In 2008, as the global financial crisis peaked and Ireland faced a long period of austerity, the government announced that the primary school library fund would be cut in its entirety. The €2.2m annual investment from the then-Department of Education & Science had been in place for 37 years; public libraries funded the remainder (58%) of the €5.19m spend on the schools library service.
Children’s Books Ireland’s vision is simple: every child a reader. A key part of its remit is to advocate for young people who may not have a culture of reading at home, or the means to buy books. With budget 2022 looming, CBI is calling on the Irish government, specifically the Minister for Education, to prioritise school libraries in Ireland, and reinstate the fund at a rate of €10 (£8.50) per primary school student; an allocation of €5.68m (£4.83m) that will benefit over half a million children in 3,240 primary schools. This modest investment could open up a lifetime of possibilities and excitement for children.
Growing Up in Ireland is a government-funded study of some 19,500 young people, carried out by the Economic & Social Research Institute and Trinity College Dublin. The data reveals that at nine years old, only 6% of Irish children report never reading for pleasure. At 13, this figure rises to 19%. Over 50% of 17-year-olds never read for pleasure.
Growing Up in Ireland shows that, at age five, visits to the library are regular or occasional for around 50% of families. At age nine, almost two-thirds (65%) used the public library. Public libraries are not physically accessible by all schoolchildren, and many parents and carers may have had negative experiences, both at school and in the public library, and see these spaces as “not for them”.
The scale of the gender difference found in the study is remarkable. Among nine-year-olds and 13-year-olds, girls from working-class backgrounds are as likely as, or even more likely than, middle-class boys to read every day. The same study shows a marked gender difference in nine-year-olds, with more girls saying they “always like” reading than boys (68% compared with 55%).
In relation to the Programme for International Student Assessment, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development has said that “all the students who are highly engaged in reading achieve reading literacy scores that are significantly above the international mean, whatever their family background”. The divide in reading is not simply socio-economic, which provides a rationale for universal investment in school libraries as a crucial, cost-effective way of providing modern, relevant books to children in every school.
Diversity and inclusion
Ireland is becoming more diverse: in the 2016 census, the fastest-growing ethnic group is “other, including mixed background”, with an annualised growth of 14.7%. Some 5.7% of the population identify with an ethnicity other than white Irish or any other white background, representing over a quarter of a million people in a population of almost 4.7 million. Our classrooms reflect the richness and diversity of Irish society, but their bookshelves do not.
In 2020, CBI had almost 400 applications for our school library donation project. Thanks to our partners and funders, we supported 18 of these—meaning we still had to reject 95% of applicants. Many teachers and principals spoke of the difficulty of developing an inclusive atmosphere at school when large cohorts of their students cannot see themselves or their families in the pages of a book on their shelves. Schools rely largely on donations from families to stock their libraries, which is often topped up with the commission from visiting book fairs—a percentage of the sales made given as credit to the school. Neither of these is the ideal way to curate a library that caters for the needs, interests and reading levels of the students, let alone ensuring that there is positive representation.
In assessing the applications to the school library gifting schemes, the team at CBI read many stories of newly built schools that have library spaces with empty shelves; rural schools where pupils run out of books to read before they reach the senior classes; and one school where the students wrote to the Lord Mayor to ask for a public library in their locality, the only area of disadvantage in their county without one.
Cressida Cowell, as Waterstones children’s laureate, has articulated the case for investment in school libraries through her Life-changing Libraries campaign. In the words of our own Laureate na nÓg, Áine Ní Ghlinn, “a school library is a gateway to another world—a world of knowledge and imagination, of freedom and fun. It’s free and it’s open to all.” We hope this is a world all children will have access to in the years to come.