Review - When education becomes a matter of life and death
At the school where I am headteacher, I asked students in assembly how they had celebrated International Literacy Day on 8 September. They looked back at me blankly.
Had they, I wondered, hung out bunting and gathered family members together to toast our species' most extraordinary gift - our power of language? Had they savoured our ability to etch signs on to parchment, paper and websites, peeking across time and distance into the minds of human beings far away?
The students smiled indulgently, as they do throughout my assemblies, and I duly outlined some facts about why we should not take literacy for granted. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) estimates that at least 250 million children of primary school age cannot read, write or count. It also calculates that more than 774 million adults around the world cannot read and - the killer fact, as far as I was concerned - two-thirds of them are female.
As I pointed out, if language and power go hand in hand, then there will be some cultures where the last thing those in charge might want is for women to be empowered through reading and writing. It makes them threatening.
I suspect the assembly was mildly informative and vaguely thought-provoking. But I wish that I had been able to read the newly published book I am Malala beforehand. Rather more than my PowerPoint presentation, it makes a compelling case for why literacy and education matter so much.
International focus was turned to the struggle for girls' literacy when, on Tuesday 9 October 2012, Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head at point-blank range while travelling on a school bus.
Her crime? From her home in the beautiful Swat Valley, now suddenly and chillingly under the control of the Taliban, she vocally defended the right of girls to an education. She campaigned in a place where women were expected to stay silent.
My guess is that most of us have heard of Malala. The story of her shooting; her miraculous survival following a scrambled airlift to a hospital in Birmingham, England; her sheer determination - all this became the stuff of international news bulletins and newspaper comment. Her story touched many hearts. Awards and honours followed.
I have to confess that I was sceptical about I am Malala, fearing that it was (how shall I put this?) likely to be a hastily ghostwritten tie-in. Something riding on the coat-tails of a near-tragedy to generate money for the charity she has established and provide a sentimental story for the mawkish.
How wrong I was. The book is a quite remarkable autobiography for a number of reasons. For one thing, Malala and her associate writer, foreign correspondent Christina Lamb, transport us vividly to a world quite different from our own. On that grim day of the assassination attempt, Malala describes a normal morning at school, employing beautiful, limpid prose: "We arrived in the narrow mud lane off Haji Baba Road in our usual procession of brightly painted rickshaws, sputtering diesel fumes, each one crammed with five or six girls.
"Since the time of the Taliban our school has had no sign and the ornamented brass door in a white wall across from the woodcutter's yard gives no hint of what lies beyond. For us that doorway was like a magical entrance to our own special world."
Malala's evocation of place, beautifully and lovingly described, and her paean to her father with his own passion for education, are fascinating. But so is her toughness. She describes seeing a young girl selling oranges, clearly unable to read or write: "I took a photo of her and vowed I would do everything in my power to help educate girls just like her. This was the war I was going to fight."
This remarkable book is part memoir, part manifesto. I feel enriched from having read it. I also feel humbled. Our obsession with school performance is suddenly marginalised by a story in which education, quite literally, proves a matter of life and death.
Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, England. I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb is published by Wiedenfield and Nicolson and priced at #163;18.99.