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Primary Education News
News Michael Gove is wrong: why shouldn't students read Twilight?
At his Brighton College speech, Michael Gove said students should read Middlemarch rather than Twilight, but former headteacher Jill Berry says he's wrong
Last week I was at Brighton College when Michael Gove spoke to the 300 strong audience of educationalists from independent schools.
This is one of those questions to which the speaker believes there is clearly a right answer, and I expect Gove felt that his audience of independent sector educational professionals would have no difficulty in deciding which option they should select. I did wonder how many of those listening had, in fact, read both? I wondered whether Gove himself had read both? I have, as it happens, read both, and the rest of the Twilight series, and all George Eliot's novels.
I love George Eliot, and Dickens, and Thackeray, and one of the courses I opted for in the final year of my degree was entitled Three Victorian Novelists – these three, in fact. But I also recognise that it could have been very different. At the tender age of 12 one of the set books in my grammar school class in the early 1970s was David Copperfield. I was a bright girl and a good reader, but I found it very hard going. I did finish it, and suspect most of my classmates didn't; but I didn't enjoy it, and didn't try another Dickens until I was in my second year at university, when we had no choice. I picked up Oliver Twist, thought it was superb and went on to read everything else Dickens had written. At 19 I was ready; at 12 I hadn't been.
When I started teaching in 1980 I had an O-level group and when I looked at the choice of set literature texts I selected A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens. I had loved it at university, and assumed, with the naivety of a very inexperienced teacher, that my class of 15 and 16 year-olds would too. It was extremely hard work. It may be that later in my career I could have found ways to make it more manageable and interesting for these young readers, but at 22 I just didn't have that skill.
Later in my career as a head of department I remember conversations with my team about how we could ensure the pupils had a varied, stimulating reading diet, and how we could make Shakespeare, Austen and the Brontes, for example, accessible and as enjoyable as possible. I also remember dynamic lessons with pupils of all ability studying texts such as Of Mice and Men and The Lord of the Flies. I have always considered eclecticism to be a good thing, and an eclectic diet healthy. I'm not sure why Gove was so dismissive of everything written after the turn of the century.
I think Twilight and the other books in the series are well-written teenage fiction, as, in my view, is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I think these are good choices for teenage readers, and I would, in Gove's words, be delighted to see a 17 year-old girl in the school where I was an English teacher or a headteacher reading and enjoying these books. At some stage I would be pleased if she discovered George Eliot, too, though I think she would be better starting with Silas Marner or The Mill on the Floss and leaving Middlemarch until she had greater life experience and emotional maturity. But it should certainly be when the time is right for her. Force-feeding classics too early, and not giving enough attention to how to engage the learners, risks putting them off for life. And this is true of students of all levels of ability.
So I don't agree with Gove. Will he have the humility to listen to my view and to respect my experience as an English specialist and as a headteacher? Or will I be labelled as an 'enemy of promise' and dismissed as someone who does not have high aspirations for young people?
Jill Berry has a degree in English and taught for 30 years following her PGCE, in both mainstream and independent schools. She has been head of English and a headteacher and is now an educational consultant, works for the National College for Teaching and Leadership and is studying for a doctorate in education.