How can we turn around declining literacy levels in this country?
An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development survey of the level of literacy in the 24 most developed countries found the UK to be ranked 22nd. Reading and being educated is not seen as being macho or cool here. In Ireland, for instance, pupils aspire to be educated, literate and articulate but in the UK, there are some young people who think a drug dealer on the streets of Brixton is cool.
I visited the premature baby unit at the James Cook Hospital in Middlesborough where teen mothers are being encouraged to read to their babies. The problem is that the fathers can’t read and when I asked the boys what they were up to, they told me, while staring at their trainers, ‘My Dad told me it was sissy to read.’
So it’s about changing attitudes; a prisoner at Wandsworth spent his six years there learning to read. He was ecstatic and now he is going to teach his mother to read.
How do we engage children in reading?
The publisher Hamish Hamilton said, ‘What we have to do is arouse in the reader the irresistible urge to turn the page; nobody can resist a good story. It is how we build up relationships; governments and companies use the narrative of the past to build the future. The children’s author Jacqueline Wilson is an incredible exemplar of the power of the narrative, as canny as J K Rowling in understanding the attraction of a hero who is slightly outside society and unhappy. A child without parents, for example, can act in a more uncluttered way. We all fantasise about our parents not being here because it enhances the status of the child.
How would you encourage children to write?
Children haven’t changed but society imposes its prejudices on them. The physical act of writing, while old fashioned, has always been seen as better than computers and, if the fundamentals are put in place very early with children, at the pre-prep stage, then it becomes natural to them. I don’t believe children can’t concentrate. They are sponges when young, they can absorb an enormous amount and their enthusiasm is boundless. It is really much kinder to drill the three Rs into them then, then they never have to think about it again. Teenagers who find the business of writing hard probably weren’t encouraged to do it young enough for it to become natural.
What do you believe is the impact of screens on children?
Screens don’t encourage articulation or a value of language. English is a global language but we have become idle and the speed at which we live our lives and the necessary abbreviation in life is turning us into nervous wrecks. The pressure is on children to keep up and everyone is terrified of standing out, particularly independent school pupils who feel they have to fit into an egalitarian society and are afraid of individuality or originality as they want to be accepted more than anything. Why should someone like Guy Ritchie, with his middleclass background and education, speak with an East End accent?
Why did you speak about creative writing at Hanford’s inaugural literary festival?
Until about 20 years ago, creative writing was part of a civilised person’s education, a midshipman responsible for writing a ship’s log would be criticised as much for language and style as for content. There was a greater emphasis on creative writing across the board. Hanford has continued that tradition and has an extraordinarily enriching education. A retired headmaster of Sherborne was teaching classics, Latin and Greek in a three piece tweed suit; when I saw him I thought of Hanford. At Hanford it didn’t matter if you didn’t brush your hair or your teeth but kindness mattered a great deal.
In a nutshell how do you see education?
Education empowers people, it enables you to be independent, employable and passionate but education with a small ‘e’ needs to change; we should stop focusing on exam results so much. The only person you are absolutely stuck with is yourself so we should make ourselves as interesting as possible.