22 February 2010

GOOD Morning ladies and gentlemen!

I’d like to start by posing questions of sorts.

What came first? Of course we normally ask what came first the chicken or the egg.

My questions are:

What came first? Harry Potter the books, or Harry Potter the films?

What came first? The Lord of the Rings books, or the Lord of the Rings films?

What came first? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the book, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the film?

My point to you all is that what fires the imagination first are books.

Whether it be a child eagerly turning page after page to try and finish a chapter before bedtime, or a filmmaker captured by the potential of the tale told, it is the author’s tale that is the starting place.

Books come in all shapes and sizes, from picture stories for the very youngest to the academic explanations of complex science.

At the core of what we are talking about today are two things, as Viv mentioned earlier: reading and writing.

The two go hand and hand.

Implicit in this is communications. There is the author, the illustrator and the editor are sharing, and the reader is part of that shared experience.

In Northern Ireland there is a tradition of high achieving children. There is also a tradition of too many children leaving school with poor literacy. In fact there are some studies which say that adult functional literacy is the equivalent to that of a 12-year-old’s.

So what can we do?

I believe that exposing children and young people to reading material as early as possible is one solution. I believe that encouraging reading helps deliver a willing mind to the wonders of writing instead of tawdry television.

I believe the work of the Booktrust programme is one way we can all start.

Some of you may already know what my job is. For you please bear with me while I briefly outline for everyone else what I do.

My job is to promote and safeguard the rights and best interests of children and young people.

One of the things I must do in carrying out my job is have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Convention has some pretty specific things to say on children’s rights on books and information.

Article 13 says that children have the right to freedom of expression. Part of that right – and I quote - is to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, either orally, in writing, in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.

In Writing. In print. That’s pretty clear.

Article 17 is even clearer. It talks about how the Government should make sure that the mass media and other sources should make sure children have access to information.

The third point in that article is explicit. It says Governments shall:

ENCOURAGE THE PRODUCTION AND DISSEMINATION OF CHILDREN’S BOOKS

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child says that Government’s will encourage the production and dissemination of children’s books. The UK Government signed the Convention.

Now we all can hope that Government lives up to the promise made when the Convention was signed.

I note that here in Northern Ireland there is not the sustained funding for the full Bookstart programme. I can give you a commitment today that I will use my influence to ensure our government departments make funding available for your scheme and other schemes encouraging reading and access to books, and to ensure we see the joined up government working that Liz talked about, and the opportunity for OFMdFM to deliver on its ten year children’s strategy.

Your work is too valuable to be allowed to drift without adequate support.

The partnerships, the delivery, the targeting of hard to reach groups: these are all features that I commend, and I commend the ethos that brings families together around the world of reading. It is an ethos that is too often missing, but your work is plugging the gaps.

I want to tell you something that a Northern Ireland Executive Minister said at a meeting two years ago.  I’ll not name him, but I believe his views are valid. He identified the issue of why too many young men failed in post-primary schools. He asked some of the young men why there had been such a problem.

They told him that they had left primary school barely able to read. And, when they were called upon in class to read a passage from a book they could not. They stumbled over words, stuttered and stammered through phrases they did not understand and missed the clues in punctuation.

As a result they were embarrassed. Too often that embarrassment translated into a loss of self-esteem and with that came a disengagement with schoolwork, which then in turn results in poor attendance, lack of qualifications, and a young life with ever reduced prospects.

The blame can be passed around about the reasons, but when it comes down to it the ability to read is the key factor. And only when books are part of a child’s life from their formative years can the teacher stand a real chance to engage the child in the pages that open the door to the imagination and open the door to that child’s potential to learn.

Your vision that children and young people adopt reading as a habit and a hobby; that children and young people come to love the power of words; that children and young people develop as consumers of thoughts – that is a vision that will mean that every other part of their lives will be enriched.

I leave you with the following quotation:

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.