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Child Literacy: Disadvantaged Areas

Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 22 February 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered improving children’s literacy in disadvantaged areas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I rise to argue that we need to consider the access that every child in the UK has to a school library or even a book, as that has consequences for their literacy attainment.

I am sure we all agree that reading is at the very basis of our daily existence, from reading delayed train notices to the daily news. It would seem almost impossible to function in our society today without that necessary skill. That is why I am sure hon. Members will be as shocked as I am to learn that three quarters of a million school-aged children in the UK still do not have access to a school library. That is quite frankly an alarming statistic, given that reading makes up a fundamental part of how we operate in our everyday lives and of how future generations will continue to operate.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised libraries. Last year, staff and pupils at Woodchurch Church of England Primary School in my constituency were supported by the children’s laureate and the BookTrust to transform an unoccupied area of corridor into a fantastic reading space with mushroom cushions, dragon wall art and hundreds of books. The school has embedded reading for pleasure into its culture, and it reports that that has been a key part of improving outcomes for some of its most vulnerable children—particularly those with special educational needs. It also told me that children now see reading not only as a skill for learning but as something that helps their mental health. Some have described the library as a haven and a safe space. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is important to develop a culture of reading for pleasure at a very early age to improve children’s educational attainment and to ensure that they feel part of wider society.

The hon. Lady summed up in a matter of minutes what I am planning to say in half an hour. That is a summary version of my speech. I could not agree more.

The focus must clearly be on how primary school libraries help improve children’s literacy in disadvantaged areas. They are indisputably a vital part of the education system. Numerous studies have shown a clear correlation between having a good school library and not only academic achievement and literacy performance but a child’s attitude to learning as a whole. Improving children’s literacy clearly relies on the availability of school libraries and access to books. Sadly, the reality is that availability and access to books for children relies on efficiently allocated funding.

The Government’s recent levelling-up White Paper indicated that by 2030, the number of primary school children achieving the expected standard in reading, writing and maths will have significantly increased. In England, that will mean that 90% of children will have achieved the expected standard, and the percentage of children meeting the expected standard in the worst-performing areas will have increased by over a third. Without efficiently allocated funding, that mission seems unlikely to reach its full potential.

Early childhood, from birth to the age of five, is instrumental both in itself and as a foundation stage for language and literacy development, which is why funding channelled to early-years education is essential. The Prime Minister—then Chancellor of the Exchequer—said in his autumn 2021 Budget speech:

“The evidence is compelling that the first 1,001 days of a child’s life are the most important.”—[Official Report, 27 October 2021; Vol. 702, c. 277.]

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. In the short time he has been here, he has shown himself to be an assiduous Member, and he is very good at bringing things forward that we are happy to respond to. I endorse what he said. I am a grandfather with six grandchildren, and it gives me a wee bit of insight into their insatiable desire for books. They want to learn and know about the world. They show an eagerness that I did not see in my boys—perhaps it was because I was not there enough for them. I commend the hon. Gentleman for what he is saying. It is really important for literacy to be part of the primary school curriculum. By making books available, we are building adults for tomorrow. Some of the children at those schools might even grow up to be Members of this House!

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having six grandchildren. I have only two children, Persephone and Charlotte, but one day I hope to have six grandchildren or more. I hope that they, too, will have a love of books and learning.

At present, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are already behind their more affluent peers when they enter primary school. That is extremely concerning, especially coupled with the 40% development gap between disadvantaged 16-year-olds and their peers that emerges by the age of five. The primary school rate is currently set at £1,385 per pupil, whereas the early years rate is only £342. That deeply affects the access to books that children have in their early years, as well as their chances of developing strong literacy skills. Ultimately, the funding currently allocated to early years does not reflect the evidence on child development or sectoral need.

