The gift of reading is one of the most beautiful things we can impart on the next generation, now, we need to ensure that schools are properly equipped to do so

Before entering the House of Commons, I worked in several libraries across Sheffield, and have seen first-hand vital work they do in helping to transform lives. Yet hundreds have been forced to close down over the last 14 years and the ones that has survived are starved of resources by central Government.

This chronic underfunding means school libraries are more important than ever before. Many of us will have fond memories of our primary school libraries and would have naturally assumed it was a statutory duty to provide a library service in schools. After all, local authorities are legally obligated to provide “a comprehensive and efficient library service”, as per section 7(1) of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 and other government funded bodies such as prisons must ensure that each prison has a library that stocks legal aid books alongside promoting reading for pleasure; yet there is no legal obligation for schools to provide a library service at all.

This means that 1 in 7 state primary schools in this country does not have a library, and there are stark regional disparities. In the south-east of England, only 1 in 20 schools will be without a library, yet in the most disadvantaged communities this rises to 1 in 4, leaving over 750,000 children missing out on access to books in primary school; a truly horrifying situation, and one that cannot continue.

Compounding an already dire situation, the children who don’t have access to books in their primary schools are also the ones most likely to not own a single book at home. The lack of provision in primary schools will simply exacerbate deep-rooted inequalities in our society.

It is no wonder that 56% of eight-to eighteen-year-olds say they do not enjoy reading in their free time, the lowest level since surveys began in 2005. I fear that without direct intervention from the government to ensure children have access to books, our children will inevitably be less literate.

To raise awareness of this issue, I secured a Westminster Hall debate last week calling for legislation to make it a legal requirement that all schools in Britain have libraries. During such bleak economic times, some may deride this ambition as a luxury, rather than a necessity, but the benefits of reading are innumerable and support across the country for such a policy is overwhelming. Providing funding to every school would be an investment in our children’s future, and in our country’s future.

Polling conducted by Public First for Libraries for Primaries found that 86% of parents said they would support making it a legal requirement for every primary school in the country to have a designated school library on site. It is no wonder that parents are so supportive of such a policy when studies from the OECD show that reading for pleasure has a more profound impact on a child’s academic success than their socio-economic background; while research from Farshore Books into the impact of daily story time in primary schools found that 65% of boys and 76% of girls agreed that story time made them feel calm.

We can provide the books to help create a generation of readers, but simply making books available does not guarantee that books are read. Just as important as ensuring we have fully stocked libraries in our schools are library staff themselves, who play a vital in ensuring the library is a welcoming and engaging space for all, helping new readers to explore new worlds and expand their interests. Yet 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. Reversing this trend is of the utmost importance.

Schools have a great deal of autonomy when it comes to allocating their budget, and they have been forced into making extremely difficult financial decisions in recent years, and sadly, the library is an easy target for budget cuts.

Providing ringfenced funding for the express purpose of creating well-stocked, well-staffed libraries should be at the heart of government thinking when it comes to education. The gift of reading is one of the most beautiful things we can impart on the next generation, now, we need to ensure that schools are properly equipped to do so.