Did you see the report on school libraries that came out last week? The headline facts are worrying, don’t you think?
Schools with a higher proportion of children on free school meals are more than twice as likely not to have access to a designated library space. One in eight schools has no library at all.
And employment terms for librarians and library staff fall below national standards, with low pay and little investment in professional development and training.
The first of these points is a familiar one. It’s as if there’s some law or commandment which stipulates that children who come from homes with the least money should go to the schools with the least money, too. The employment standards problems are also worrying: they suggest that there is no commitment from government that the specialised knowledge and practice of librarians is a priority.
I’ve been round this block many times before. I even met your schools minister, Nick Gibb, to discuss how we might all cooperate to foster reading for pleasure. He seemed to be in complete agreement that reading for pleasure was a key element in helping children access the curriculum.
It’s not a mystery as to why or how this happens. Children who know how to browse and choose books, and who read widely and often, are immersed in what we might call the strategies of continuous prose. This is a form of language very different from everyday conversation, and to “get” it needs loads of practice reading and writing.
Reading a lot also creates a body of knowledge of both a “how” and a “what”. The how is how writing builds scenes, makes points, unfolds and concludes. The “what” is the emotions, facts, principles and ideas we meet as we read. This is a reservoir of knowledge and understanding children will draw on as they encounter the curriculum.
If you want to check up on what I’m saying here, I provided Nick Gibb with some research from Mariah Evans et al from the University of Nevada on the benefits for children of being exposed to many books.
If children don’t have books at home, where are they going to find them? It is “kinda obvious”, as my children would say: libraries. It’s also obvious to me that compulsion from the state is needed here.
One of the curiosities of life is that schools are not obliged to have libraries, but prisons are. Step one, then, is to make it compulsory for schools, too. This has to be backed up withstep two: ringfenced money to support schools’ libraries, along with the hiring and training of librarians.
Before you object to such state nannying, I should remind you that on a related matter, the government did find ringfenced money to support reading. They put in place the phonics screening check at the end of year 1 and created a fund to subsidise, at a rate of 50%, schools’ purchase of the phonics resources that the government approved of.
Interestingly, though children have a very high success rate when they are five and six at “decoding” words (knowing how to say them), when it comes to the tests when they’re 10 and 11 and have to show that they understand what they’re reading, the scores are not so high.
Can this be because many children are not spending time immersed in reading, building that “reservoir” I mentioned? I think so. We urgently need libraries and librarians in all schools, for all our children.
Yours, Michael Rosen