My constituency of Rother Valley is by no means the worst-performing area in the UK in literacy and education rates—it has some great schools—but its literacy scores are certainly below the national average. On a recent visit to Dinnington Community Primary School, I was joined by Cressida Cowell—a former children’s laureate and the author of the hugely popular series “How to Train Your Dragon”—to discuss children’s literacy. A vast proportion of our conversation concentrated on the inequality in children’s access to school libraries. Yorkshire and the Humber holds the unenviable place of being the geographical area of the UK with statistically the lowest children’s book ownership: some 9.2% of children do not own a single book. It is particularly concerning that two in every five children in England are eligible for free school meals, but many of them do not have a dedicated library in their school.

I make it clear that prioritising the availability of books in primary schools should not be confined to disadvantaged areas. While there are apparent regional differences in library provision between the north and south of England, it should be a priority across the whole UK. It has been estimated that if all children were to read for pleasure, the economic impact of their increased skills, and therefore increased potential, would raise the UK’s GDP by £4.6 billion a year within just one generation. National Libraries Week encapsulates this notion with its most recent theme, “Never Stop Learning”, which seeks to draw attention to the valuable role that libraries play in supporting not only primary school children, but lifelong learning. If we prioritise children’s literacy, the whole UK will reap the benefits in every aspect of our society, most notably economically and socially.

A school library is a driving force for so many opportunities for children. It is essential for it to possess a wide range of books, from novels to graphic novels and even comics. It also needs to be an inviting place—we need to move away from the idea of a small, dark, gloomy room. It is not simply that if children have access to a primary school library, they will have a higher probability of attaining good literacy levels. It goes beyond access; it is also about quality, engagement with children, and the books on offer. Children need to be drawn to a library and to what it has to offer.

School libraries and efficiently allocated funding are critical, but I accept that they are not the only things that matter. Primary schools up and down the country are doing incredible work to boost literacy levels, but there is only so much that they can do, especially as much of what influences children and young people is beyond the school gates: it happens at home and in their day-to-day interactions with their local community and environment. That is why it is necessary for the private sector to play an active role in helping to boost literacy levels. Through their products, services and charitable initiatives, businesses have channels to influence children and young people that schools simply do not have.

A prime example of this multi-partner approach is the National Literacy Trust’s work with McDonald’s since 2013 as part of the McDonald’s Happy Readers campaign. Some 61 million books have been distributed as a result of that initiative, which is based on McDonald’s swapping toys and happy meals for books and including a book offer on the box. That is an undeniably strong example of the outcomes that can be achieved through a multi-sector, multi-partner approach.

The rewards of access to books are not confined to academic and economic achievement. Reading is a vital aid to a child’s mental wellbeing. There are proven, identified links between children’s literacy engagement and their wellbeing. Children who are most engaged with literacy are three times more likely to have higher levels of good mental wellbeing than children who are least engaged. I believe that engagement with literacy relies heavily on libraries being a place to which children have access during their lunch breaks—a “third space” away from the classroom.

For me, a library is a wonderful form of escapism—indeed, just like the best books. As a result of my strong belief that the availability of primary school libraries, as well as books at home, is instrumental to improving literacy attainment, I have canvassed many schools across Rother Valley over the past couple of months to assess their reading facilities. I was delighted with the level of engagement. It was encouraging and confirmed to me that, with the right support, schools are receptive to prioritising reading.

Initiatives such as Michael Morpurgo Month—a competition where schools enter to win a live virtual event with the author—are incredible ways to engage children, even those who do not consider themselves natural readers. I am extremely proud that some primary schools in Rother Valley will enter this competition, and I urge other Members to encourage their primary schools to start thinking outside the box and to engage with similar initiatives that bring reading to life for children.

Ultimately, we need to challenge the outdated notion that reading is boring or irrelevant. My strong belief in prioritising children’s literacy prompted me to meet the National Literacy Trust and the World Book Day charity. I was incredibly pleased to learn of the invaluable work they do to raise awareness not only of the significant role libraries play in helping children reach their full potential, but of the benefits that reading for pleasure can bring. The annual World Book Day, which takes place on Thursday 2 March, is dedicated to reading for pleasure. It witnesses 15 million book tokens being distributed each year, with an impressive 90% of schools participating throughout the UK. I strongly encourage Members to attend the parliamentary event on 28 February to show their support for World Book Day.

