In a splendid piece in The Guardian’s Family section on Saturday, which led on Philip Pullman’s love of comments, the author went on to speak at length, in typically trenchant terms, about the current state of education:
Pullman believes that schools are letting children down in terms of how they express themselves imaginatively. They are not taught to draw and, worse he thinks, are not encouraged to write stories in any appealing way. “I’m filled with unhappiness for the children at school, the English stuff they have to do these days. ‘Literacy’, as they call it. It’s terrifying and wicked and monstrous. One of the things children are told to do is to make a plan first. Write your plan and then write your story. Spend 15 minutes on the plan and 45 minutes on the story.”
Pullman knows from experience as a writer that this is the wrong way to go about it. “I tried writing out a plot with the second or third novel I wrote, and it was so boring, so desperately boring.
“It’s not that I don’t write a plan, but I write the story first and then write the plan to see where I’ve gone. And I see that that bit needs to be moved there and I can do without that bit. But you need some timber before you can start doing the carpentry.”
It’s as if, Pullman suggests, pupils are being taught how to write stories or write any piece of composition in such a dull, bureaucratic way that they will be put off using imagination. That, at least, is in line with current government policy, he suggests waspishly. “[Education Secretary] Nicky Morgan said we don’t need the arts in education because you can’t make any money from them. Her point was that you can’t become a hedge fund manager if you learn to draw or write stories. It’s no good to you – that was the implication.”
What does Pullman suggest should be done? “You have to ask children to do something unnatural to them, which is to disregard what they are told by grownups. Teachers are wrong about this.
“They are not wrong because they are bad people; they are wrong because they have to do this or they’ll go to prison. They’ll get the sack and go to prison unless they do what they’re told, but it’s wrong. It’s a wrong way of writing. It’s a wrong way of reading. It doesn’t understand the meaning and purpose of these things, and in the end it’ll fail and it’ll fall and it’ll fade away.”