Children's Access to Books — [Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:29 am on 6 June 2023.

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[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley 2:30, 6 June 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of improving children’s access to books.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. It is undeniable that books should form part of our children’s holistic education curriculum. What is less clear, but no less true, is the impact of literacy and reading rates on their personal life, their education and their future career. There is no better skill to give our children than a love of reading, and there is no easier way to do so than by ensuring good access to books.

Members will be aware that I recently secured a similar debate that sought to promote school libraries, which are an excellent way to improve children’s access to books. To capture the benefit of literacy that reading gives to children, we must have a comprehensive strategy that includes making sure that books are accessible to every child at every stage of their education.

Books play a vital role in our cultural heritage. It might seem trivial to an outsider, but it seems particularly British to me that there was a national outcry against retrospectively modernising Roald Dahl’s children’s classics. These stories and books bring home the respect and love we have for our books of all varieties.

Books not only have value as a cross-generational medium or because of nostalgic personal value, but because we all know, deep down, that reading is good. It is a simple fact that reading for pleasure bestows unlimited returns for a child’s education, their future vocation and their life in general. The best way to give our children the success and opportunities that come with reading is to cut away the barriers that obstruct them from accessing books.

As those present at my previous debate will remember, Yorkshire and Humber, which includes Rother Valley, has the unfortunate accolade of being the worst area in the UK for children’s book ownership, with nearly 10% of children, primarily from lower-income households, reporting that they do not own a single book. It would not be unreasonable to think that children with books at home are slightly more likely to enjoy reading and perhaps have marginally higher reading skill than their peers who do not have books at home, but the size of the gap is far larger than could possibly be imagined. The gap is perhaps most starkly characterised by the statistic that children with books at home are twice as likely to say they enjoy reading as those who do not, and are six times more likely to read at above the level expected for their age.

We also might not take account of the impact of these statistics on the rest of children’s lives. Literacy has a stark, direct impact not only on education but on standards of living, job prospects and even life expectancy. For example, those with a lower literacy rate earn roughly 7% less than those with an average literacy rate, and 75% of women with a low literacy rate have never received a promotion. Perhaps the most shocking statistic is that the disparity in life expectancy can be up to 20 years, depending on the literacy rate in the area in which a child was born.

Sadly, it may soon be too late for some. Low rates of book ownership, combined with a global pandemic that disrupted education, means that some children may never be able to develop a love of reading. This is clear from official statistics. For example, key stage 1 SATs results for English literacy fell from 76% to 59% between 2019 and 2022.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech highlighting the vital importance of literacy and the importance of children having books at home. Does he agree that those statistics indicate and support the need for a much greater catch-up programme for children in school?

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

I have been clear that more must be done, at all levels, to make sure that literacy rates catch up. Of course, access to books is one answer, but we should also introduce measures so that those children who do not have access to books can catch up. Nevertheless, without books at home, at school or at a library, children will always struggle to catch up, so we must deal with the root causes

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He is right to highlight the importance of phonics and literature in learning. On the issue of books, it is often the case that young people now engage with their education through digital means. I wondered whether he would address that point when he makes suggestions to the Minister about how we and schools can support young people to engage with literature and the written word through what will be the medium of the future—computers and digital forms of communication.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

My hon. Friend is quite right; in fact, I devote a large chunk of my speech yet to come to e-books and audiobooks, and how to use TikTok and other digital means to engage with people. I am sure he will look forward to enjoying that part of the speech immeasurably.

