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Libraries and laureates: a study in necessity

Without school libraries, boys and girls will grow up in households where the idea of owning books, or even borrowing, seems an increasingly fantastical one

“Libraries give us power”, the Manic Street Preachers sang on their career-defining single “A Design For Life”. As someone whose career as both a student and writer has required them to spend as much time, on occasion, in public and private libraries as in their own home, I can only empathise with the sentiment. To be given access to public spaces full of books, which can either be read there or borrowed and enjoyed in one’s own home, is a privilege that many either take for granted or do not exercise at all. And the ongoing saga of smaller public libraries being closed by councils because of austerity-dictated cuts represents a quiet tragedy for any number of people, from the elderly who have had a lifeline taken away from them to children who now find their own opportunities to read increasingly diminished.

For a government headed by a writer and journalist, there has been a startling lack of engagement with literacy and libraries

Yet it is school libraries, rather than public ones, that the Waterstone’s Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell has addressed in an open letter to the Prime Minister. The bestselling author wrote that “Millions of children, particularly those from the poorest communities worst hit by the pandemic, are missing out on opportunities to discover the life-changing magic of reading — one that OECD research suggests is a key indicator in a child’s future success. How can a child become a reader for pleasure if their parents or carers cannot afford books, and their primary school has no library, or that library is woefully insufficient?”

Cowell’s solution, that the government find £100 million of funding a year for primary school libraries, might seem almost luxurious at a time of economic belt-tightening, but as she points out, the PE and sport premium has been ring-fenced since 2013, and is viewed as a priority. Yet, surprisingly for a government headed by a writer and journalist, there has been a startling lack of engagement with literacy and libraries. One thinks, miserably, of how the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden seems happy to spend endless amounts of time discussing the (to me incomprehensible) European Super League idea and decrying it in the strongest terms, but has remained curiously quiet on this far more vital issue, along with the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

When I read Cowell’s statistic that one in eight primary schools in Britain has no library, my initial response was to be surprised that seven out of eight did. Yet, as she points out, every single prison in the country has a library, as a statutory requirement, but it now seems to be an optional extra that schools that educate children in their — which can often be a rather grandiloquent term for a cubby-hole with a few shelves of battered books donated from charity shops — do not employ a full-time or part-time librarian. Thus the image that we have of “libraries”, where children can be gently steered towards books and writers who might become lifelong companions, is an almost impossible one for many such places of learning.

It is little surprise that, as Cowell writes, “schools with a higher proportion of children on free school meals were more than twice as likely not to have access to a designated library space.” Inner-city primary schools with high rates of illiteracy and truancy have been failing the children educated at them for years, in some cases for generations. The response of successive governments seems to have been to shrug and forget about them, while making stern noises about “special measures” and punitive Ofsted inspections. Thanks to the catchment area system, we have created an educational apartheid in Britain based on wealth and privilege, whereby one child can have access to a library (of whatever calibre it ends up being) and its peer, living two streets away, is mired within a substandard school where there are no such provisions.

I grew up in school libraries. For a young boy who loathed the tyranny of organised games and the ineffable boredom of endless maths and science lessons, the library was my refuge. It was both the place in which I sought literal sanctuary from the noise of school life, but also a far more vital tool in my education than the vast majority of my teaching ever was. It was here that I came across authors and characters who inspired and amused me, and where I conceived the idea that, one day, I might want to write my own books. And certainly, although books aimed at children can be a difficult area of the publishing industry, there are many remarkable writers creating great imaginative work at the moment, from the likes of Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson to the younger but equally brilliant Abi Elphinstone and Katherine Rundell. And, of course, the Children’s Laureate, whose How To Train Your Dragon books have sold millions of copies worldwide.

It is therefore something of a concern that these books, and many like them, will simply not be available to tens of thousands of children

It is therefore something of a concern that these books, and many like them, will simply not be available to tens of thousands of children. It is easy to imagine a situation in which a family struggling to get by simply cannot afford the £7 or so that a new book generally costs. Without the provision available that school libraries should offer, many of these boys and girls will grow up in households where the idea that one would own books, or even be able to borrow them from a library, seems an increasingly fantastical one. And tall tales should remain on the pages of these authors’ imaginations, rather than being a regrettable part of everyday life for many.

Cowell’s letter has been signed by many of the major figures within the children’s book industry, from writers and illustrators like Julia Donaldson and Quentin Blake to the likes of Dawn Finch, Chair of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group, and Alison Tarrant, CEO of the School Library Association. Nobody could doubt the sincerity of their intentions, or the necessity of what is being asked for. Yet at a time where it often seems as if public funds being used for education are being directed in well-meaning but often inappropriate ways, we can only hope that this intervention will have the desired effect and that children are, once again, allowed to take refuge in the comforting and restorative world of a good book. Libraries do, indeed, give us power. It’s just a pity that so many have been denied this vital force for far too long.

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