Skip to main content

Books in Primary Schools

Volume 744: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2024

I will call Gill Furniss to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention in 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the availability of books in primary schools.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Elliott. I am delighted to have this time to talk about books, after raising this issue many times since entering Parliament and serving as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for libraries, information and knowledge.

If it were not for books I would not be standing here now. As a child, I started going to libraries and I have never stopped. In fact, I spent so much time in libraries that I ended up working in not just one but several over the years, from public libraries to academic libraries. I eventually earned my degree in information and library studies as a mature student. Books changed my life. I know that they have the potential to change the lives of millions of children, too.

As a former librarian, I have had the privilege of welcoming countless children through the doors of my local library, watching as they were whisked away to far-flung places, captivated by the magic of words. Children are whisked away to the land of Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontës and many others. This is a country whose identity is steeped in story, which is why I find it so shocking that there is no statutory requirement for schools to have any library facilities. It is no wonder that one in six adults in the country have very low levels of literacy, rising to one in three in some of the poorest communities. I fear that those statistics could be even bleaker in future.

Research conducted by the National Literacy Trust found that 56% of eight to 18-year-olds do not enjoy reading in their free time—the lowest level since surveys began in 2005. More than ever, books are fighting phones and video game consoles for relevance at home. Although those have their place, it is vital that we do everything in our power to help establish a love of reading during children’s formative years.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that libraries in primary schools are more important in areas of deprivation than in areas of affluence? It is essential that we listen to teachers in primary schools so that we know whether a child has not been spoken to and not been read to. If that is the case, they start at a terrible disadvantage, which can impact the rest of their lives. I support her debate and her ambitions 100%.

My hon. Friend is correct. It is crucial that people in poorer communities have access to public libraries.

I commend the hon. Lady for securing a debate on an issue of great importance. I know that the Minister is not responsible for Northern Ireland, but it is an issue that I can support the hon. Lady on, because in Northern Ireland we have the same problem. Does she agree that it is unacceptable that we have teachers perusing charity shops at the weekend to scrape together lending libraries for children whose parents cannot afford books? I agree with the research that shows that the amount of time that children spend reading independently is the best predictor of their overall literacy and language achievement. It helps children to build fluency and become self-reliant readers. This debate is so important. Well done to the hon. Lady.

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. I thank him for his intervention.

Last week, led by Sir Michael Morpurgo, the current and former children’s laureates united to call for legislation to make it a legal requirement for all schools in Britain to have libraries. Some may question that as a priority and deride it as something that would be nice to have, especially during these difficult economic times, but the benefits of reading are innumerable, and support across the country for such a policy is overwhelming.

Eighty-six per cent. of parents said that they would support making it a legal requirement for every primary school in the country to have a designated school library on site—and for good reason. Studies from the OECD show that reading for pleasure has a more profound impact on a child’s academic success than their socioeconomic background, while research by Farshore into the impacts of daily story time in primary schools found that 65% of boys and 76% of girls agree that story time makes them feel calmer. Those children went on to develop increased enthusiasm and motivation to read and, on average, their reading age improved at twice the expected rate over the period of the study.

The hon. Lady is making an important speech about an issue that is close to my heart. What she is saying is clearly demonstrated by an example in my constituency. Skerne Park Academy had a brand new library installed and started a reading lobster programme whereby children who said that they had nobody to read to were given a plush toy in the shape of a lobster so that they could have a reading partner. Reading has taken off there, and the children are doing really well.

I would like to follow up on the point raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). My love of books grew from visiting charity shops and second-hand bookshops, because their prices are accessible with pocket money. I do not think there is anything wrong with people visiting second-hand bookshops. Does the hon. Lady agree?

I am not quite sure about that. I think it is nice to have a new book, if possible. All children should be treated as equals and not have to show that they maybe do not have as much money as others. I will dwell on that point, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

Children are not the only ones to benefit from the impacts of daily story time: 91% of teachers said that they want to continue with daily story time, and 88% would like it to be mandated in the curriculum to help mitigate the guilt of coming away from the statutory curriculum requirements to spend time reading stories.

