Ditch the exams says Leigh Hobbs, departing Children's Laureate

The Good Weekend Magazine. Childrens book illustrator and author Leigh Hobbs. Pic Simon Schluter 2 May 2017.
The Good Weekend Magazine. Childrens book illustrator and author Leigh Hobbs. Pic Simon Schluter 2 May 2017.

At the end of Leigh Hobbs' tenure as Australian Children's Laureate, the creator of some of the most irascible characters of children's picture books has a message for educators and parents.

Ditch the assessments and exams, Hobbs says. Let children draw, write and read for pleasure and give teachers the freedom to teach instinctively rather than to outcomes.

"I think the kids are overly assessed at school and I think art and music are two things that are, in lots of instances, disappearing from primary school curriculum, which I think is crook.

"There needs to be a part of the school curriculum where kids can feel free to create and draw and read, or paint and write purely for the pleasure of it."

Hobbs was appointed laureate in 2016, an honour bestowed by Australian Children's Literature Alliance, a not-for-profit organisation founded in 2008. He is the writer-illustrator of 20 children's book including Old Tom, Mr Chicken and Horrible Harriet. Before that he was a high school art teacher for 25 years.

As ambassador for children's literacy, the Melbourne-based Hobbs has criss-crossed Australia visiting schools from Alice Springs to the Gold Coast and spoke at the Hay-on-Wye festival in Wales. One of his greatest thrills was visiting a primary school class in Bangor, Northern Ireland that had penned Hobbs a letter in praise of Mr Chicken.

"It's been rewarding and exhausting," says Hobbs, who on taking up the role made a vow to get fit and learn diplomacy. After visiting schools across the country he says it's clear the teacher-librarian is at risk of becoming an endangered species.

"What happens too often is the librarian retires and so the school principal says, 'We don't really need a librarian now, we don't need a library, so we'll spread the books around the school or we'll make it smaller and compact and individual teachers can supervise book borrowing'. Bit by bit it falls apart, and down the track who's going to stand up and say that this library is a necessary part of our school community?"

A library is a safe haven within the school as well as an information resource.

"See, teachers have so much on their back, they've got to know about anaphylaxis and terrorism, all that stuff, as well as teaching the curriculum," Hobbs says. "They haven't got time to know what books are out there.

"Another thing I've learnt is how many teachers want to get out of the profession because they can't do what they love doing. They can't teach for the love of it, like kids can't draw for the love of it, because they are restricted by all these idiotic, bureaucratic schemes of assessment, which are endlessly drawn up and changed, and teachers can't complain about it, they aren't allowed to write letters to the paper."

Growing up, Hobbs was a non-stop drawer, "hopeless at sports and no good at maths". "Somehow I was fortunate there was something I was good at and I loved drawing and that always gave me a healthy sense of myself."

But with a crowded curriculum, he worries kids haven't the time to explore subjects purely for enjoyment or enrichment value.

"All I wanted to be was an artist because I loved drawing purely for the pleasure of it, not so much to be famous or rich. In a way I've gone the full circle, I'm still not really famous or rich but Iove doing it."

Hobbs has half-filled a sketchbook for his next Mr Chicken book and the good news is that "ridiculous looking affront to the adult world" will be written into a homegrown adventure.

"All the time my head was soaking up ideas so I'm ready to get cracking on my own work now."

Leigh Hobbs hosts a children's drawing workshop at State Library Victoria on December 1, and appears in conversation with Ursula Dubosarsky at Allen & Unwin's Sydney offices on December 7.

This story Ditch the exams says Leigh Hobbs, departing Children's Laureate first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.