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Defeatism is stalking the classroom

While an increasingly futile debate surrounding the relative offensiveness of Carol Thatcher, Jo Brand, gollywogs and Jeremy Clarkson has rumbled on, the BBC has unfussily been showing how good public broadcasting can be on its fourth channel.

Following the excellently researched Folk America season, a series of programmes about books and reading is now being broadcast. To judge by Just Read, the documentary that launched the season, what could easily have been an exercise in pious do-goodery is likely to be something rather riskier and more interesting.

The programme’s bright idea was to send the children’s laureate Michael Rosen to a primary school with an average approach to reading and children – that is, not very good. Its library was small, badly stocked and ill-presented (in sharp contrast to a large, fully-equipped computer room); reading was generally perceived as a literacy tool, rather than a source of pleasure and inspiration; staff were dutiful but wearied by the pressures of the curriculum; parents were regretful but fatalistic about their children’s growing indifference to books.

Rosen, an inspiring and funny man, set about changing things, encouraging the children to read, and proselytising among the adults. Class trips to a local library, a mere 10 minutes walk away, were arranged. The effect on the lives of the children was dramatic – indeed, anyone engaged in library closures, that great betrayal of the next generation (Wirral Council have this week voted for the closure of no fewer than 11 branches across the borough) should, if they were watching this film, have felt truly ashamed.

By the end of Rosen’s campaign, there was an entirely different attitude at the school. Children, even the reluctant readers, were discussing books. The library had been transformed. The air of defeat that hung about teachers and parents had gone.

Behind this predictable enough feelgood conclusion there lurked some rather more unsettling insights. For all the gloomy talk about the effects of computers and TV, the problem turned out not to be with children, but with the grown-ups.

Something in the whole exercise seemed to have awoken the teachers from the mood of mild defeatism that had descended on them over time. That over-familiar excuse, the demands of a utilitarian curriculum, had somehow deprived them of what, presumably, had once inspired them to become teachers: the chance to make a personal contribution.

A culture of generalised, depressed resentment, in which the system is seen to be all-powerful while teachers feel like mere cogs in the wheel of a sausage-machine educational system, has crushed individual enterprise and enthusiasm. The effect of Rosen, and perhaps the TV cameras, was to show the school staff that it was not so much outside pressures that had drained colour from the life of the school, as their own sense of disempowerment. Similarly parents became less feeble in their dealings with their children.

The film not only showed how comprehensively books can improve the quality of children’s lives at school and at home, providing on the way a sharp reminder of how libraries can transform young lives, but in the end had a wider message.

It is too easy, it suggested, for those involved with children, professionally and personally, to let themselves off the hook by blaming outside forces on the one hand and, on the other, the temptation of 21st-century diversions for young minds. With less moaning and blame, which merely communicates defeatism to future generations, there are greater chances of a happy ending.