Over the past decade, a 30 per cent reduction in public spending on public libraries has seen more than 800 shut their doors. Many others are struggling to stay open. Yet, at a time when school libraries are more essential than ever, they too are on the wane.
I started out as a librarian in Westminster in the 1990s. I have seen first-hand the huge positive impact they can have, not just on children but on everyone’s wellbeing and future prospects. That was confirmed again to me recently when, strolling through a market, a stallholder recognised me and came up to me to talk about the books I had shared with him when he was younger.
Schools Week readers don’t need to be told how important and formative books can be. Yet our latest research shows that teachers are regularly buying books from charity shops to make up for the fact that their schools don’t have a dedicated school library budget (40 per cent of them don’t). One in eight primary schools in England doesn’t have a library at all. And more worryingly still, the figure jumps to one in four for schools with a higher proportion of pupils on free school meals.
Can we really talk of a levelling-up agenda without a strategy to fix that? Low levels of literacy are closely linked to child poverty and poor educational attainment. Social and economic disadvantages are reinforced when the poorest families don’t have access to books in their homes. The reading skills of the poorest children are up to 18 months behind those of their better-off peers – a literacy attainment gap that has worsened due to the pandemic.
While there was an understandable focus on digital access for online learning during lockdowns, there has been no such focus on access to books for securing the recovery. Like the digital divide, the issue of literacy is essentially one of social inequality, and that is at least as much down to access to books as it is to good teaching.
Children’s literacy has been a concern for many years and can seem intractable. But school libraries offer at least a partial answer to this challenge, and at a relatively small cost. They are not a panacea, but a well-stocked school library represents the diversity of society, enhances teaching and learning across the school and fosters partnerships with parents and families.
And as such, school libraries can help to change the outlook for the rest of young people’s lives. By encouraging children to read and to discover the joy of books, we give them a better chance to do well at school, to get better jobs, to look after their health and wellbeing and to vote in elections, among many other benefits that flow from simply being able to read confidently at a young age.
To help tackle the problem, the National Literacy Trust has launched a new Primary School Library Alliance with Penguin Random House UK, which will transform and equip 1,000 primary school libraries by 2025 – supporting half a million pupils. Responding to our call for large-scale public and private funding, Arts Council England and a number of soon-to-be-announced corporate organisations have already pledged significant financial investment into the Alliance.
But transforming primary school libraries needs a nationwide approach which brings together public, private and third sector skills and resources. To achieve the pace and scale of change required, we need a collective effort from policymakers too – because only their leadership can ensure we give primary school libraries and reading spaces the priority we must as a society.
We know that school leaders are stretched – and that many headteachers are contending with limited resources and space. That’s why we are currently recruiting schools to take part in our free training programmes in locations across the country, which includes resources to help schools audit and develop their reading-for-pleasure provision.
Schools and teachers are doing an incredible job, but if we fail to support them, the penalty suffered by children, families and schools will be fundamental and long-lasting. If we are truly to build back better, then the school library will be pivotal to our long-term prosperity.