Photo of Dean Russell Dean Russell Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

Before my hon. Friend moves on to e-books, as one of probably the few MPs who has written children’s books, I just wanted to make a contribution, first to congratulate him on securing this very important debate but also to make the point that books, in and of themselves, are collaborative, not only for the author in writing them—I worked with my daughter to come up with my storyline—but for that moment of an evening with your child, to spend time to read a book to them. Books are important not just within schools but also for such family moments. There is a really powerful point to be made about the use of storytelling and creativity. Whether it is through a physical book, via an e-book or even by listening to an audiobook, the important part is the parent-child time, to collaborate together and think of new and creative ways to express one’s own emotions and one’s own story.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend; reading is incredibly important. Personally, I enjoy reading with my two daughters immeasurably. As a young child, I was read to by my father and other family members, and such reading creates the stories and images that set you up for later life. I will address that as well later in my speech. We have a long way to go, my friend, so we will continue and go back to my point about the pandemic unfortunately holding—

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

But before we do that, I will happily give way again.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Farming, Agriculture and Rural Affairs)

I just want to make a quick intervention on the point about reading together. I was an English teacher for 23 years, so I can say that children and young people are never too old to love being read to; they love it when they are read aloud to, no matter what age they are.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Reading aloud is not just a pleasure for the people who listen to the story but for those who read the story. After all, we are all politicians here and we love hearing the sound of our voices. Indeed, I am telling a story today; we are doing storytelling for the future.

Before I continue, I wonder whether there are any more interventions. No? Then, I will happily continue to discuss the pandemic, but first I will comment on the point made by my hon. Friend Dean Russell. I congratulate him on writing a children’s book—unfortunately I have yet to receive a copy, but I look forward to receiving one tout suite and I thank him very much for that.

I return to the effect that the pandemic has had on literacy rates. What is most concerning is the effect on the 10% of children who spent the pandemic at home without books. When they returned to school, they would have been further behind their peers who had books at home. Children on free school meals are not only much less likely to own books but are much less likely to enjoy reading with their friends—a statistic that has doubled over the pandemic, as children spent long periods without access to books or other reading material due to schools being closed.

As I mentioned in the previous debate that I secured, which focused on the importance of improving access to libraries, something that has been recently reinforced to me is the data that shows that 30% of parents were borrowing more books from libraries than ever before. Clearly, that is paying dividends in my area, with the announcement of a new library in Thurcroft. However, accessing books can be made easier, making it more likely that people will do that than only going to a library.

In my local area, Labour-run Rotherham council has spent millions of pounds on building a new central library, but we are still paying upwards of £5 million a year in rent for Riverside House, the council offices and library, which opened just 10 years ago, few of my constituents in Rother Valley will ever visit it and fewer still will want to borrow a book from the catalogue, which is in dire need of updating. Spending just a fraction of the money that the Labour-run council has spent on putting books into the hands of the children of Rother Valley would be a far more efficient way to improve those children’s lives.

Rotherham, as we know, has the second lowest reading attainment levels for key stage 2, something that the data shows us can easily be solved by helping children to access books more easily. That is where Rotherham council should be spending money instead. Luckily, there are easy solutions to these issues, both locally and nationally. One of this Government’s greatest legacies will be investment in areas that have been left behind for many years. In some cases, levelling up can mean direct investment and change to infrastructure, as we are pleased to see in Rother Valley with the Dinnington high street project and Maltby skills academy. However, providing books is undoubtably one of the simplest and most cost-efficient ways of improving the lives of 1.2 million children up and down the United Kingdom, giving them the best possible start to their lives and careers.

As was mentioned in the interventions, something that is becoming clearer is the fact that we must embrace technology in our pursuit of improving access to books. Across human history, the first true literacy revolution was the invention of scrolls and paper, allowing quicker, lighter and more accessible reading and writing away from the stone tablets of old. The second innovation was the printing press, bringing books and literacy to the people, as William Caxton did only a few hundred yards from where we sit today.

Many of us have lived through a similarly important revolution in the development of e-books and audiobooks, reinventing the way we read and get information. These new technologies will be game-changers for our children’s access to books and for how they read. E-books, which can be as simple a concept as a PDF saved on a phone or on any number of e-readers, allow for quick and free access to books, which was unattainable outside of a library just a few years ago. Not only can a phone or e-reader hold thousands of titles, it is nearly always cheaper than its printed counterparts, often for the simple reason of having next to no unit cost, meaning that they are far more accessible for younger readers in less well-off households. Indeed, many of the classic books that we may want our children to enjoy like we did are available online for free through sites like Project Gutenberg, which boasts over 70,000 e-books free to download, with titles from Marcus Aurelius to Sun Tzu—anything a child would want to read.

