Children’s Laureate warns of ‘vast inequality’ in primary school libraries

Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell
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Children’s laureate Cressida Cowell has warned of “vast inequality” in the provision of primary school libraries, and said the gap in educational achievement and opportunity “remains stark, worrying and urgent” as she called for Boris Johnson to ring-fence a yearly investment of £100m.


The author, known for books including the How To Train Your Dragon series, has written an open letter signed by former laureates including Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake, saying:

It is heart-breaking to see just how unevenly this fundamental opportunity is distributed.

The letter said the lack of access to libraries means millions of children – particularly those from the poorest communities worst-hit by the pandemic and whose parents cannot afford books at home – are missing out on the opportunity to become a reader for pleasure.

She said this severely inhibits opportunities for educational development, health and well-being, personal growth, and future prospects.

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Cowell with the duchess of Cornwall (David Rose/Daily Telegraph)

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Reverse the decline

Cowell has called on the government to “help reverse the spiralling inequality in education” by putting primary school libraries “at the heart of our long term response to the pandemic” through the ring-fenced yearly investment. She added:

The devastating impact on the most disadvantaged school children is not going to be remedied with a quick fix.

We must properly invest in their future at this pivotal moment.

Cowell cited the PE and sport premium, introduced in 2013, which is allocated to primary schools and ring-fenced to improve physical education. She said:

Surely the opportunity to become a reader for pleasure is just as important? How is it fair that some children are being given this immeasurable advantage in life, but stark book poverty means many more are denied this same chance to change their future?

I have visited primary schools across the country over my 20-year career as a children’s author-illustrator and it is heart-breaking to see just how unevenly this fundamental opportunity is distributed.

So often the children who need books the most are in schools that cannot provide them with even an adequate school library, let alone a good one.

There is vast inequality in the current primary school library provision.

In 2019, the Great School Libraries report found a lack of space, resource and expertise, and that libraries are deteriorating.

Whilst every prison has a statutory library, one in eight primary schools has no library space at at all.

She added:

I know that the Government is looking for practical solutions for the problems caused by the pandemic: placing primary school libraries at the heart of our long-term education recovery would change lives, and level up this country.

By supporting primary school libraries with a yearly, dedicated boost of £100 million, we can help children whose future now lies in the balance.

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Quentin Blake has signed the letter (Jonathan Brady/PA)

The power of books

Cowell has also announced plans for a new initiative – Life-changing Libraries – which aims to boost the impact a well-resourced primary school library can have on a child.

Over the course of a year, six primary schools across England – all of which have at least 25% of pupils eligible for free school meals – will be helped to develop a “reading for pleasure” culture.

A bespoke, dedicated library space will be created by BookTrust in each of the six primary schools and stocked with a specially-curated book list of approximately 1,000 titles. Staff will be provided with professional training and mentoring from specialists at the School Library Association, as part of a two year-membership.

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