May 15, 2009 / 10:39 AM / 10 years ago

Primary school tests kill joy of books: UK laureate

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - An uninspiring regime of testing and targets in primary schools is damaging education and turning a generation of children off reading, Britain’s laureate for children told Reuters.

Michael Rosen is an enthusiastic exponent of reading to children of all ages, but the laureate said the British government’s obsession with measuring educational success using standardized tests known as SATs and league tables for schools has left little room for meaningful engagement with books.

“What’s happened since they invented they’ve taken literature out of the curriculum and in its place put worksheets which don’t look at whole books, they just look at passages,” Rosen said.

SATs are tests taken by 7 and 11 year olds in Britain based on a government-approved national curriculum. They are used to help calculate a school’s performance and its ranking in published league tables.

Speaking over lunch at a cafe near London’s South Bank after recording a literature program for BBC radio at the recreated Shakespeare’s Globe theater, Rosen said SATs tests have sharply narrowed horizons in the classroom.

“It has been disastrous because instead of kids finding out why books are fun and enjoyable and interesting, instead they’ve just had these little slabs of text thrown at them, and the questions are the most boring, irrelevant questions.”

SATs for 14-year olds were scrapped last year and Rosen thinks that a threat from Britain’s teaching unions to refuse to administer the tests, may succeed in putting the final nail in the coffin of the whole system.

Rosen said the government believes that it can measure the outcome of every learning experience.

“The whole point about literature is that it doesn’t have learning outcomes. It has feelings, it has weighings-up, it has wonderings. This is why it’s so important and powerful, and they haven’t clocked it,” he said.


Rosen, a hugely engaging and hilarious performer of poetry, who has written or edited well over 100 books, has had an even more hectic schedule than usual during his two-year stint as laureate which ends next month.

As laureate he has performed in front of well over 34,000 children and more than 8,500 teachers, librarians and student teachers, the Booktrust charity has calculated.

In between touring schools, broadcasting for the BBC and lecturing at London’s Birkbeck University, Rosen has also been busy writing.

Soon due for release are “Bear Flies High,” an anthology entitled “The A-Z of Poetry” and a fiction book called “I’m Number One” about a bullying robot. He is also working on a YouTube-style poetry website for schools.

Then there’s an exhibition at the British Library entitled “Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat!” celebrating 400 years of poetry for children running until June 28, which Rosen curated. There is also the Roald Dahl funny prize established to recognize the best humorous books for children.

Having young children, an eight-year old daughter and four-year old son (as well as three older children and two step children), has provided Rosen with plenty of material for new books and poems.


It was the work of Rosen’s parents’ as high-profile education reformers in the 1960-70s that helped foster a love of poetry and fiction.

“There were concepts to do with learning through, talk and discussion, discovery and investigation that I got almost literally with my mother’s milk,” he said.

But it was their roots in the Jewish east end of London that Rosen ascribes to his family’s literary talents.

Both came from very poor Jewish backgrounds in the east end working in the garment and boot trade.

He said an upbringing steeped in east European and then east end London’s Jewish life was immensely rich in linguistic diversity and cultural engagement.

“Being taken to the Yiddish speaking theater. All that is so linguistically powerful,” Rosen said.

“You’ve got a different script, a different language, another mother tongue from the country of origin, might be Polish, might be Russian, so you’ve got all this stuff going on.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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