For children, there are other advantages to reading technology. A trial programme points to a huge uplift in reading enjoyment across the board when reading on screens. That is backed up by an increase in pupils’ reading outside school. Not only do children enjoy reading electronic devices, they enjoy it so much that they do it in their own time. It may be better for their development and preparedness for their careers, with jobs these days often involving reading text from a screen rather than a piece of paper.

Audiobooks should share the stage, given their proven results, encouraging those who might otherwise not read to do so. In the first instance, audiobooks have huge reach among younger readers. A 2022 survey tells us that 40% of those aged between 12 and 15 are regular users of audiobooks, whereas only 24% of those aged above 55 responded in the same way. What is more, audiobooks bridge disparities that we usually see in reading and writing among children. For example, the National Literacy Trust reports that listening is the only form in which boys have higher levels of engagement and enjoyment than girls. Audiobooks are an invaluable way of making books and the benefits that come with reading more accessible to those who might normally miss out.

Given that these new ways encourage reading and make books even easier than ever to access, how should we support them? As I mentioned, Yorkshire has the lowest rate of children’s book ownership, but given the ubiquity of smartphone and computer ownership and the availability of e-books and audiobooks, the answer is right there. We touched on some of the charitable endeavours in this area, and I am pleased to report that many other excellent charities are helping to spread e-book ownership, including from public libraries.

Increasing access to books means making them as accessible as possible. For more than 350,000 children with some form of learning difficulty, reading may present more of a challenge. How can reading for pleasure even be considered if reading is a constant struggle for these children? I have talked about how e-books and audiobooks greatly increase reading enjoyment, but that is especially true when looking at the impact on children with dyslexia or any other educational support needs, as well as those who simply struggle with reading. One in 10 children have some form of dyslexia. That should not be overlooked as an area that needs focus. Like other areas in life, technology can provide easy ways for many to overcome hurdles. In this case, e-books can be more beneficial than printed books, such as by being able to quickly change font or sizes or access the dictionary to find out the meaning of new or difficult words—a real step forward in helping those most in need of encouragement. The British Dyslexia Association has many excellent suggestions on how to help children with dyslexia to read and write, and agrees that e-books and other such technology are clear game changers for children with dyslexia.

As well as technology, another central suggestion is paired reading, which we have already talked about. A child and their parent reading together for 10 minutes a day is a perfect example. Unfortunately, when looking at the bigger picture, if 10% of children in my area do not own a book, and 10% of those children have dyslexia, that means that 1% of children—nearly 135,000 children across the UK—simply do not have the resources to overcome their learning difficulties, blighting their career and life prospects.

Over the course of this debate and the last, I have had a particular focus on younger children, such as those in primary school. That may be because of my own personal bias with my two daughters, Persephone and Charlotte. Unfortunately, however, it seems to me that the same is true of our education system, which focuses literacy education on younger children at the expense of older children. Over 75% of children aged between five and eight say that they enjoy reading, but sadly that number trends downwards over the next years of education, with only 45% of 14 to 16-year-olds saying the same. That means that somewhere in our schools children lose their passion for reading. Secondary school—for some, the last years of formal education—can be an invaluable time to fall in love with reading before life’s other worries take over. We must do more to encourage our teenagers to read and enjoy reading.

The point could be made that because so many forms of entertainment are instantly available to our children—and to teenagers in particular—we should do more to make books relevant and accessible. Here, again, we can look to technology to solve those issues. As I have mentioned, with e-books and audiobooks, children can have thousands of stories in their pocket, but how do we actually get them to open the e-books and read them? The rise of social media phenomena, such as bookstagram and BookTok, have undoubtedly led to more teenagers reading, with some books’ dustjackets now proudly marketing themselves as being TikTok favourites.