It can be easy to think that World Book Day is an isolated day that comes round once a year, but the charity’s work challenging the notion that reading is outdated continues throughout the year. It releases book club content, reading recommendation lists and video stories with the aim of helping parents engage their children in reading beyond the classroom. A distinct aspect of the charity is how it introduces children to comic books and graphic novels for those who perceive reading as not for them. I was surprised to learn that research from 2015 found that reading a Dickens novel and a manga comic book have exactly the same impact on a child’s development because of the way they engage the brain with pictures and tests to open up their imagination in a new way. I am in the process of becoming a World Book Day champion, and I urge all other Members to do what they can and to consider joining as well for the good of the children.

The National Literacy Trust works to address low literacy rates in disadvantaged areas by combining a range of evidence-based programmes with community-driven, place-based solutions. Across the UK, the trust has 20 literacy hubs in areas with the highest levels of deprivation and literacy vulnerability. The hub’s approach is characterised by a mix of strategic local partnerships, community campaigns and targeted programmatic activity in earlier settings than schools, run by local teams that have strong existing networks in these communities. Literacy hubs are leading the way in breaking cycles of intergenerational low literacy by engaging the entire community, which encapsulates the innovation we all should be striving for.

In October 2021, the National Literacy Trust, together with Penguin Random House, launched the Primary School Library Alliance, which strives to address the chronic lack of investment in primary school libraries and to change the narrative where one in seven primary schools in England does not have a library by transforming library spaces. As of 2022, the alliance has worked with more than 330 schools, and its mission is to help transform 1,000 primary school libraries by 2025 by giving them the books, training and support they require to make that possible. The fact that the programme is worth over £5 million and is supported by many children’s authors, publishers and private companies proves the extent of support on prioritising improving children’s literacy skills.

One aspect of its work that should be noticed is its intense focus on engaging parents to encourage their children to read, such as in early morning reading groups for parents, by having books in the house and the school library being open in holidays. These are all innovative ways to encourage parents to see the value in reading and for children to view the library as their third space outside the classroom. The success of the scheme speaks for itself, and I am sure Members will join me in advocating for the expansion of such a wonderful scheme, which is pioneering in creating not just a library space, but a reading community.

Having argued the merits and value of primary school libraries, what can be done to ensure their secured future in our educational institutions? We all want to reach the end point of a statutory requirement for all primary schools to have an adequately sized and well-resourced library. That would greatly complement the White Paper published in March 2022 and help achieve its aim of improving literacy rates across the UK. However, it is recognised throughout the sector that we must transition towards that through the support of public-private schemes, such as the Primary School Library Alliance.

Secondly, the Government must recognise the importance of early years for language development. That needs to be reflected in the funding invested in resources, which should result in early years receiving the same rate as the primary school rate. As a consequence, the early years rate should equate to the £1,385 per pupil received by primary school children.

Thirdly, the Government should ensure that the allocation of funding across the UK is weighted towards disadvantaged areas to target the pupils who are persistently disadvantaged. One of the ways the Government can do that is by taking a multi-sector, multi-partner approach to activate private sector investment. In practice, that requires the Government to support initiatives such as the Primary School Library Alliance, to try to further their goal of reaching 1,000 schools by 2025. That support would prevent the statutory requirement from being solely tokenistic, since it strives to engage pupils, teachers and parents. The Government need to form partnerships to create a readers’ community throughout the whole United Kingdom.

