Make reading hip and sexy
Education authorities which fail to enshrine the reading of books in their policies are "discriminating" against many children, according to the Children's Laureate.
Michael Rosen believes that the large numbers of children not exposed to books at home are put at a huge disadvantage if councils do not act to compensate. His warning, delivered at the Scottish Book Trust's Creative Sparks conference in Edinburgh, was a major talking point; while "literacy strategies" were common, it was thought that many Scottish councils did not have a specific policy on book-reading.
"If you don't have a policy on the reading of books, it's discriminatory," Mr Rosen said.
Books were a "mystery" to some children. Mr Rosen, a prolific poet, was often asked: "How did you make that book?" by children who did not understand that they were written by people.
"Why would you know?" he said. "It could have been laid by an egg - they just sit on the shelves."
Mr Rosen had visited schools with a paltry amount of books, and teachers who said they did not have time to read whole stories. He found it a sad irony that teachers could discuss literacy strategies in rooms with few books, and said headteachers often failed to set an example.
He found a more positive ethos in Clackmannanshire. The authority had been lauded for its work on phonics, but it was less well known that it had introduced home liaison officers (part of its Bright Start early years programme) who went between schools and homes to talk about reading.
Officials had recognised that it was not enough to say to parents "remember to read to the kids"; they often had to be told what to read, how to read and where to read. In most schools outside Clackmannanshire, Mr Rosen found "no relationship between the school and the home to talk about books".
Books should be demystified by turning schools into publishing houses; he saw little point in children writing stories in jotters that no one else would see. School should also encourage children to pass books among each other, and there should be a time each week when children read purely for pleasure.
"We have to create a buzz around books, we have to make them sexy," he said. "We have to provide the emotional tug that makes reading the hip thing to do in school."
Such efforts were undermined by prevailing international trends. Global capitalism had homogenised the supply of books to children. As computers became more central to daily life, ICT suites were opening up in schools at the expense of investment in libraries, undermining attempts to cast off the image of "weird, dusty cupboards".
One of the worst approaches to reading in schools had involved his seven-year-old daughter at her school in Hackney, East London. She had to read a short extract from the Greek myth in which Perseus comes up against the snake-headed gorgons. The class was asked factual questions about the story.
"The questions being asked are nothing to do with feeling, it's nothing to do with why we might be interested in stories," said Mr Rosen.
The potent story, he despaired, had been treated like a set of company accounts.