Social media platforms provide a social aspect to books, allowing users to give and receive recommendations from peers with similar interests, as well as connecting with those who have a passion for a genre or a series of books. The BookTok hashtag has over 143 billion views worldwide, with some of the most watched videos highlighting, for example, books by black British authors or what to put on a summer reading list. Those videos and social groups are reconnecting teenagers to books, albeit in a very different way from previous generations. It is engagement that should be encouraged, and helps to make books and reading as accessible as possible to teenagers. Whatever other concerns may plague social media, this is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with in the battle for teenage literacy.

Now that I have outlined the importance of better access and accessibility to books, how should we look to achieve that access for our children? The best way to manage it would be through a British book strategy, with the ultimate goal that every child should have many books of their own to cherish and enjoy at their leisure. That would work hand in hand with the overall education strategy, and complement both the Government’s education White Paper from last year and the Prime Minister’s numeracy campaign. I believe this debate will go some way towards outlining what might be contained in that strategy, and I make the following points to the Minister.

First, we must examine seriously the ways in which technology can help children gain access to books, rather than looking at technology as somehow at odds with reading. I have extolled the virtue and benefits of e-books and audiobooks, given their lower cost and the universal access technology capable of reading or listening to them. They must be front and centre of any book strategy. There are, of course, other ways in which technology can improve access to books that I have not had time to discuss, such as apps for public libraries or technological support for the teaching of phonics.

Secondly—and perhaps a related point—we must work to ensure that reading is not seen as a struggle or challenge for those children who find it more difficult than others. With the right processes, even those with the most severe learning disabilities can be shown the joy to be found in reading for pleasure and so reap the same benefits as those without such difficulties.

Finally, we cannot forget to continue to stress the importance of reading as children grow up. Perhaps, given the proven rewards, reading or library time should be a continued presence in our children’s timetable throughout their educational career, regardless of what they are studying, to prevent the terrible decline in reading enjoyment that we are currently seeing. Perhaps encouraging reading-friendly social media may help to give books relevance to our digital society, and help in removing the barriers between teenagers and reading. That is especially true for those leaving formal education as they turn 16.

In conclusion, the Government’s excellent schools White Paper promises to

“do more to ensure every child can access cornerstone literacy and…give them the tools to lead a happy, fulfilled and successful life.”

Better access to books is the simplest and best way to manage that. The only tools children need are the books themselves. We know that high literacy and more reading ensure longer, happier and more fulfilled lives, and there is no better way to achieve those things than to put a book in the hands of every child. Next year, World Book Day will be on 7 March, a date by which I hope every child will have a book of their own to celebrate it with—a book to love and to share with their friends and family.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

Sorry, Sir Christopher—I just wanted to intervene on colleagues, not make a speech.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:50, 6 June 2023

Thank you very much, Sir Christopher. It is a real pleasure to speak in the debate. I thank Alexander Stafford, who put the case very well, with enthusiasm, energy and passion. It is well seen that he has a deep interest in the subject matter. I am now a grandfather, with six grandchildren, and I very much recognise the interest they have in books. The hon. Gentleman referred to his two children, and that is part of his interest in books. Whenever children—in my case, grandchildren—come along, that deep interest in books is reinvigorated by their passion and hunger for books, and I see that through my children.

Teaching children to read paves the way for their future. It is an essential skill for education, employment and advancing oneself in this world. It is disheartening that not all children have the same opportunities to access books. Poverty has played a significant role in that. Poverty levels in Northern Ireland, for example, are some of the highest in the United Kingdom, so it is good to be here to discuss what we can do to give children equal opportunities. I know that the Minister has a deep passion and interest for this subject matter, and I am sure he will respond to our questions and requests in a very positive fashion, as he always does.

The cost of living and the issues with poverty have meant that so many families are suffering financially. In some cases, they cannot afford to put a meal on the table—that is a fact of life that I see in my constituency office every week—never mind purchase books, which is far down the line for many people. A study has shown that 20% of parents are buying fewer books for their children. That figure increases to 36% among those who are struggling financially because of rising costs. Some 30% of parents have been encouraging children to borrow books from schools and libraries if they cannot afford to purchase brand-new. The hon. Member for Rother Valley referred to his new library, I think, which has been used quite significantly. In Northern Ireland specifically, more than one in five children are in poverty, and officials have stated that the new figures are increasing. That is very concerning.

