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31 July 2018updated 23 Jul 2021 11:46am

The Education Secretary calls the literacy gap a “scandal” – so why are libraries closing?

Damian Hinds is horrified some children starting school still can’t read. Perhaps he should stop, erm, limiting their access to books then?

By Anoosh Chakelian

School’s out for summer, and the Education Secretary’s out having thoughts about schooling.

In his first major speech in the role, Damian Hinds announced he wants to halve the number of children unable to read or speak full sentences when starting school.

He calls it a “persistent scandal” that children still lack these skills – with the Department for Education finding 28 per cent of four- and five-year-olds won’t meet expected standards by the end of their reception year (this proportion goes up in deprived areas).

“When you’re behind from the start you rarely catch up”, said Hinds, speaking at the Resolution Foundation think tank in London. “Your peers don’t wait. The gap just widens. This has a huge impact on social mobility.”

All true. So what are Hinds’ solutions?

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First, he wants to address parents. He calls years zero to three “the point of greatest leverage for social mobility” – and “primarily that means what happens at home”.

So he wants to delve into the “home learning environment”, which he sees as the “last taboo in education policy”.

Hinds urges parents to help their children more at home with early language development. “The truth is the vast majority of these children’s time is at home,” he said.

To do this he wants to hold an “education summit” of businesses, charities, tech companies and the media to come up with guidelines for parents helping their children with reading and learning new words – as well as guidance on screen time and digital technology.

Oh, and he’s also making a £30m fund available for “leading schools” to bid for, with “innovative” ideas of how to create nursery places that will “close the disadvantage gap”.

A rule of thumb with government announcements – or indeed, any comment on a difficult policy area made by a minister – is to be suspicious of these general tropes: “I blame the parents”, “but SOCIAL MEDIA!!”, and money “made available”.

Hinds hits all three with his speech.

The latter funding isn’t in fact new – it’s part of a previous £50m commitment to create more places for disadvantaged children in school nurseries. That £30m mentioned today is for schools to bid for, rather than going to local authorities to use as they see fit.

And much like the recent knife crime coverage focusing on social media, blaming technology is basically blaming society – there are plenty of children looking at screens all day every day who can read and communicate perfectly fine, it’s just some who are affected. When something is going wrong in society, social media is usually more of a symptom than a cause.

But it’s the appeal to parents that’s the biggest distraction. Focusing on what goes on in the home, or the “home learning environment”, is an easy way to dodge improving anything outside the home – ie. public services.

Since 2010, 478 libraries have been closed throughout the UK. In the same period, more than 500 Sure Start centres – which provide early years support for families – have closed.

According to a survey last year, 82 per cent of parents say the public library helps children get ready for school, and 85 per cent say it helps children with speaking and listening skills.

Campaigners warn that the decline of libraries is creating a social mobility time-bomb. Indeed, 9.4 per cent of children aged 8-18 in the UK do not have a single book of their own.  

For the New Statesman’s “Crumbling Britain” series, I’ve heard from parents around the country about the effects of vanishing children’s services and library services on their family life – and their concerns for their children’s future.

“I look at the cost of books – what if my daughter wanted to do something further in education? I couldn’t afford to get a book a week each for my children. That’s going to affect their learning,” said Carolyn, a mother of two I spoke to in Northamptonshire, which is losing 21 of its 36 libraries.

“Why deny them that chance to better themselves?” she asked. “Without books, they’d be denied that chance – to find a cure for something, for example. It’d be denying the world that chance. People aren’t thinking of the future.”

Inequality between the most vulnerable children and their peers at Key Stage One has been rising for nearly a decade. Since 2010, the attainment gap between children in care and others has risen over a quarter in maths, from 23 per cent to 25 per cent in reading, and from 27 per cent to 29 per cent in writing.

So the situation’s getting worse – meaning the proportion of people leaving care who aren’t in education, employment or training (NEETs) has increased from 32 per cent in 2010 to 40 per cent last year.

Not surprising, then, that Hinds has noticed this is a “scandal” – but amazing he hasn’t realised the very government he’s part of is behind it.

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