Most families own at least one book – but the National Literacy Trust found one in eight children who receive free school meals do not. Poverty makes it hard for parents to afford the materials children need to succeed at school and that includes books. As a result, disadvantaged children lag behind their richer peers in vocabulary and literacy skills by the time they start school, with one in three children from poorer backgrounds starting without the language skills they need. The Children’s Commission on Poverty found that “a third of children who said their family is ‘not well off at all’ have fallen behind in class because their family could not afford the necessary books or materials.”
Every child should have access to a wide range of books, both for learning and enjoyment. As a public space open to all, libraries are crucial to this. More than a fifth of children aged 4 to 11 said visiting a library was most likely to encourage them to read according to a Reading Agency survey. Libraries, both in the community and at school, offer access to a breadth of literature and knowledge that can inspire creativity, imagination, and a lifelong love of reading. School libraries, in particular, increase academic attainment, support reading and writing skills, and enable pupils to become confident and independent learners.
From the founding of Britain’s oldest surviving public library in 1653 to today, the guiding principle has remained the same: access, as its original founder Humphrey Chetham said: ‘should require nothing of any … that cometh into the library’. This principle makes libraries important for tackling inequality, and social exclusion. By enabling children to overcome socio-economic disadvantage, libraries make a significant contribution to social mobility and life chances. Research from the US suggests that children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds ‘benefit more proportionally from stronger school library programmes than other pupils’. Industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie argued that a library ’outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people’, describing them as a ‘never-failing spring in the desert’.
But since 2010, the ‘never-failing spring’ has run dry for many communities and schools. Across Great Britain, austerity has resulted in reduced public library funding and a decline in branch numbers. More than 125 public libraries closed last year in Britain, according to the annual survey conducted by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. After years of continuous decline, there are now 860 fewer public libraries in Britain than there were in 2010. For the libraries that remain, opening hours have been dramatically reduced. Data gathered by the Labour party shows that more than three-quarters of the 150 local councils that run public library services have reduced access.
Equally, school libraries have suffered under austerity: a report by the all-party parliamentary group on libraries found that up to 40 per cent of primary schools with a ‘designated library space’ had seen reduced budgets. While there are no official figures on the number of school libraries in England, 53 per cent of members surveyed by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said their school had no library. After years of significant pressure on school budgets, school libraries are ‘at a critical juncture’ according to the libraries APPG. Campaigners have called the closure of libraries, both public and school, a social mobility time bomb.
The next Labour government should seek to reinvigorate library provision across England, giving every child access to their social mobility-boosting, inequality-reducing impact. Labour’s commitment to end cuts to local authority funding to support the provision of library services is welcome, but the party should also focus on school libraries, providing support to make them a core part of its proposed National Education Service.
While library provision is statutory in prisons, it is not in schools. This is a source of deep frustration for library associations across Britain. A coalition of organisations is campaigning to change this, calling for school libraries to become a legal requirement, fully funded and inspected by Ofsted. Labour’s National Education Service should consider incorporating these proposals at its heart, and ensure every school provides their pupils with library access.
Indeed, school libraries will be crucial if the principles of the National Education Service charter are to be met. This charter commits ‘to tackling the structural, cultural and individual barriers which cause and perpetuate inequality’ and to ensuring ‘learners receive a holistic and rounded education’. If the National Education Service is to tear down barriers in education, prevent childhood disadvantage turning into lifelong disadvantage, enhance social mobility and support equality, the ‘never-failing spring’ must run through every school.