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Turning a page

15 July 2016

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”AS EASY as ABC” would make more sense if recast as “as near-impossible as ABC”. The terrific B Is For Book (BBC4, Tuesday of last week) followed the trials and tribulations of reception-year chil­dren at Kingsmead School, Hack­ney, as they learned their letters.

Expectations are now far higher than they were before: by Year 1, they should be able to read. In a school with 47 home languages, and where the children are mainly drawn from an estate with high levels of social deprivation, this is a chal­leng­ing goal; but the commit­ment of staff and parents alike could not be more determined.

The programme was a PR triumph in extolling the virtues of contemporary British multicultural inner-city life: the children were funny and imaginative; the teachers were patient and accommodating. There were two main themes: the vital importance of reading, the limitless worlds of information and pleasure open to those who have mastered the art; and, second, what a difficult art it is, the progression from meaningless squiggles on the page, to sounds, to the same words that they use in speech.

For me, a third theme emerged: a growing irritation at the limita­tions of the phonics method. The children learn by saying the relev­ant sound as each letter card is held up — but only one sound per letter. Our native tongue trips them up in an early assessment: having to read out the phrase “My name is . . .”. The mental agility required to jump between the “y” sound they’ve learned, as in “year”, or “a”, as in “cat”, to the same letters sig­nify­­ing quite different sounds in “my name” must be an extra­ordinary cognitive leap. Are these splendid children learning another of life’s basic lessons: that at the heart of much adult wisdom lies a miasma of fudge and half-truth?

How much stuff they will need as adults was explored in Life Stripped Bare (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week). Young people in London, Cardiff, and Manchester had all their possessions carted off and locked away. For 21 days, they had to manage without everything, apart from their heated homes and fridges full of food. Each day they could retrieve one item from the lock-up. What would they choose?

This was, of course, essentially a spiritual exercise (although none of them turned to God for help in their time of trial). They were keen to discover what really mattered: which of their myriad possessions were superfluous, how they could set new priorities in their lives. What made it rather less spiritual was the fact that they were stripped bare: every item of clothing was taken; so a chunk of the pro­gramme was devoted to quasi-prurient footage of them flitting around in the nude.

I thought that today’s youth were supposed to be entirely at ease with their bodies, unconcerned by outworn taboos attached to naked­ness. Not so at all; rather sweetly, they could not have been more desperate to hide from each other those parts that Adam and Eve learned to cover up.

Some wisdom was certainly gained. When they got everything back at the end, most of them gave away a lot; others had learned how central to their sense of identity their possessions were. The splen­did Heidi had really moved on: she deleted all her social media.

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