It is clear from multiple academic studies and reports that a love of books can help to form the bedrock for a better life. However, we are in the midst of a national reading crisis. That crisis is compounded by the fact that one in seven state primary schools in this country do not have a library. In the most disadvantaged communities, that number rises to one in four. We must do more to help get books into the hands of children. Ensuring that no child is left behind when it comes to reading is worth every penny; it is an investment in their future and our country’s future. However, there has been little growth in spending per pupil over the last 14 years. In fact, the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicted that the purchasing power of school budgets will be around 3% lower in 2024-25 than it was in 2010.

Schools have a great deal of autonomy when it comes to allocating their budget and, in recent years, they have been forced—as so many people across the country have—to make difficult financial decisions. When they are faced with buildings plagued by leaks, cold and reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, who can blame headteachers and governors for making extraordinarily difficult decisions about how they spend their budget? The lack of prioritisation of books means that two thirds of primary schools in the UK are without a designated library budget. When parents were polled, however, the library was one of the most important facilities that they wanted their children to have access to, second only to the playground.

We must remember that there is no guarantee that pupils who do not have access to books in school have access to books at home. A lack of provision in primary schools will simply exacerbate deep-rooted inequalities. We can provide the books that will help to create a generation of readers, but simply making books available does not guarantee that they will be read. Just as important as ensuring that we have fully stocked libraries in our primary schools is having the library staff. They are often overlooked, but they are vital for ensuring that the library is a welcoming and engaging space.

The hon. Lady may remember the Education Committee’s winter reports on the importance of early literacy from the time that I chaired the Committee. A key thing to come out of one of those reports was the programme of Sure Start centres for children. Is it about time we went back to that, so that every community has Sure Start centres and community centres again? They were champions for reading at school.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It would be good to see again the scope of what Labour provided in its last term.

Library staff encourage new readers and put programmes in place to ensure that reading is for pleasure, not just for study. However, a study by Great School Libraries found that only 41% of schools in the UK with a designated library area had library staff, down from 54% in 2019. We need to reverse the trends in childhood reading by ensuring that schools have well-stocked, well-staffed libraries.

We need to empower children by letting them choose what they want to read and ensuring that they have a wide variety of genres to choose from. We need to allow teachers the ability to ringfence time so that all primary school children can enjoy reading for pleasure. The gift of reading is one of the most beautiful things that we can impart to the next generation. We need to ensure that primary schools are properly equipped to do so.

It is a pleasure, once again, to see you in the Chair, Ms Elliott. It is nice to be in a Westminster Hall debate in which we all overwhelmingly agree. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) on securing the debate, and it is good to have others taking part. We have particularly benefited from hearing about the hon. Lady’s experience. She mentioned her early childhood experience as a user of libraries, and then her experiences throughout her life as an employee, a professional and an academic in the library service.

The hon. Lady said that we should improve children’s access to books. The Government wholeheartedly agree. Reading is the cornerstone of a brilliant education, an important part of growing up and adult life, and a core focus of this Government. She talked about being in competition with video games, consoles, phones and tablets. In the old times, we might have said that television was top of that list. There are good arguments and practical, useful roles for all those pieces of electronica, but there is nothing quite like a book for the physical, mental and emotional experience.

Does the Minister agree that one of the real problems we all have—I have it in Huddersfield; everyone has it in their constituency—is early stimulation? We see so many parents now pushing their small child in a pushchair, with their headphones on; they are not talking to the child. That early learning of the language, then reading at night and taking them to the library to get their books is crucial, is it not? That is why this debate is so important.

What can I say? The hon. Gentleman is ahead of me, and not for the first time. I do not think he has seen my handwritten notes, but if he had, he would know that they say, “It starts with being read to.” I remember previous debates we have had in this Chamber, particularly with our former colleague Baron Field, who was the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. For example, we used to talk about how those early experiences of being read to are so important, not only because of the reading experience, but because it is quite difficult to read to a very young child without holding them, and that early attachment is part of it.

We have a focus these days on the home learning environment, and some of the ways we can make everyday experiences—little moments—matter. Everyday experiences at a bus stop, on a train or in a supermarket are all part of that early literacy experience. Ideally there should be books at home, and I pay tribute to some of the organisations that have tried to make that more widespread, particularly in disadvantaged communities or for people on lower incomes.

