Secrets of a locked bookcase;Interview;Ronnie Williams;Reviews;Education Books

27th February 1998 at 00:00
Diana Hinds meets Ronnie Williams, the new chief executive of the Publishers Association

As a small boy, Ronnie Williams could not resist the lure of his father's bookcase. It was stuffed with just the sort of books that appeal to boys, dazzling adventures, graphically illustrated, and Ronnie liked to pore over the pictures. But one day he found the bookcase locked. The only way to get hold of the books, he was told, was to learn to read - and so, at four-and-a-half, with the help of an eccentric aunt who believed children should read before starting kindergarten, learn to read he did.

It is no surprise to find that the newly-appointed chief executive of the Publishers Association is a man with a love of books. What is less expected, perhaps, is that he combines this with a passion for education and a determination to invest in the development of literacy.

From a background in the diplomatic service and the forestry industry, he comes to the publishing world with huge energy, enthusiasm and desire to learn. He talks fast and animatedly, and, dressed becomingly in a blue floral waistcoat, he has the air of a Home Counties general-cum-jovial uncle.

Ronnie Williams's interest in education, after a brief spell as a teacher, was seriously awakened by the schooling of his own children (now grown-up). More recently, he and his wife have become involved with the local school in their Hampshire village - his wife as a governor - and Ronnie Williams saw for the first time the surveys of school spending on books.

"I hadn't realised it was this bad," he says. He began his new post in January with an ardent commitment to the Educational Publishers Council's campaign for better book provision.

"We have to get the whole punch of the Publishers Association behind the EPC's campaign. We have a government setting some extremely bold targets, and with a very desperate situation to retrieve in terms of literacy. We must keep this campaign up. Yes, thank you for the recent pound;22 million, we say to the Government, but what about next year?" He believes, too, that the money schools spend on books must be ring-fenced to avoid it being diverted to other pressing needs.

"I am worried about teachers falling into the rut of giving children photocopied sheets to work from, not books. If you don't give them a book to thumb, then you have lost something."

If one generation is allowed to slip through the literacy net, he argues, then two generations are lost - the first has nothing to pass on to their children. For this reason, he is a champion of Bookstart, a project developed in Birmingham which, with the involvement of the health authority, introduces nine-month-olds to books. It's a scheme he would like to see spread more widely.

Shortly after leaving Cambridge, where he read history, Ronnie Williams published the first of four books on Scottish history, a biography of Montrose.

Working for the Foreign Office for many years provided for his sense of "wanderlust". It took him to Nairobi, where he was representative at the United Nations Environment Programme. His introduction, at UNEP, to desertification and resource recovery sparked an interest in what, in the early Eighties, was to become his second career, the forestry industry.

In books as in forestry, Ronnie Williams will be employing all his skills as a political lobbyist to keep up the pressure on the Government. Its plans for the Year of Reading, for instance, are welcome and encouraging but, he emphasises, need to be pursued for much more than a year.

Most important of all in the battle for literacy, is that children must read for the sheer pleasure of it. The idea of nationally "preferred" or registered text fills him with horror. "If books are on the curriculum and are boring, children read them under duress. But if teaching children to read is paralleled by some exciting books, then the better they read, the more likely they are to read the textbooks that they go on to after children's books. One must be seen as the gateway to the other."

Clearly, Ronnie Williams's father's bookcase has a lot to answer for.

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