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Giving primary school libraries a lifeline

Jill Coleman, Director of Children’s Books at BookTrust, talks about Cressida Cowell’s Life-changing Libraries campaign

In 2019, the Great School Libraries survey revealed that school libraries were deteriorating, suffering from a lack of space, resource and expertise. Whilst every prison has a statutory library, the report found that one in eight primary schools had no library space at all. Worryingly 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.

The impact of Covid-19 and the closure of schools and libraries during lockdown has only widened the educational divide for the most disadvantaged communities, who are well evidenced to be worst hit by the pandemic. A study by the Education Endowment Foundation from January of this year, found that primary-age pupils had significantly lower achievement in both reading and maths as a likely result of missed learning, with a large and concerning attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and non-disadvantaged pupils. Another study by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) reported that, during the pandemic, lack of access to books for primary school pupils had become a barrier to reading and overall literacy levels. Over the course of the past year, BookTrust has stepped up our work with partners to provide books and reading support to families in most need – as we know that the children that need books most, are the very children who are least likely to have them.

The benefits of reading for pleasure are well-established. Evidence shows that it has a life-changing impact on a child’s life prospects, their mental health, wellbeing, self-esteem, educational achievement and so much more. According to the OECD, reading for pleasure is a bigger indicator of a child's educational success than their parent's socio-economic status. And school libraries play a vital role, with research showing that children who use their school library being more likely to read for pleasure and having better reading and writing attitudes – with this difference being greater for those eligible for free school meals.

We know that teachers, librarians and parents have been working tirelessly to mitigate the huge problems caused by the pandemic. But, it’s impossible for a child to become a reader for pleasure if their parents or carers cannot afford books, they aren’t able to access a local library, and their primary school has no or poor library provision. How is it fair that millions of children are missing out on the life-changing benefits that reading for pleasure brings?

This is why this week the Waterstones Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell, launched her Life-changing Libraries campaign, with the support of former laureates, BookTrust and a range of other literacy and reading organisations, calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ring-fence funding for school libraries. Cressida’s open letter to the government calls for £100m to be allocated to resourcing primary school libraries every year. This funding would allow schools to establish entirely new libraries, staff their libraries and buy new stock; by comparison, £320m has been ringfenced to promote physical education in primary schools this year, with hundreds of millions set aside every year since 2013.

Inspired by Cressida's 20 years of experience visiting schools, this campaign will also work to demonstrate the transformative power of a school library by supporting six very different primary schools across England - all of which have at least 25% of pupils eligible for free school meals – to develop a reading for pleasure culture. Each of the six schools taking part will receive a bespoke library space, stocked with a specially curated booklist of approximately 1,000 titles chosen by our expert team with guidance from CLPE.

Staff at the schools will also receive professional training and mentoring from specialists at the School Library Association as part of a two-year membership, and will also have access to the CLPE's Power of Reading Training and Membership.

Building is due to begin on the libraries this month before they officially open in June, while the project will monitor the impact on pupils' engagement, attitudes and reading behaviour over the course of a year. We at BookTrust are hugely excited to see the transformative impact these libraries have on the schools and the children in them, and for this to showcase the opportunities they open up. In the words of Cressida Cowell, “Put simply, libraries change lives. Literacy changes lives.”

For more information visit BookTrust’s Life-changing Libraries page which will host tips, inspiration and advice from the six schools that are part of the project as well as other librarians, teachers and organisations.

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