Headline news? The Metro reported yesterday that English teachers are ditching Austen and Shakespeare in an attempt to claw back the interest of 11 to 14 year old boys, who are abandoning reading. It is hardly a great revelation that Austen does not appeal. Neither would I suggest The Lord of the Rings as an alternative. It is, however, of concern that traditional novels are being abandoned in teaching. I am not aware that we were ever surveyed on preference at school – if we had been I would imagine that we, too, may have stated a preference for comics. The curriculum was dictated largely by the exam syllabus and, whilst I may be a little out of touch, I am willing to bet that comics have yet to make an appearance.
So, what knowledge has been gained by polling opinions? That boys prefer books of under 200 pages. From this we may conclude that boys who don’t like to read would, if pressed, prefer, if at all possible, a book of under 200 pages. No doubt the same pupils would prefer not to tackle long division and algebra if asked.
If teachers bow to this pressure, not only will the classics be ruled out, but also Andy Mulligan’s Ribblestrop, a stonking 512- page read; Philip Pullman’s, Northern Lights (His Dark Materials), clocking in at 448 pages; Melvin Burgess’s, Junk with its shock-tactics cover, a moderate 336 pages; Sue Townsend’s easy-read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole at 272 pages and Louis Sachar’s Holes at a very tame 240 pages. Even Vivian French’s, The Robe of Skulls might be a touch too challenging at 208 pages.
To me, judging a book by its length is akin to judging a work of art by its size. Far better to try and engage boys with subject matter. Women in frocks and wherefore-art-thou? speak are clearly no-go areas. What questions were asked about what might interest or inspire them?
Still, not all is lost: as a boy, Churchill questioned the requirement of the study of the Classics for the prime structure of education. They told him how Mr Gladstone read Homer for fun, which he though served Mr Gladstone right.
And it may yet be possible to obtain the boys’ reluctant agreement to reading David Almond’s Skellig, which clocks in at a mere 176 pages.