Ultimately, I propose that we must ensure every child in Rother Valley and across the whole of the UK has access to an adequately sized and well-resourced library at their local school to achieve high levels of literacy attainment. We must do more to help every child fulfil their potential—that was a pledge of the school White Paper. I firmly believe that introducing the statutory requirement for all primary schools would be a force for change to make that truly possible, and improve not only the quality of our children’s access to books, but the rest of their lives. Children are the future generation, so it is crucial that we ensure they are provided with adequate resources to excel fully and change the narrative of 25% of 11-year-olds leaving primary school being unable to read at the expected level. That figure rises to 40% among disadvantaged children.

Reading is a simple, cost-effective and powerful tool to unlock prosperity in Rother Valley and across the UK, and it is our duty to make the United Kingdom the world’s foremost reading community. I hope that my sponsoring today’s debate can be in the first chapter of the very exciting story of children’s literacy.

Order. Sir John, I have not been notified that you wish to speak in the debate. I have not been told by the Member that he has your permission, nor have I heard it from the Minister.

Unusual is my middle name, Mr Bone. I am immensely grateful for your indulgence. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) spoke about the debate earlier this afternoon; I had not expected to be here, but when he told me the subject I felt that I ought to be.

The way in which we store, exchange and use information has changed immeasurably in my lifetime. The internet has done good but, of course, much more harm—not least because, paradoxically, it makes finding information more straightforward but simultaneously makes serendipity less likely, as the pursuit of speed replaces the journey of discovery. Search engines mean that we are directed to exactly what we need when we need it, rather than the business of finding out things that one did not expect, which might stimulate all kinds of thoughts, ideas and adventures, and that is just what a library does. When someone enters a library or a bookshop, they do not always necessarily know what they will come out with; in fact, they very often come out with much that they did not expect to.

Libraries play a critical part in exciting and enthralling and seeding dreams and memories. School libraries are particularly important in that regard, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley made clear. T. S. Eliot said, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?” If he was alive now, he would say, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in data?”, as we drown in a sea of data. Libraries—whether they be public libraries, such as the one I helped to save in the Deepings, my constituency, which is now flourishing, or school libraries in the schools in my constituency—are places where children, often for the first time, encounter the canon of English literature. No childhood—no rich and enjoyable childhood —is complete, surely, without knowing C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, dear Enid Blyton or Tolkien, so I congratulate my hon. Friend on this motion. Every child in every school should—

Thank you, Mr Bone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) on his very thoughtful speech. He will know that I am standing in for the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb).

My hon. Friend does incredible work as an active champion of literacy in Rother Valley. He is right to draw attention to fantastic initiatives, such as Michael Morpurgo Month, a competition to highlight the importance of literacy for all children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In my own constituency of Harlow, I run a Christmas card competition. I met the winners recently, and I always give them books by Tolkien, who was just mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes).

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley says that if we prioritise children’s literacy, the whole of the UK will reap the benefits. The Government wholeheartedly agrees with him. That is why we have strengthened the national curriculum to focus on developing reading and writing ability, and put phonics at its heart. There is sound evidence that systematic phonics is a highly effective method for teaching early reading, and I pay real tribute to the Minister for Schools, who has done so much work to drive up standards and drive so much change over the past few years.

The Minister is talking about phonics. He might come on to this, but in a primary school in my constituency, which I mentioned earlier, I have witnessed a huge drive to encourage reading for pleasure. The children are not being tested; nobody is monitoring them. We get these lovely pictures of children sitting around, sharing books and reading books on their own, and it has really ignited their interest. Would the Minister agree that embedding reading for pleasure in the curriculum is massively important?

The hon. Member is absolutely right and is showing, in essence, how libraries can play an important role in reading for pleasure and encouraging children to read. There is no doubt that reading for pleasure brings a range of benefits—it is something that I did as a child—and that is supported by the Department.

In 2018, the Department launched the English Hubs programme. So far, the programme has intensively supported 1,600 schools, with those schools having an above-average proportion of pupils on free school meals. That includes schools in Rother Valley, which are supported by two English Hubs—Learners First and St Wilfrid’s, which have intensively supported more than 100 schools.