One of my constituents—it is always good to give examples, and I always do so when I come to any debate—is a reading recovery specialist and a P1 teacher. She told me that she can tell within the first week which children have been read to and which have not. It tells in their ability to concentrate, understand and engage. We must ensure that that is not a matter of poverty or access to books. If that recovery specialist and P1 teacher can tell me that, it is quite clear that interacting with those children makes it clear what needs to be done.

The Royal National Institute of Blind People has been in touch with me ahead of this debate and it has a wonderful scheme that I want to highlight and to ask the Minister a question about. More than 41,000 children and young people in the UK are supported by local authority vision impairment specialist education services, and around 50% of young people with vision impairment have additional special educational needs or disabilities—the Minister has always been responsive to questions we have asked him about those with disabilities.

The RNIB has introduced a new service, Bookshare, which opens the world of reading and education for learners with a print-related disability, including those with a vision impairment or dyslexia. The Bookshare service is currently used in only around one in three schools and needs Government backing to be more widely used. What discussions has the Minister had with the RNIB about its new initiative, Bookshare? With only one in three schools taking part in the scheme, it is clear that we could utilise better the partnership between the RNIB and the Government to make sure that we reach out to the other two thirds of schools, which are perhaps not aware, or not able to take advantage, of the scheme.

In the UK, about two children in every 1,000 have a visual impairment, and a further 10% are dyslexic. Bookshare currently provides 103 titles and partners with 1,100 publishers, including well-known names such as Taylor & Francis, Springer Nature, HarperCollins and Penguin Random House. I encourage the Minister, genuinely, respectfully and as forcefully as I can, to raise awareness of Bookshare and to initiate the scheme across the whole UK.

I wish to digress slightly, because it is important that I put this on record. Members in this Chamber, and indeed many people outside, will know that I am a Dolly Parton fan—it is not a secret. I think that we are all Dolly Parton fans, Sir Christopher—even you, I suspect. [Interruption.] Well, perhaps not. It would not be fair to discuss access to books without raising Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. I remember that, on the day I submitted an early-day motion on Dolly Parton, Ruth Cadbury said to me, “You do know that I can access that Dolly Parton Imagination Library in my constituency, and my constituents are doing that.” I did not know about that until she told me.

The point is that the Imagination Library is dedicated to inspiring a love of reading by gifting books free of charge to children from birth to age five. I remember when I did an interview with Sky News one night. We were discussing something else, but this issue was raised. The presenter told me that her children accessed Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library as well. It is surprising how many people access that library right across our great nation.

Thanks to funding shared by Dolly Parton and local community partners in the United States, Canada, this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Australia and the Republic of Ireland, there are 2.4 million children registered and 204 million books have been gifted. That is a phenomenal way to encourage children to read. Furthermore, in the US, one in 10 children has been in receipt of a book from the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. She is a good lady with a massive voice. That is why I love her songs, which all relate to life and growing up, and you can quickly recognise that—I do anyway. I will not go through the examples, because there are too many, but her songs become part of people’s lives as they grow up, which is why I like her so much. The work that she and her Imagination Library do reaches across our great world, showing her to be the philanthropist that she is and showing, too, all the good work that she does for the children.

To conclude, we should be rightly proud of our access to libraries, but, for rural communities, the loss of the library vans—I remember them well—is now showing in our education system. I understand that there is not and never will be—at least not in the foreseeable future—an endless amount of funding, but the early years are essential, as was mentioned earlier in relation to PI education. We must make sure that those early years are covered and that books are available. I ask the Minister to invest in our future by investing in our children and increasing the access to early years reading. I suspect not only that we could form a partnership with the RNIB and its Bookshare, but that Dolly Parton would be happy to form a partnership with us as well.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Conservative, Witham 2:59, 6 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am really thrilled to be here for what is such an important debate—it is also a really lovely debate in its tone and content—for obvious reasons. Children are our future, and we have to think about how we put them on the right trajectory in their journey in life. Reading is crucial to that.

