One of the greatest pleasures of Half Term is the opportunity to read for pleasure without the distraction of e-mail or the phone. I’ve really enjoying Madeleine Bunting’s excellent ‘Love of Country’, a cultural trek across the Hebrides. Reading for pleasure is something we tend to take for granted in independent schools, rich as we are in well-stocked libraries, trained librarians and most parents imbued with the importance of reading even if too many claim to be too busy to give time, and the example to their children, of losing themselves in a good book.
So it is a particularly distressing aspect of recent austerity cuts that there has been drastic reduction in local library provision and a haemorrhaging of expenditure in state schools on books. In 2016 public libraries took a £25m hit to their budgets in the year to March while the number of public libraries still open reached a 10-year low, with visitor numbers sliding by 15 million. Book budgets were also severely hit, taking an 8.4% fall over the period. For those with little opportunity to read at home the impact can be profound.
It is worth reminding ourselves of just how important reading is, particularly to those with marked social disadvantage. The Department for Education’s own research provides substantial evidence to suggest that cutting library resources in schools and local communities is incredibly short-sighted.
The DfE 2012 report on the importance of reading for pleasure quotes extensively from the work of the National Reading Trust. There is a growing body of evidence which illustrates the importance of reading for pleasure for both educational purposes as well as personal development. Study after study suggests that there is a positive relationship between reading frequency, reading enjoyment and attainment. This will come as no surprise to those working in FIDS schools. Perhaps more interesting to those teaching in maintained schools, particularly those with significant proportions of children on free school meals, is the OECD conclusion that reading for enjoyment may be more important for a child’s educational success than his or her family’s socio-economic status.
There is certainly no reason for complacency about literacy levels in the UK. The Reading Agency notes that statistics from 2014 show that one in five children in England cannot read well by the age of 11 and research conducted in 2012 found that 17% of 15 year-olds in England do not have a minimum level of proficiency in literacy. In fact analysis conducted in 2013 found that in England 16 to 24 year-olds have lower levels of literacy than young people in 21 out of 24 countries in the OECD. Literacy levels are higher in Japan, Estonia, Czech Republic and the USA. Depressingly England is the only OECD country out of the top 24 where 16-24 year olds have lower literacy skills than 55-65 year-olds. This is certainly no time to be making cuts in provision for library resources in state schools.
What can FIDS schools do to encourage reading in neighbouring state schools? Fundraising for book purchases and sharing library resources, including critically the support from a professional librarian, are all very important but one of the most effective measures is the provision of time from our own students. As the ISC/DfE Schools Together initiative shows many FIDS schools have devoted time to developing partnerships with reading as the focus. Over the past twenty years at KES we have developed a number of reading partnerships involving dozens of our Year 10, 11 and 12 students each week working with children in Years 4 and 5 in local primary schools.
This sort of partnership activity is unlikely to make great headlines. It isn’t glamorous, costs little, is relatively easy to organise and can take place almost anywhere in a school. But such links are amongst the most effective when supporting school improvement. Our own impact assessments show each year increased pupil interest in reading with staff noting consistently the novelty for many children of having a young adult reading with them regularly, talking about the books they liked when 8 or 9 and, through this, modelling habits which have improved the enjoyment of reading, a point supported by the DfE report.
The best partnerships are those where there is a strong mutual interest to continue with the venture. In our school the driver is the Duke of Edinburgh Award. For students chasing valuable activities to log for community service, reading partnerships work really well and they sign up in droves. And once started, every year most report on the positive impact reading with a young child has on their own well-being as well as their enjoyment of books. Friendships develop and many continue visiting ‘their’ schools long after that Duke of Edinburgh badge has been awarded and lost. FIDS schools literary partnerships with local schools may be a drop in the ocean but show what every school with willing students can do to help their local primary schools.
As the Reading Agency notes, low levels of literacy cost the UK an estimated £81 billion a year in lost earnings and increased welfare spending. The research is convincing; average reading age of the UK population is just 9 years. Reading for pleasure is more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education and is a more powerful factor in life achievement than socio-economic background. There is a difference in reading performance equivalent to just over a year’s schooling between young people who never read for enjoyment and those who read for up to 30 minutes per day. Children who read books often at age 10 and more than once a week at age 16 gain higher results in maths, vocabulary and spelling tests at age 16 than those who read less regularly.
With World Book Day coming up soon on 1 March, Damian Hinds, the new Secretary of State for Education, might pause and reflect on what cuts to school and local authority library provision really mean. And he might also consider what FIDS schools already do to support children in their local communities read more.
Head, King Edward VI School, Southampton