"Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” These are hard Gradgrindian times in education and it sometimes feels as though we live in a world full of misanthropes.
One occasion that brings out the worst in some of the teaching profession is World Book Day. It is, dare I say it in these killjoy times, supposed to be a “fun” day devoted to getting children to read, to use their imaginations, to revel in books and in their wonderful colourful characters. And part of this entails their dressing up as someone or something from a novel.
It has, over the years, irritated generations of parents who have resented making costumes for their offspring. Unsurprisingly, supermarkets have cottoned on to this and the shops are now full of World Book Day outfits – although these are not always of characters from literature.
For some reason, we punish the children for this egregious marketing by stripping the day back to the bare books and removing the dressing up. Yes, you can argue that it should be all about the books and these cosmetic frills detract from them. But then you’re looking at it through the eyes of an adult.
What we’re talking about here are children and for them dressing up is fun – it’s what they’re supposed to do. If crass commercialism perverts the intention of the day, adults need to do something about it, not ban the enjoyment entirely.
If just one child who hasn’t been interested in reading picks up a book after dressing up as Willy Wonka, then it’s like winning a golden ticket for them – and for us.
A neat plot twist
And it’s not only children who like dressing up. A University of Oxford academic I once knew left school at 16 with few qualifications. It was the 1980s, so, appropriately, he became a New Romantic and, to complete his foppy floppy-haired, frilly sleeved look, he stuffed a Penguin Classic of Brideshead Revisited into his back pocket.
One day, bored on a train, he took it out and read it. It was the first novel he had ever read. He was 19. Completely blown away, he returned to education, went to university (the first in his family to do so) and into academia, and, in a neat plot twist, ended up as editor of the Penguin Classics series.
I am well aware of the sensitivities around the less well-off children whose parents can’t afford the time or the money to put together an outfit, but that’s for the adults in schools to find a way round – to be creative and use their imaginations. It’s surely not beyond their wit to make sure these children are not disadvantaged further by giving them a miserable day.
One school’s solution was to ask all their pupils to come to school in their pyjamas with their favourite bedtime book. Yes, it’s a whole school of Rip Van Winkles, but what child doesn’t like the opportunity to cast off their uniform for the day?
Another was to get someone else to do the dressing up by inviting drag queens in to read to their classes.
We talk constantly about inspiring children to read, to love literature and to embrace learning. Then we try to squeeze the very joy out of their education. “You have been so careful of me that I never had a child’s heart. You have trained me so well that I never dreamed a child’s dream,” Louisa tells her father in Hard Times.
Let’s allow our children to be children, to let them have fun, to use their imaginations, and, yes, to dream their dreams while wearing a silly costume. And possibly while mucking about in the snow, too.