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23 October 2014

Primary politics: parenting advice from Toby Young and Michael Rosen

Two publications ostensibly designed to provide reassurance and wisdom to parents of primary-age children and perhaps to tap in to the ever-growing “pushy parenting” market.

By Melissa Benn

What Every Parent Needs to Know: How to Help Your Child Get the Most Out of Primary School 
Toby Young and Miranda Thomas
Viking, 432pp, £14.99

Good Ideas: How to Be Your Child’s (and Your Own) Best Teacher 
Michael Rosen
John Murray, 368pp, £16.99

As an anxious new mother, I passionately bonded with Penelope Leach’s Baby and Child. With its pen-and-ink illustrations and Leach’s calming authorial voice, it guided me carefully through the terrifying and exhilarating early months. Now along come two publications, ostensibly designed to provide similar reassurance and wisdom to parents of primary-age children and perhaps – surely not? – to tap in to the ever-growing “pushy parenting” market. What is extraordinary is that such different writers (or their publishers) came up with such similar ideas, down to the very titles.

But there the similarities end. The book by Young and Thomas, which comes in at a hefty 400-plus pages, falls into two distinct parts: a detailed description of the new national primary curriculum, year on year, subject by subject, plus a list of supplementary activities for parents who want to boost their children’s learning. The calm, non-partisan tone of this volume (a stylistic departure for Toby Young) deftly obscures its political agenda. No mention here that two of the four expert members of the original panel set up to devise the new primary curriculum resigned in the summer of 2012, concerned about its prescriptive tone and lack of arts education or regard for oral development, among other things, as well as the government’s failure to consult on implementation.

In its place, Young and Thomas pour approval on all they set out to describe, parboil complex pedagogical debates down to simple statements of fact (“phonics is widely recognised as the most effective way of teaching young children to read”) and take easy sideswipes at previous primary curriculums, typically characterising these as demeaningly easy. One gets no sense here of how schools, or indeed parents, are to deal with those children who might struggle with – to cite just one example – the dense history curriculum in year five that covers, inter alia, “the Roman withdrawal from Britain, the fall of the Roman empire, the invasion of Scotland and the migration of Germanic tribes to England from the western coasts of Europe”. And although we know parents of all backgrounds are keen to support their children at school, a rather socially limited, and exhaustively busy, picture of family life emerges from this book, one that presumes “a well-stocked arts and crafts” cupboard and a child starting their own blog on some challenging aspect of the curriculum.

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Michael Rosen is every bit as political as Young and Thomas but has written a far more spirited and absorbing book. Here, too, is the odd swipe at the educational enemy: Rosen deplores excessive testing and does not even deign to mention phonics. Instead, Good Ideas finds pedagogic inspiration in everyday things from coal holes to catchphrases, windowsills to shopfront lettering. It is punctuated with entertaining diversions and disquisitions on everything from the importance of civility to people who work the tills in supermarkets to what you can learn from country houses (Rosen the outspoken socialist has a counterintuitive fondness for these). Children, he believes, don’t absorb facts unless they can connect them to “real things” and are allowed to follow their own curiosity. He also makes a strong case for the importance of social and emotional relationships in learning, something that doesn’t make much of an appearance in Young and Thomas’s work.

Neither book can be finished easily in one go but they are not designed for easy reading; the sheer volume of information and variety of ideas for stimulation soon had me yearning nostalgically for the crashing boredom of my Sixties childhood. (“Something else that crops up on car journeys is the fossil fuel debate,” Rosen writes. Really? What about a longing just to stare through the window in silence?)

But, read together, these books subtly illustrate the struggle in education and politics between a notion of knowledge and creativity as things formally and sequentially constructed and one in which they are allowed to grow more organically, trusting children to follow their hunches and make their own connections from the get-go.

Surely, cries the super-anxious parent, we need to enable both? Of course we do. After all, Young, firmly in the blue cultural corner, has spoken of his admiration for the whacky flair possessed by the likes of Boris Johnson. (But he would say, as all those in the knowledge lobby do, that you need first to master the rules in order to flout them with brilliance, even if such brilliant flouting is granted to only a privileged few.) Meanwhile, Rosen – a supremely confident flouter – confesses to a weakness for testing his children’s general knowledge and gets quite irate when one of his children is sent home with an inadequate worksheet on Perseus and the Gorgon. “Why give the child only ‘part of’ the Greek myth . . . If it’s a story worth giving to children, then give it all the power it’s got . . .” It is a rare glimpse of an overlap between two seemingly distinct world-views and yet another sign of how entrenched the school wars continue to be after the departure of Mr Gove. 

Melissa Benn’s “School Wars” is published by Verso (£8.99)

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