Children's novelist Michael Rosen has written an open letter calling for libraries to be made compulsory in schools, backed by ringfenced government money to support libraries and the training of librarians.
The former Children's Laureate emphasised the "urgent" need of libraries and librarians "in all schools, for all our children" in an open letter in the Guardian, citing "worrying" research published last week that shows one in eight schools has no library and it is the poorest children most likely to be affected.
The report Rosen refers to is a study commissioned by the Great School Libraries, a three-year evidence-based campaign run by CILIP, the library and information association, the School Library Association (SLA) and CILIP’s School Libraries Group. Based on its research carried out across 1,750 schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it found that 87% of schools have a designated library space, but around one in eight (13%) do not. Furthermore 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. Meanwhile employment terms for librarians and library staff fall below national standards, with low pay and little investment in professional development and training.
In view of this, Rosen said it was "obvious" to him that the state should step in to make libraries compulsory, not least when prisons are obliged to have a library.
Referencing other research from Mariah Evans at the University of Nevada, which found books in the home to be as important as parents' education in determining children's education level, Rosen argued the importance of school libraries since children who know how to browse and choose books, and read widely and often, benefited from "a reservoir of knowledge and understanding [they] will draw on as they encounter the curriculum".
"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," wrote Rosen.
"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 with step two: ringfenced money to support schools’ libraries, along with the hiring and training of librarians."
Pre-empting objections to "state nannying", he continued: "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."
Also commenting on the Great School Libraries' report, Waterstones Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell, who opened her tenure this summer with a creativity plea and 10-point plan, urged the government to act, saying the research showed "an inequality in library provision that is a social mobility time bomb".
"Nobody has yet answered this question for me: if a child's parents cannot afford books, if there isn't a library in their school, and they don't have opportunities to visit a public library, how on earth can they become a reader for pleasure? We know from many, many academic studies how important reading for pleasure is to children’s life prospects, so we need to do everything possible to encourage reading for pleasure in ALL children, not just in some children."
Stressing the advantage schools with a library and librarian have over those that don't, too, she said: "I urge the government to implement a School Library Strategy that recognises the importance of a well-stocked school library and librarian not just for some children but for every single child in this country. Reading is magic, and magic is for everyone."
Nick Poole of CILIP said the research "paints a picture of inequality of access and opportunity and insecure employment that we cannot accept". He said: "The findings highlight the urgency of securing national school library strategies and investment in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, drawing on the example of Scotland."