pretty sure my eleven year old daughter deals with tricky situations by referring to Anne Shirley or Darrell Rivers.
    On the topic of Book People though, we have started doing this at our school. I appreciate the point that authors are making about the royalties, but I do believe that it means people buying books for their children who otherwise wouldn’t have bought them books at all. And having found an author they like, perhaps they will go on and buy more of their work from a bookshop. Well, that’s the hope anyway.

  14. Mary – I’m sure Ted Smart doesn’t mean to be bad, but it’s probably impossible to do something ‘very good’ for some people and for it not to be ‘quite bad’ for others. He was giving books away when I saw him in September, and I wish I’d known before I spent my own money.

    Col – Thanks for the links!

  15. There is an article in today’s Times today also, this time about the joys of the Oxford Reading Tree: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/alice_miles/article5704459.ece

  16. The key to all this isn’t teachers, much as I’d like it to be — from what I can tell as a school governor, teachers are so overstretched with meeting goals and scoring their students on 98 scales of achievement. And what working parent has the time or inclination to read all the hundreds of books coming out every month for kids of all ages. It all comes down to librarians — after all, they’re book specialists, they (hopefully) know the kids, and they can do that all-important matching kids with books. Anybody know how many librarians there are left in primary schools in England? I don’t, but I’d be willing to guess — not many.

  17. Not many, and the one I know spends more time policing the computers.

    The teachers are busy, yes. But they could still have an interest in books. When I’m overwhelmed with other things and can’t find time to read, I still have books and reading as my ‘interest’, and would still suggest to anyone that reading is great.

    When Son’s reception class teacher made a house call before the start of the school year, she was flabbergasted to find a house full of books. Years later, she would still hark back to that moment. I’m surprised she was surprised.

  18. Meg, the librarians can’t get into schools unless they’re asked. So we have the fatuous situation of empty libraries sitting near to schools full of children not reading books.

    The real guilty party in all this is a government that refuses to have a policy on the reading of books. I have pleaded with Ed Balls and Jim Knight to send out a directive to local authorities requiring them to develop a policy on the reading of books and the use of libraries by every school in their area. We have a whole set of NGOs and quangos hovering around the children’s book world, each taking a slice of government money, The Reading Agency, the National Literacy Trust,(and its subsidiaries: Reading Connects etc), Booktrust etc and they all produce policies and programmes and materials on children’s reading and it’s all voluntary. I don’t get it. The government has rigid compulsory requirments on the teaching to read. And nothing on the reading of books.

    Schools are key to the whole matter because they are the link point between parents, children, books and libraries. You cannot reach all parties in one go at the same time through any other channel. I don’t blame teachers, I don’t blame parents and I don’t blame librarians. I blame the government for not making it a requirement that local authorities devise policies to link up all those three groups. And what’s tragic about it is that it’s actually very easy to do. And when it happens it’s transformative.

    I’m just in the business of sending Balls and Knight another letter as a follow-up both to the meeting I had with them and the TV programme asking them to think again about it and put something in place. Note: it’s not the policy itself, as that to my mind is ennervating and depressing. It needs something at one remove: a directive that local authorities work something out with their teachers.

  19. Does anyone know if anything came of the literacy petition that was handed in to No 10 in Dec 07?
    http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article3050957.ece
    Because this programme certainly indicated a lot was missing.

    Michael, I think you did an excellent job and I enjoyed the programme. Seeing the children develop their enthusiasm – and the headmaster refinding his! – was a joy to behold. And I agree with you that you were acting as a consultant, I’ve seen plenty of them in my working life and worked alongside some: whiteboard; collecting ideas; developing a strategy they believe in. An excellent programme.

    Just one small thing. What a shame the cameras caught one boy showing his home with one hand on his genitals. If that programme’s been recorded, as I’m sure it will have been and by quite a few, the poor boy is going to be in for some ribbing when he gets older.

    There are some really good programmes on BBC4 at the moment. We had John Mullan last night. That will be a treat for me on iplayer later.

  20. The reading group (meeting during the lunch break, and totally voluntary) that I mentioned on Monday, which Daughter attends, is beginning to look like it belongs more in this discussion.

    Last night Daughter was saying how one of the teachers running it, tells them off if they read too much, i.e. further into the book than the number of pages/chapters they’ve been instructed to read. Apparently she gets furious.

    She should be pleased they have been so caught by the book that they can’t stop. But disobeying an order is clearly a worse offence. Daughter’s interpretation of the teacher’s reading, is that she skims the books they talk about. So maybe she just feels at a disadvantage amongst the pupils, when they have read more?

  21. There’s a depressing thought – a person who doesn’t like reading running a reading group. How do they choose the books they read?

  22. I think the main group leader is a teacher who likes books, but she probably needed a helper present, and maybe this one was all she could get?

    The choosing of books looks very much like a ‘let’s close our eyes and point and hope for the best’ approach. They all struggled with The Book Thief, including the teachers.

    I f I was running it, I would most likely pick books I’ve read and can vouch for, which would also save on pressure to read before the next meeting. So I suspect they don’t have a long list of recently read books to choose from. It also needs to be a choice the librarian at school can organise enough copies of in a hurry.

  23. I struggled with The Book Thief myself to be honest. I spent most of my time mentally rewriting it in a ‘you don’t want to do it like that’ manner. I don’t often have that reaction to books.
    (Actually, no, that’s not true, now I think about it. But not to many children’s books.)
    I wonder if the teacher’s reaction is partly because of the annoyance of giving away crucial plot twists before other people have got to them? That’s one of the hazards of having groups that meet while a book is still in progress, but I suppose you could hardly expect all of them to read every book in a week.

  24. I really enjoyed the show, but what struck me was how adult-centric their original school library was. By having the fiction in alphabetical order, the books didn’t even reach the bottom shelves!
    I recently visited a school library where I was struck by how LOW the shelves were – it was a secret three-foot-high world where adults had to stoop. Brilliant.

  25. Have only just come across this discussion of the programme – I thought it was great, was really enthused by it, and strongly recommended it to various librarians and advisors at a meeting I happened to be going to just after I’d seen it. What I particularly liked was the way Michael got the teachers themselves to come up with an analysis of what was going wrong – so that they were then committed to trying to put it right. It’s very easy to criticise teachers, but much more fruitful to engage them. And I also liked the way it became a four-way drive, involving parents, librarians, teachers and the chilren themselves. Michael was just the catalyst. And with the aid of this programme, I think any school could make a big difference; more of it was about attitudes than resources. It was certainly tremendously heartening to see the difference that was made at this particular school.

  26. Pingback: Children’s Literacy Round-up: 16 February | Scrub-a-Dub-Tub, a Reading Tub Blog

  27. Pingback: Children’s Literacy Round-up: 16 February

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