Warnings have been given of the impact of school funding shortages on literacy levels, after an infants school in prime minister Theresa May’s ward of Wokingham appealed to publishers to help provide books for a summer reading club.
Polehampton Infants School hoped to run an annual summer reading club for its 180 pupils over the six-week holiday period. However, its headteacher Helen Ball (pictured) asked publishers for free book donations following slashed school budgets. Simon & Schuster and Macmillan Children's have answered the call and stepped forward to provide 200 free titles for the scheme.
Wokingham, where May is MP, receives the lowest amount of funding per pupil in the UK, it was revealed in December.
Ball said that schools were having to be "more inventive" to fund initiatives like a summer book club. "A long time ago - four or five years ago - this money would have come from the school budget," she said. "(But) we’ve had cuts over the last four years. The school wanted brand new books, but that is a bit of a challenge...It means we have to do a lot of fundraising to fill the budget cuts."
She added: “School funding cuts could have an impact on literacy levels. However, as schools know the importance of literacy for children’s life chances, I would imagine it will still be prioritised by schools wherever possible – that is what we are doing...Wokingham schools have all been working together to find efficiencies and cost saving initiatives. We have been lobbying our local MPs to ensure they are fully aware of the situation."
Ball's concerns have been echoed by the deputy general secretary of the headteachers' union the Association of School and College Leaders, Malcolm Trobe, who said the current climate is “essentially a funding squeeze which will hit young people’s education”.
He told The Bookseller that schools were losing teachers and cutting down on educational resources because funding is so tight. "(Schools have had to) make reductions where they don’t want to," he said. "They will work hard to make sure there is no detrimental impact on young people but at some stage there is going to be an impact. It may well be that in some parts of the country it will have an impact on schools’ ability to purchase books and that may have an impact on young people’s literacy development....(there have been) significant changes in the curriculum over the last two years and that means that certain books need to be replaced by other ones so they need to be able to purchase materials because of these changes.”
The National Audit Office and the Institute for Fiscal Studies had forecast a £3bn funding gap for schools. Although the education secretary Justine Greening promised a £1.3bn boost to school spending last week to help plug the gap, the situation will still result in a real terms cut of 4.6% to schools’ budgets between 2015-2020, according to the IFS.
The Bookseller understands that in some circumstances parents are being asked to step in to buy books and other equipment to plug the funding shortage for schools.
A source who works in the education system said: “We have heard about voluntary parental contributions to purchase books. We have seen this increasingly, putting pressure on parents to help fund books and other equipment. This has a major impact on areas of disadvantage.”
The publishers who donated books acknowledged the need for contributions to ensure literacy levels remain over the holiday period.
Elisa Offord, marketing and publicity director, S&S Children’s, which gave 60 titles to Polehampton Infants School, said that current constraints meant it was increasingly difficult for young people to find books. She said: “With schools’ budgets being cut and library closures all over the place, it’s harder than ever for children to get their hands on books to enjoy reading for pleasure over the long summer holiday. It’s so important to keep all children interested in books and reading levels up, no matter which school they attend or what their home circumstances are.”
She added: “We’re delighted to be involved in this important scheme by gifting copies of a book we know the pupils of Polehampton Infants will enjoy - Hamish and the WorldStoppers by Danny Wallace.”
A spokesperson for Macmillan Children's Books, which provided 180 titles to the school, said the company was "delighted" to be able to support the school with a donation of poetry titles to support the pupils' literacy over the summer holidays. "It is a time when reading levels can fall away and these poetry collections offer a great way to share and have a family reading time, however limited, every day in the holidays,” the said.
Councillor Mark Ashwell, executive member for children’s services at Wokingham Borough Council, “applauded” the scheme. He told The Bookseller: “Our schools in the Wokingham Borough have superb reputations, a track record of success, and good levels of attainment. This despite being the lowest funded authority in the country. So any scheme that can enrich the learning of our pupils can only be applauded.”
Literary agent Julie Crisp, who is a local parent, helped to facilitate the partnership between publishers and Polehampton and praised the “forward thinking” attitudes of S&S UK and Macmillan. “As a literary agent and parent, I know how important it is to encourage reading and a love of books from a young age," she said. “With the closure of libraries, many families considering books as a luxury item and schools having their funding cut - it's vital that other means are found to help shore up the lack of books for our growing readers. The fact that publishers are stepping in to do this is hugely forward thinking.”
The Department for Education has not yet responded to a request for a comment.