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Oxford Reading Spree

I snuck into the Oxford Reading Spree, a one-day conference for teachers on books and reading, which I knew about because it was being run at my daughter's school and organised by one of the teachers there. Most of the 80(?) people there were primary school teachers, with a few from secondary schools, but I met people from the Story Museum and the broader education sector, so I wasn't the only one there without responsibility for a class or school.

Head teacher Simon Smith began with the broader challenges — in morale, funding, aspirations — facing his school in Whitby, in a deprived area of North Yorkshire, before moving on to reading. Among other topics, he emphasized reading for pleasure, talking about books rather than testing on them, the importance of guided reading, and context-appropriate curriculum-integrated knowledge.

Nicki Cleveland talked movingly about her work as a teaching assistant struggling to keep a school library going, and about the Great School Libraries campaign to gain status and funding for school libraries.

These two talks were at the same time uplifting and depressing. They illustrated how an inspired head teacher or a courageous and driven teaching assistant can make a huge difference to a school's reading culture. But this is not something all schools have, or can easily obtain, and not a replacement for proper recognition and resourcing for books and reading. I just wish these two talks had been given to the Education Select Committee and not an audience of already converted teachers.

Ian Eagleton talked, entertainingly and powerfully, about his own experiences as a gay child and the power of books both as an escape from a hostile world and a form of empowerment.

I spent most of my time between talks in the Roving Bookshop. This was superb, with easily the best curated collection of children's books I've ever seen, and I could have bought whole shelves. In the end I escaped with James Rumford's Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta and Shaun Tan's The Rules of Summer. The stock they were showing was mostly picturebooks: given the audience they'd replaced most of the chapter books and novels with books about reading and children's literature. Bloomsbury and Pears also had stalls with a few books, and there was one promoting the Reading Realm app.

Ceri Eccles talked about hooks for getting children into books, using front covers, props and objects, theme days and music.

Nick Swarbrick talked about "what children shouldn't read": books that are dull, irrelevant, or dishonest. He gave a passing swipe at vanity publishing by celebrities who think being famous means they can write (David Walliams), but focused on older classics. Books which he thinks are problematic and should be used only with real care include Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, and The Secret Garden; he also talked about Blyton and Lewis and his ambivalent feelings about Dahl.

This connected to the workshop I went after lunch (which was superb fare from Waste 2 Taste), where Simon Smith talked about appropriate and inappropriate texts. He pointed out that what seems like a mildly difficult topic — the death of a pet in _The Rough Patch_, for example — could cause real distress for someone in a class of thirty children, and that even books that are innocuous in themselves can lead to difficult topics (Can I Build Another Me? was one of the dozens he had lying around to spark discussion). The important thing is that teachers know the books they are using well, so they know when to use them and when not to, and how to deal with the questions they may raise.

Adam and Charlottle Guillane talked about their books, and the importance of humour and rhyme.

Colin Tucker talked about what he'd done as a head teacher in a disadvantaged London primary to make reading exciting. He'd installed an automated short story / poem dispenser, which had buttons for printing 1, 3 or 5 minute short stories and poems (on paper roll). He'd bought this along with him, and people (myself included) couldn't stop themselves playing with it — so his description of the long queues of students wanting to use it was easy to believe. This is a glitzed up device aimed at corporates, but hopefully cheaper ones will come. He'd also installed a book vending machine, which took tokens given out as prizes or awards, and worked with the London Children's Book Project to get books into the hands of children from 'book poor' homes.

Bob Cox talked about using high quality texts, the idea being to challenge even primary students by engaging them with at least excerpts from writers such Shakespeare. I wasn't entirely sure about this. Was "quality" being elided to "difficult", or even "famous"? And some examples of amazing work produced by students in response to these texts left me wondering how well they worked for the less engaged or capable children. But this was interesting enough that I bought his book Opening Doors to Famous Poetry and Prose.

The other speaker that didn't entirely gel with me was Nick Causton talking about STEAM Co, which promotes "creativity and art and technology" with an emphasis on rocketry. This sounded great, but I think the showy style and too much "for dads" put me off a bit.

The people at the Reading Spree were a pretty select bunch of teachers, prepared to give up a Saturday and in many cases travel long distances to attend. Most teachers don't have this kind of passion for children's literature; not all have a serious engagement with books themselves. So it seems to me that communicating an enthusiasm for reading to children is only part of the challenge. How do teachers get other teachers excited about reading? What happens at schools without flagbearers? And what about parents?

Looking at the bigger picture, it seems to me the Great School Libraries campaign that Nicki Cleveland mentioned is the way forward: get libraries recognised in Ofsted inspections, a national school library strategy, and ring-fenced funding along the lines of the PE/Sport Premium.

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