The right hand giveth, the left hand taketh away


Reposting my guest blog from The Periscope Post
According to CILIP, the professional body of our country’s librarians, one in six adults in the UK are functionally illiterate. This means they have literacy below that expected of the average 11 year old. We are not talking here about using reading as a leisure activity, as a source of pleasure, we’re talking about reading levels insufficient to be able to live, to work to full potential. To communicate.
Thinking long term, the sensible approach is to correct the problem early, by improving the literacy of primary school children. So, good news, at the end of 2011 the government awarded a grant of £110 million to be used to boost the attainment of the poorest children in the country.
Launched last week, one of the first announcements of the Education Endowment Foundation, who will administer this fund, is a piece of research that shows that, unsurprisingly, it’s our poorest children who are most likely to suffer such disadvantages: A staggering three out of five (60 percent) of children from the poorest sections of society lack basic literacy. Looking in more detail, the 165,000 pupils that the EEF will target are half as likely as their better-off peers to reach national standards at primary level (40 percent v. 81 percent), and one third as likely to reach national standards at secondary level (18 percent v. 61 percent). And, far from improving, the picture is getting worse. Three years ago, 45 percent of primary school children met these standards; the figure now stands at 40 percent. So it would seem like there’s no better time to be throwing some cash at the problem.
However, CILIP, many teachers, publishing professionals and various children’s authors argue convincingly that at the core of any child’s progress towards literacy should come a good relationship to books, at best, a love of reading. And where is any child from one of the poorest households described above going to find books? Free books, thousands of them? In their public or school library, that is where.
On the same day as the launch of the EEF, the government released its white paper on Open Public Services. Rather lost amidst the spectacle of the revelations concerning New International, the white paper, while according to many pundits a watered down version of Cameron’s initial plans, contains nevertheless the imperative for the control of public services, including libraries, to be outsourced to private companies, charities, community groups, you name it. And explicit in this process is the belief that struggling services should be allowed to fail: “The inevitability of small levels of failure is not an excuse for dismantling the system of open public services and returning to the old ways of top-down prescription.
Speak to any librarian and they will be more than happy to regale you with accounts of the reduction in funding and services to libraries not just since the coalition came to power, but over the past several years. How galling is it therefore, to find yourself in a service that can now be deemed as failing when funding has been repeatedly cut? For libraries, cuts means reduction in opening hours, reduction in book budget, and reduction in qualified staffing. According to the Voices for the Library campaign, it seems that over 10 percent of UK libraries are currently under threat, on top of those that have already seen closure.
Around the same time that the announcement of the EEF was made, we also learned that the Museums, Libraries and Archives (MLA) Council was to be abolished, and responsibility for library services to be handed to the Arts Council instead. And with a 25 percent reduction in their budget. As for libraries, the Arts Council announced last week that it intends to “speak up for libraries” in the Review of the Arts Council’s Strategic Framework. What the review doesn’t mention is that it will be doing this with an allocation for libraries slashed from £13 million to just £3 million.
Well, we have to save money somewhere, right? Just a shame it has to come at the cost of our children’s literacy. Does £3 million sound like a lot to you? In governmental terms, it sounds pretty tiny, especially if you compare it with something like Defence spending, the 2010 figure for which was over £43 billion. Then it sounds very tiny indeed.

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