The success of our increased emphasis on phonics and early reading has delivered results on an international scale. England achieved its highest ever score in reading in 2016, moving from joint 10th to joint eighth in the progress in international reading literacy study rankings. That improvement is largely attributable to increases in the average performance of lower-performing pupils and of boys. It follows a greater focus on reading in the primary curriculum, and a particular focus on phonics.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley has highlighted the importance of reading for pleasure—as has the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) —and of enabling access to books. My hon. Friend talked about World Book Day and the National Literacy Trust working tirelessly to raise the profile of reading for pleasure in our country. The National Literacy Trust’s partnership with McDonald’s is a brilliant example, as he highlighted, and I am sure that he would not mind me saying that I’m lovin’ it.

The Government believe that all pupils deserve to be taught a knowledge-rich curriculum that promotes extensive reading, both in and out of school. The national curriculum promotes reading for pleasure, with evidence showing that that is more important for children’s educational development than their parents’ level of education. Libraries are absolutely an important way of promoting reading for pleasure. I spent my childhood in libraries, so I completely get where my hon. Friend is coming from.

I had better not, because I have not got much time; I hope the hon. Lady does not mind.

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. Head teachers often recognise the important role that school libraries can play in improving literacy, by ensuring that proper library facilities are provided. I absolutely agree that school libraries are important, but they are not the only thing that matters. We recognise the vital importance of the teaching profession and are committed to offering the very best professional development. The national professional qualification for leading literacy was launched in October last year to train existing teachers and leaders to become literacy experts and to drive up standards of literacy teaching.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley is absolutely correct when he talks about the importance of early intervention. The early years foundation stage reforms aim to improve outcomes at age five, especially in early language and literacy, and especially for disadvantaged children.

On funding, my hon. Friend will know that we have spent more than £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on our early education entitlements to support families with the cost of childcare. At spending review 2021 we announced three years of additional funding increases, which come to £510 million in total over the funding provided in 2021-22, for local authorities to increase hourly rates paid to childcare providers. He will also know that the early years pupil premium will be up to £353 per year for each eligible child, an increase from the £342 made available this year. We have made £180 million available to improve early language and train early years staff.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the pandemic has had a wide-reaching and uneven effect on attainment, including in his constituency. The fall in attainment in 2022 was anticipated, sadly, and does not diminish the hard work of teachers, support staff and pupils in challenging circumstances. He will also know about the £5 billion recovery plan, with the recovery premium and the national tutoring programme, to try and support catch-up.

The Department is sending almost £2.9 billion of pupil premium funding to schools in 2023-24 to improve the educational outcomes of disadvantaged pupils. In my own area, some schools have used that for library facilities; some schools in Harlow have bought black and white Kindles to help pupils to read. We constantly review and assess the effectiveness of our approach to targeting funding towards deprivation.

Given that I am the Skills Minister, I hope that my hon. Friend does not mind if I mention that we have also improved literacy and English skills. Disadvantaged students are significantly more likely to leave school without a GCSE grade 4 or higher in English, so our resits policy ensures that colleges, sixth forms and training providers support those young people towards achievement. From the introduction of the resits policy in 2014 to 2019, there was an 80% increase in the numbers of students achieving level 2 in English by 19 who did not have it at 16. We have also hugely improved the number of apprentices achieving functional skills.

I want to reflect on the recent changes made to some of Roald Dahl’s work. I support the Prime Minister’s sentiment that

“we shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words.”

My hon. Friend talks about libraries. I hope very much that people choose to read the original Roald Dahl texts in the school libraries that my hon. Friend is promoting. There are many Roald Dahl books.

The Department is committed to improving literacy levels for all pupils, because reading and writing are an essential foundation for success in all subjects. We are determined to drive progress further still and ensure that all children can benefit from high-quality teaching, giving all children a solid base upon which to build as they progress through school.

Question put and agreed to.