Of course, there should also be books at school. School should be the great leveller. I have visited a lot of schools in my time. Like the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), I am a former member of the Education Committee. I am now and have been previously an Education Minister, and, like all of us, I am a Member of Parliament. In those three roles, I have visited a lot of schools. I am always struck by the prominence that schools give to books and reading. They are an important part of school life, and that is true for reading time in school and for children taking books home to enjoy them there.

All pupils deserve to be taught a knowledge-rich curriculum that promotes extensive reading both in and out of school, and reading is a principal way to acquire knowledge. The texts that our young people read play a big part in their wider development, too, by broadening their horizons and introducing new ideas and perspectives.

We have strengthened the national curriculum to focus on developing reading. To encourage the development of a lifelong love of literature, we are requiring pupils to study a range of books, poems and plays. The national curriculum also promotes reading for pleasure, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough rightly says, with evidence showing that that is more important for children’s educational development than even their parents’ level of education.

Charities such as BookTrust and the National Literacy Trust work tirelessly to raise the profile of reading for pleasure, and I thank them for their work. Of course, such organisations also do important work to raise awareness of the vital role of libraries, and we recognise the particular importance of libraries in increasing children’s access to books and promoting reading for pleasure, whether in school or in the community library. I am grateful to the organisations and authors who are currently shining a light on the difference that libraries can make, such as Julia Donaldson, Michael Morpurgo, Philip Pullman, Cressida Cowell and others.

I also recognise the important work undertaken by a range of organisations to promote the work of libraries to children, families and schools. For example, Schools Library Services assists schools with everything from developing whole libraries to book stocks and staff training, and the Reading Agency’s summer reading challenge, which I think many MPs also take part in directly or indirectly, motivates more than 700,000 children of all abilities to read for enjoyment over the summer holidays through their local library. It is for individual schools to decide how best to provide and maintain a library service for their pupils, including whether to employ a qualified librarian. Our reading framework provides guidance on that, including how best to engage children with the books that are available in school.

Public libraries have a strong offer to support children’s development as readers beyond school, not just through books and resources, but through events such as Rhymetimes. The experience of visiting a public library these days is quite different from when we were children: there is so much more going on, and it is much more inclusive and welcoming.

Does the Minister agree that cuts to public services mean that there is less access to public libraries? Many have closed, and community libraries, which adults in particular used to rely on, are no longer accessible.

I accept that there have been strains on public finances. The origins of those are well known: when the Government came in in 2010, there was a recurring annual public deficit of £155 billion, which is £5,500 for every household in the country. That meant that difficult decisions had to be made over time, but libraries remain an essential part of the fabric of our country. There are statutory requirements around libraries for upper-tier local authorities, and there were 2,892 static libraries in England at the last count. That does not include mobile libraries, of which there is not a similar count.

Talking of libraries gives me the perfect opportunity to highlight the fantastic work in Darlington, where our library was threatened with closure by the Labour-controlled local authority. The public were up in arms and they launched a campaign to save it. It is has been put in the hands of independent trustees, has just undergone a multimillion-pound revamp and is now at the heart of our community. Not every community has lost its library.

Well, I am pleased to hear of the good ending to that story. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work that he does locally and for his championing of these causes.

In 2022, my noble Friend Lord Parkinson, the Minister for Arts and Heritage, appointed my noble Friend Baroness Sanderson to review the public libraries sector to help inform future work. Her review of public libraries was published last week and makes a number of recommendations, which will inform the development by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport of the new Government libraries strategy for England.

For children to develop a love of books, we need to build a strong foundation in reading early on, and the Government have introduced a range of measures to support the effective teaching of reading right from the start.

The Minister is making some very good points, but this is not just about books, surely—it is about what those books are. I had the honour of knowing Benjamin Zephaniah, who opened the John Clare cottage, which I am chairman of, but we are struggling to get children to come out of school into places such as that to learn about poetry and to hear and read poetry. Reading poetry at school has diminished. Trips outside of school have diminished. This is holistic. Would the Minister not agree that many children in our country from more deprived backgrounds are missing out holistically, not just in terms of libraries?

