Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Ladybird: Peter and Jane

The other day, in the course of a posting on Tory education policy, I mentioned the Ladybird Keywords reading scheme. A search has turned up a New Statesman article on this series of books by Malcolm Clark.

Clark, thank goodness, gives short shrift to the argument that the books should be burnt because they are too middle class and dated (all those white faces and short trousers). When I was little I had a much loved copy of Little Black Sambo and I grew up to write half a dozen articles for the Guardian, so there is a limit to how much parents and teachers should worry about this sort of thing.

What Clark does do is use these books to highlight two recent and unfortunate changes in British society.
Those wide expanses of seashore and countryside on Planet Ladybird are seen as totally safe. There are no overprotective parents, no teachers dreading accidents or subsequent inquests, no lawyers waiting to sue when Peter stumbles during a jump over a stile. Nor are there any dirty white vans prowling along B-roads on the off chance.
Public space was not thought to be dangerous then, and this is not just nostalgic idealisation. I grew up in a small town in the early 1970s. The vast public park really did have attendants. It also happened to have well-tended flowerbeds and a boating pond. These days, you have to train your dog to tiptoe over the syringes. The war memorial is covered in graffiti and there isn't a police station for ten miles. If you sent Peter and Jane there to fly a kite, you'd kit them out in bulletproof vests first.
In fact, the entire old Ladybird project had an indefinable public-spiritedness about it. This partly reflected a strain in British culture that went all the way back to Samuel Smiles's Self-Help and the Victorian reference libraries. The quest for knowledge was seen as an uncomplicated and enjoyable pursuit, one in which young citizens should be encouraged to share. 
So once you had learnt to read, you could move on to a panoply of different subjects, each featured in its own dedicated little tome, from the lives of biographical figures, such as Captain Scott or Robert the Bruce, to significant moments in history, such as the civil war. You could learn about "wind and flight", or even Australasian mammals.
It is easy for Liberals and the left to dismiss such views as nostalgia. But the past is too important to be abandoned to the Tories.

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