Parents should read to teens says Eton head

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Saturday 13th June 2015

IMG_1732I’ve worked as a freelance education journalist for years, interviewing heads and teachers, eating rather a lot of school dinners and writing about the inspiring work schools are doing. I got into it in the first place because I spent a year or so teaching at an FE college myself and quickly realised that it’s one of the hardest and most demanding jobs there is. Ten years later, having seen hundreds of teachers in action in the classroom, my opinion hasn’t changed.

I’ve interviewed Tony Little, the head master of Eton College, twice and on both occasions I have been struck by his wisdom, dedication and unstuffiness. Most of all I’m impressed by the way he’s worked tirelessly to widen access to the school to boys from all backgrounds. The first time I met him I remember him saying “we do not want to be a finishing school for the titled and rich” – and he’s remained true to that. His achievements are many but he’s started a partnership between Eton and six local state schools and helped to found a state boarding school called Holyport College. Eton currently has 270 boys who receive “significant” financial help on a means-tested basis and 70 who pay nothing at all.

He’s given several interviews in recent weeks – both to mark his retirement and to talk about his forthcoming book, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education. As always, his words are full of good sense and designed to get people talking about education. His interview with The Times today is no exception, especially his appeal to parents to read aloud to their teenage sons. “I have seen the effect that an adult or friend can have on boys by reading a section of text aloud to them,” he says. “They become interested enough to read on, either by themselves or sharing the reading with others.”

My son is 20 now and I haven’t read aloud to him since he was about nine and obsessed with Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore (thank goodness for that, I can imagine him saying). We do, however, talk about books a lot. He’s at university four hours from home and with two bikes, a turbo trainer, a longboard, a skateboard, a surfboard (he likes boards) and a toolbox full of bike bits he can’t get back by train at the end of the year. So that means a long car journey – and in our case a good audiobook to listen to. Over the years we’ve got through all of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, quite a few Robert Harris and Nick Hornby titles, some John le Carré (A Delicate Truth was a big hit) and yes, the inevitable Cracked podcasts. We’ve discussed them all and they’ve helped to get him back into reading again.

A few commentators have quibbled with Tony Little’s book recommendations for bright 16-year-olds – everything from Atonement by Ian McEwan (I agree wholeheartedly) to Homer’s The Iliad (not so sure) – but most important of all, the Eton head has got us talking about teenagers and books. And that’s got to be a very good thing.

9 comments so far

  • I’m glad he said ‘teenage boys’ as I’m not sure my daughter would sit still and listen to me! She does pay attention to all the review books that come my way though – and is developing a taste for domestic noir (Before I Go To Sleep, Gone Girl, Disclaimer) For my part, I listen in on her review CDs – getting a feel for modern music beyond that played on Radio1. So we’re sharing our tastes both ways 🙂

  • Do I have an unusual one then? A fourteen year old son who is always reading. He still enjoys TV, music and YouTube, but we don’t have any games boxes (his choice) or a TV in his room (our rules).

  • Thanks so much for commenting, Mary and Jacqui. I’m really glad that your teenagers are such avid readers. Mary, you must be very up to date with music. What are your teens’ top tips for parents? And Jacqui, I really approve of your rules on no TV in your son’s room!

  • Sorry, she basically thinks parents have no hope of being cool – though memorising her site contents might help you sound like you are 🙂 I fake it by singing along to Frank Turner (though I always get the titles wrong) and dancing to Fall Out Boy’s “Dance like Uma Thurman”

  • This is very interesting, reading is so important for teens developing a wide vocabulary. I have one daughter who’s a bookworm and another who is the complete opposite, despite them both being influenced by us parents who love our books. In order to pique the interest of the non-bookworm we have encouraged her to read other things; newspapers, magazines etc and have also found that she prefers to read books of short stories rather than long books – whatever works to get them interested can only be a good thing :o)

  • That is so interesting and something that I would never have thought about. I have written a few times about the importance of children reading, especially boys. My now 19 year old son went off reading at the age of 8 and was saved by Harry Potter. I started reading the books to him and he loved them and it completely inspired him to read again and he never stopped. He is now going to uni in September to do a degree in Creative Writing having got an A* in English A Level. I don’t read to him anymore but we do discuss books and he talks about his current book and I am often recommending new authors and books to him. I think that talking about books and authors is valuable too in inspiring boys to read.

  • I so agree, Stressy Mummy. Talking about books and seeing that parents love books is really inspiring for children. I love your memory of reading Harry Potter to your son. My two were obsessed with the CDs, so brilliantly read by Stephen Fry. And Donna, I don’t think it matters what children read – newspapers, magazines, short stories, the back of the cereal packet – as long as they read.

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