I am not quite sure how the hon. Gentleman would or could know that. I certainly know that when I visit schools, I see and hear poetry being read, discussed and being written by children. I agree with him entirely that poetry is a really important part of our literature, and it is a really important thing for children to be exposed to. Like the study of music and learning a musical instrument or to sing, they can find ways to express themselves in ways they did not know existed. It provides ways to understand the world in ways they had not previously appreciated. I agree with him absolutely on the importance of poetry.

I was talking about the earliest years, and in particular the early years foundation stage. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we introduced landmark reforms in the early years foundation stage to improve early years outcomes for all children, particularly disadvantaged children, in those critical areas that build the foundations of later success, including, importantly, language development and reading. The reforms will ensure that children receive the best start and develop a love of reading from early on. We have invested in early language intervention and are supporting parents through the home learning environment campaign that I mentioned a moment ago, which has been backed by further investment.

To drive up the standard of literacy teaching in primary schools, we have followed the evidence and focused on ensuring high-quality systematic synthetic phonics teaching for every child. Since 2010, we have turbocharged the effective teaching of phonics by placing it at the heart of the curriculum and introducing the phonics screening check in 2012 to assess pupils at the end of year 1. We have incorporated phonics into the teachers’ standards, the baseline of expectation for teachers’ professional practice. We have placed a greater focus on phonics and the teaching of reading in Ofsted’s inspection framework and supported schools to choose good phonics programmes by publishing a list of schemes validated by the Department.

In 2018, we launched the English hubs programme, which is dedicated to improving the teaching of reading. The programme has so far supported over 1,600 schools intensively, with a particular focus on helping children making the slowest progress in reading, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It includes schools in Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, which are supported by two of the hubs, Learners First and Saint Wilfrid’s. The programme is having a measurable impact. Schools supported intensively as partner schools by English hubs outperform non-partner schools by around seven percentage points when comparing the change in year 1 phonics screening check results between just before the pandemic and 2022.

May I make a final intervention? The Minister’s colleague, the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), has rudely left him on his own.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) wants the Government to say that every school must have a library. Is the Minister for that, or is he against it? When is he going to introduce it? He has not got much time before the election.

Look: schools have books. I do not know what schools the hon. Member may have visited that do not have books on shelves, but schools have books. Sometimes libraries these days get called “learning resource centres” and all sorts of different things. Sometimes they are laid out in different ways and not necessarily laid out as a set-aside room, but schools have books. We trust schools, headteachers, boards of governors and trustees to know what is right for their school and how to provide best for their children. We want reading and books to be at the heart of that and, in my experience of primary schools in England, that is indeed what happens.

The hubs that I mentioned are about more than phonics. In 2021, we rolled out the “Transforming your school’s reading culture” programme, which was developed by hub schools and sector experts to support reading for pleasure. Reaching around 600 schools last year, English hubs is now into the third year of delivering that research-based continuing professional development programme, which trains teachers in schools across the country to ensure that every pupil develops a love of books.

We know that the hub programme cannot reach every single school, so to ensure that all teachers had clear guidance to support their teaching of reading, we published a reading framework. Updated last year, the framework offers non-statutory guidance on best practice in the teaching of reading from reception to year 9. It recognises the importance of encouraging a love of reading, including the vital importance of pupil choice and access to a wide variety of books. More than 90% of schools have taken our first reading framework published in 2021 and 66%, or two thirds, have made changes to their practice as a result.

Our clear focus on reading is making an impact. England came fourth out of the 43 countries that tested children of the same age in the 2021 progress in international reading literacy study, which is an assessment of the reading abilities of primary-age children across the world. I am grateful to all the primary school teachers, teaching assistants and everybody in our brilliant school system whose commitment to reading and to our children has made that possible. The strongest predictor of PIRLS performance was the year 1 phonics screening check mark, with higher marks predicting higher PIRLS scores.

The Department is committed to improving literacy for all pupils because we cannot knock down barriers for children if we do not teach them to read well. We are determined to drive progress further still and ensure that all children can benefit from high-quality teaching, giving them a solid base on which to build as they progress through school.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.