Books: Not Flashy, but Cheap and Important

Jevon Whitby

Image © Horia Varlan

Last month’s announcement by the National Literacy Trust that ‘1 in 3 children does not own a book’ was a headline with a true capacity to shock. In many minds, including my own, it surely conjured harrowing images of impoverished homes with children unable to learn basic reading skills because of a lack of practice material and of a grim future for a new’ illiterate-British’ underclass.

Should we be sceptical about such figures? The report clearly demonstrates that of children with books of their own, 55% exceed the expected reading levels. On the other hand, there is certainly room for doubt: Almost 80% of children who agreed with the statement ‘I have never been to a library’ still achieve the expected minimum standard.

Yet surely these figures should still be appalling to anyone who treasures reading. Is ‘acceptable’ the standard an educational system should be aiming for? A cynic could claim that this says more about the ‘expected level’ than the children who, without ever having entered a library, achieve it. The recently introduced reading ‘MOT’ for 6 year-olds includes test words such as ‘Cat’, ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad,’ yet only schools in which 60% or more children fail to read them qualify for Michael Gove’s specialist government literacy ‘intervention.’ Well-intentioned policy, but hardly an ambitious minimum standard.

More worrying were the report’s findings on ‘attitudes’ towards reading: the old educational spectres of the 10% gender gap and the 50% of all teenagers who do not read regularly still loom. As the report is keen to assert, enjoyment of reading (fuelled from owning personal books) is central to developing ability; children who claimed that they ‘do not enjoy reading’ were 11 times more likely than those who did to read below the expected level.

Despite the apparent benefits of books, government funding for gift schemes like Booktrust will be cut again in 2012 in order to save a seemingly meagre £1.5 million nationally (this itself was a compromise from the outrageous proposal of a 100% funding cut in December 2010.) Despite the Department of Education’s statement of the ‘real difference’ that free books make, it seems as if they are less of a priority in tough times.

Books may not be all that exciting politically. It must surely be hard to form flashy initiatives or policy stratagems around printed reading material in an electronic age. Literacy is also a dangerous topic if examined too closely: 5.1 million adults do not meet the level expected of 11 year-olds. It would be a brave political party that suggested that many voters are insufficiently literate.

Nevertheless there is of course a budgetary basis for a child-literacy push: books are not expensive. Public libraries (of which 400 are to be closed) cost £1.2 billion nationally in 2008-9, a little under £20 for every person in the UK. To put educational spending priorities in perspective: it is now six months since Michael Gove announced £2 billion for building repairs and new classroom computers.

Austerity Britain demands ‘cheap’ and constructive solutions to problems. There is much to be said for reverting to effective and affordable methods. Labour may have urged the Government to backtrack on the Booktrust cut fiasco but sadly, after so many governmental years of grand technological education initiatives, seem to lack the willingness to promote ‘old-fashioned’ and mundane ‘book-learning’ themselves. British politicians must learn to value books.

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