Literacy standards are falling, so why are we closing libraries?

Children who use the library are twice as likely to be above average readers. (Image c/o rossbelmont on Flickr.)

Today’s report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) makes for depressing reading about the state of numeracy and literacy in England (Scotland and Wales weren’t subject to the study).  The report was based on the first skills survey conducted by the OECD and paints a pretty bleak picture with England far behind nations such as Japan, Korea and Germany.

According to the report:

… in England and the United States, the literacy and numeracy skills of young people entering the labour market are no better than those leaving for retirement. England ranks among the top three countries surveyed for literacy skills among the 55-65 year-olds. But the country is in the bottom three when it comes to such skills among 16-25 year-olds. American 55-65 year-olds perform around the average, but young Americans rank the lowest among their peers in the 24 countries surveyed.

There is clearly a substantial problem that requires urgent attention if the levels of literacy are such that England lies in the bottom three of all countries surveyed. We fear, however, that improvement in this area is a long way off.

Libraries, both school and public, can play a vital and important role in addressing the standard of literacy amongst the young. Libraries play a key supportive role in many children’s development, but this supportive role is becoming increasingly difficult as funding is cut and libraries are closed. This is not to say that libraries are the magic bullet to cure low levels of literacy, but it is undeniable that they can play a key role. Well stocked libraries staffed by knowledgeable professionals who are able to support and understand the educational needs of children can play a key role in ensuring high levels of literacy amongst the next generation. As research by the National Literacy Trust has previously shown, children who use the library are twice as likely to be above average readers. If we want to improve literacy levels, libraries must be central in the drive to achieve this.

Of course, the central problem at the heart of government is a lack of joined up thinking.  Lack of joined up thinking because if the Department of Education and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport worked together, libraries could be an integral part of the drive to improve literacy. The positive impact they have on improving children’s literacy has already been well established, we need to build on it and ensure they play a key role, alongside schools, in raising standards.

But first both Gove and Vaizey need to take action to prevent the destruction of our library services. School libraries should be made statutory immediately and must be staffed by a trained librarian. A trained school librarian can do so much to improve literacy skills and support the drive to raise standards across the school. Likewise, the slow, steady destruction of public libraries should be halted, again immediately. Ed Vaizey has it within his power to prevent any further closures and ensure that local authorities meet their obligations. But not only should closures be prevented, the deprofessionalisation of library services should also be halted. It is not good enough to allow local authorities blackmail local residents into running their local library in their spare time. Our children deserve better than that. They deserve knowledgeable professionals who can support them and help them to develop their literacy skills. They deserve the support and guidance that previous generations expected of their library service.

Of course, it may well be that neither Gove or Vaizey are serious about addressing levels of literacy in this country. They may well be content to allow a generation to have lower literacy and numeracy levels than the one that preceded it. We, however, should not tolerate it.  Libraries have played a key and important role in raising literacy standards over the decades.  The mechanisms are available to address our poor literacy standards, the question is, will Gove and Vaizey choose to use them, or will they believe that poor literacy standards are a sacrifice worth making on the altar of austerity?

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