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Parents who discuss current affairs with their children give them a head start in reading, a new report says. Richard Addis visits a college taking the idea a step further
Years ago, in a restaurant near Poggibonsi, Italy, our host, a celebrated tycoon, leant forward amid a gaggle of glazed and etiolated teenagers, stabbed a muscular finger in my direction, and barked: “Right! Who can name the 12 countries of the EEC?”
It was one of the most dreadful moments of my youth. I had not been trained for this. I knew a little about Thucydides and a little about Harold Pinter but nothing about the European Economic Community. At school and at home, news was ranked alongside money and pornography as an improper subject for discussion.
Last month the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the latest data from its study of 15-year-olds in the principal industrialised countries — the Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA report. It shows unequivocally that teenage students whose parents discuss political or social issues with them either weekly or daily score 28 points higher at reading, on average, than those whose parents discuss these issues less often or not at all. When socioeconomic background is taken into account, the score advantage drops, but remains large at 16 points. Other factors too made a difference: “discussing books, films or television programmes”, “discussing how well children are doing at school”, “eating main meals together around the table” and “spending time talking with your children” all helped significantly to increase reading ability among 15-year-olds. But of all the activities measured, discussing serious news and current affairs came top.
How much does this matter? A great deal, say educationists. Reading ability at 15 is a major predictor of success, happiness and wealth and one of the few controllable ways in which it is known that we can counterbalance those two great impostors in the lottery of life: wealth and genes.
Still; the findings did not make complete sense. What could it be about discussing news that made such a difference? My own expensive and privileged education had surely not suffered unduly by giving news a complete bypass until the age of 25. All it meant was that at dinners you sometimes had to perfect the art of looking intelligently dubious and dispassionate — not raving but frowning, as someone dubbed it. In London in the 1980s we considered young people who really cared about news — such as Boris Johnson, Andrew Mitchell and Oliver Letwin — mad. (The proof was they ended up in politics and they became madder still.) To look for some empirical evidence for the OECD findings, however, I went to explore an institution that achieves remarkable results year after year by reacquainting disaffected students with the world of critical thinking, study, reading and debate. MidKent College is one of the largest further education and training providers in the South East, with 15,000 students aged from 16 upwards.
The modern purpose-built Medway campus in Gillingham is all gleaming brick and glass on a springlike morning — a monument to the principle of the new: new day, new starts and new lives start building here, brick by brick. Fittingly, its energetic principal Stephen Grix, left school with no qualifications, joined the college at 15 as a bricklaying student, became a foreman and forged a distinguished career in education only after returning to work at MidKent as a brickwork lecturer. “We’re big, we’re local, we’re flexible, we’re supportive, we’re established” proclaims his publicity. (“We’re exclusive, we’re global, we’re proud, we’re demanding, we’re historic” might come the echo from my old school, Rugby).
The OECD report talks specifically about parents discussing news at home but on this point MidKent, like so many other education providers over the past decade, has had to step into the breach. “Ideally it is parents but it’s often unrealistic to expect that,” says MidKent’s Emma Wilkinson. “It does not matter, educationally, if it’s parents or college who do it, as long as it’s done.”
To get a rounded view on the merits of talking about current affairs, Wilkinson, the programme area leader for higher and academic studies, has assembled a panel of teachers from different disciplines: Steve Keevil, media lecturer; Alison Ackroyd, biology lecturer; and Stephen Batchelor, director of higher education development, gather in her classroom.
All of them are devotees of news and current affairs as a teaching aid and, more than that, as a character-builder. Phrases such as “encourage, stretch and challenge” lace the conversation; there is mention of the inspiring example of Britain’s “skillionaires”, the growing self-made and opinionated vocational elite such as hairstylist John Frieda or Formula One mogul Ross Brawn, both of whom never got within sight of a silver spoon and started off as apprentices.
The panel is clear that giving teenagers of both sexes an enthusiasm for reading starts with curiosity and is fed by competitiveness. News is ideal for this, first because it’s so varied that there is something for everyone and, second, because it’s so freely available and widely shared that it provides perfect fodder for opinion and debate.
“If you tap into their interests through current affairs,” says Wilkinson, fresh from a politics class with 20 A-level students aged 16 to 26, “they seem to get a new ear — so they hear the news in the background or glimpse it out of the corner of their eye and think ‘I know what this is about’ instead of zoning out.” Key to this, in her view, is learning the vocabulary. “You notice that as soon as they get interested they’ll want to know what an unfamiliar word means instead of thinking ‘I don’t know that’ and switching off. They feel great when they come across that word again and can tell you what it means.”
Once something in the news has triggered an interest, competitiveness quickly drives reading to new levels. “Students do this all the time,” says Keevil. “It starts slowly but can have a huge effect very quickly. You discuss something in the news and find you run out of knowledge. We all do. You want to become better informed so that the next time you are on the same topic you can talk more convincingly. You start reading more because you are researching for your next debate.” Whether that happens in the corridor, at home or in the classroom doesn’t matter — what matters is the pleasure of winning and getting respect.
And this leads to the point about which the panel is perhaps most passionate: that however you can trigger the virtuous spiral of curiosity, debate, thinking and reading, it has a huge effect on the confidence deficit that unfairly holds back so many of their students.
“Competition for the best university places and for just about any job is getting far tougher. The only hope is to stand out from the crowd,” Keevil says. “The only hope is the impression you make at interview.”
Stephen Batchelor says: “We have so many gifted and talented students here and it is frustrating when they don’t get into the top-ranked universities when we know they should. They don’t have the soft skills that their peers in grammar and independent schools have.”
Alison Ackroyd agrees: “These skills are especially important for highly competitive professions such as medicine that still tend to recruit from public schools. Everyone now needs the ability to tell a good story at interview and to talk a good talk.”
So is the link between current affairs and reading really convincing? The last word goes to Wilkinson: “Yes. I can certainly see the link. If a student knows about news, everyone in the outside world can take you seriously. Being able to talk and discuss and have an opinion and a perspective and awareness of the world is undoubtedly going to help you to get on and continue to learn for the rest of your life — just knowing about accountancy if you want to be an accountant is not enough any more.”
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