Nick Gibb's 'classics' deal offers little that schools can't have for free, writes Tony Parkin
On February 13 2016 the Department for Education (DfE) proudly launched its "New classic books in schools initiative". There's little new - or any 'initiative' - involved, as the department backs the cosy deal set up by schools minister Nick Gibb MP with Penguin Classics.
It aims to make a few bob out of the 100 recommended titles plucked from Penguin's Black Classics series. Most of them are already well out of copyright, and while Penguin has still been charging several pounds for most of them as Classics, other publishers were already offering them for anything between 99p and £1.50, and they are stock in trade for many a discount bookstore alongside the remaindered books.
This is not just an attempt to restock school libraries with the odd copy of a classic or two either, as the press release makes clear that it is “a call for action by Schools Minister Nick Gibb to ensure there is more classic literature being taught in our schools”. Note that it says 'taught', not just 'read'. We ARE all in this together.
'Enriching the reading material of key stage 3 students'
The list of books is aimed at enriching the reading material of key stage 3 students, as Nick Gibbs makes clear in his supporting statement. “It is important that all pupils in secondary school are taught to read and enjoy challenging books from amongst the world’s greatest literature. The first few years of secondary education is an opportunity for pupils to be introduced to such literature free from the constraints and analysis of public exams”.
It would seem, however, that as far as Nick Gibb is concerned the world's greatest literature was written before he was born, as the press release mentions that “All the titles are by authors who died before 1946 and are therefore out of copyright”. Surely only the most cynical would suggest that this may in any way to do with the impact on prices, and the profit to be made when there are no author royalties to consider?
Talking of price, Penguin is offering “secondary schools classroom sets of 30 copies of each of the 100 titles for a package price of £3,000, allowing pupils to read along with their teacher and classmates”. Glossing over the fact that class sizes are heading above 30 as the pupil population rockets while the DfE fails to recruit enough teachers, even at one set per school that still means a fair chunk of cash and shelf-space to be occupied by Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, the Mayor of Casterbridge and friends.
No sign, mind, of former education secretary Michael Gove MP's favourite Trollope (insert your own joke here) and oh, the horror, the horror, there's no Heart of Darkness either. Unless you include Nick Gibb's and ignore Conrad's classic?
Is there an alternative to stumping up £3,000? Yes, see below
Now you would think that Nick Gibb would be keen on promoting the work of Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive and the like, given that they share his ideal of keeping the best of literature alive and available for subsequent generations? So you ask, no doubt he is actively promoting those initiatives too? Well, no. Despite many mentions to him and the DfE about the rich and FREE resources available on the internet, nary a mention here.
Now wouldn't you think he would be keen to see all those new-fangled smartphones and iPads that students have put to really good use? A couple of clicks, and almost the entire collection could be safely downloaded and stored on their devices, ready for the journeys on the school bus, or the dull evenings on the telly. (Not that they watch the telly, or even call it a telly any more!). But no, nothing said. And certainly nothing about all the students in your school being able to have free and unfettered access to all these great works at any time, not just in class sets of 30. Or saving the school a pretty penny, and shelf space, into the bargain – emphasis on bargain.
So in the absence of any such ministerial messages, I decided to undertake an initiative of my own, Dodo Classics, to see how many of these titles can be obtained for free (links below). And the answer is "Almost all"! To save you all the research time I have assembled links to as many of these classic texts as I have been able to track down. You can get hold of a copy below. And yes, using technology can save you money!
That wonderful Project Gutenberg was my first port of call wherever possible, and the majority can be found there, though I had to go further afield for some of the less well-known texts. Most are also available in a range of different formats, making them suitable for reading in web browsers or as ebooks, on phones, tablets, Kindles or computers.
Only one or two slip the online net
One or two slipped through the net as I was unable to find English language translations of all the texts originating in other languages. A few had to have slightly adjusted selections, as combinations of texts varied slightly between the Penguin collections and those available in the public domain, particularly anthologies. And it seems that Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, though it had been in the public domain, has been brought back into copyright by the actions of a certain publisher whose name escapes me for the moment, and is no longer available for free.
Finally a couple are specific collections by Penguin for which no obvious equivalent exists, such as The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry.
So grab the list and get clicking. Feel free to put a copy of the list on your school network or website. And if, like me, you don't feel that the 100 on the list are the ones that you think are the real top 100 classics, why not add some of your own? Better still, try asking the students for their own Project Gutenberg favourites? For after all, as Nick Gibb himself says, “But this is not the end of the debate, and I want this to be a springboard for discussion on the impact a great story can have on us all.”