I commend my hon. Friend Alexander Stafford for securing the debate, but also for his advocacy of access to books. He has been consistent on this, and he is a big voice in this area. If I may say so, it is really nice to follow Jim Shannon, who made me smile with his references to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Frankly, she is an incredible woman when it comes to philanthropy. She has articulated her world view through her lyrics, but she has also put that into practice in investing in children, which is absolutely crucial.

We can never overlook the investment required in early years, in particular, to give children the best start in life. With that, improving literacy among children and young people is absolutely crucial to ensuring—this is a statement of the obvious—that we have highly educated and highly skilled people in our economy and a functional society. We need to have people who learn from reading, who have inquisitive minds and who hunger for an understanding of good literature and good books, but who also know how to express themselves, and literacy and reading are central to that.

As I was reminded this morning, when I attended a memorial service for a very dear friend, the late Lord Young, the children and young people in our schools today are the entrepreneurs, business leaders, public servants, investors and inventors of the future. If we are not spending the time sorting out our structures and institutions—our schools and everything else—and getting right all the things we need to do at this stage, we are going to lose out on their potential, when we should be unleashing their potential and investing in their talent.

For me as a Member of Parliament—the Member of Parliament for Witham—literacy and improving access to books have been my focus for my schools. Having been elected in 2010, I visited all my schools—we all do and we learn so much, particularly in the early days of being a Member of Parliament—and the thing that surprised me the most was that the level of literacy was below the national average. To be quite frank, every Government can say, “We’ve boosted the money. We’ve done x. We’ve done y,” and all the rest of it, but when I came in in 2010 and heard, for example, about the Building Schools for the Future programme and all the previous investment in schools, it was really quite stark and quite shocking to hear about the number of children in my schools that this issue affected. A lot of this correlated with indices of deprivation, which we have to focus on as well—we have to correct things where we have deprivation and look at how we can do more to turn around outcomes for children.

There were certain schools in certain parts of my constituency where literacy was lagging behind in quite a shocking way. At that time, approximately one in six 11-year-olds was leaving school without the required level of reading. So I worked with local schools and particularly headteachers, and I have previously mentioned one, now former, headteacher to the Minister—a very inspirational lady, Mrs Bass, who was the headteacher at Powers Hall Academy. I set up something called “Get Witham Reading”, which was a literacy scheme to promote reading and, obviously, make it fun. This was all about not only reading in schools, but guests coming into schools. When I say guests, I mean the local mayor and local councillors, who were building bridges within local communities. People came in from the local community to be read to, but also to read to children. Since 2012, this has been up and running every year. It encourages a day of reading activities, and it is actually a good deal of fun.

It is fair to say that I can be a complete pain to many publishers, because I am quite demanding of them. When I run “Get Witham Reading”, I like to give books to schools and I even donate personally to the pupils. I have done that pretty successfully in recent years, and I am hoping to donate over 1,000 books this summer to children in my constituency. There are publishers that will be written to very shortly, and my begging letters will be asking them to do much more, because I think there is an onus on publishers of children’s books. The range of authors, including my hon. Friend Dean Russell, is really important, because different genres and styles of reading and literacy are just so important to children of all ages.

I have fabulous stories about the way Powers Hall Academy encourages reading activities. It runs reading activities throughout the day, and one of its former caretakers builds things for it. When we had a Harry Potter theme, he built a train; when we had an aviation theme, he built an aeroplane and put it in the playground so that the children had the experience of boarding a plane—they made their own boarding passes and currency. One year, the theme was the Titanic, and the children made lunch for the school guests based on one of the menus on the Titanic. That is exactly how to bring reading to life through great stories and history. Ministers and Prime Ministers have supported that event in the past. The Minister will be joining me next month when we host “Get Witham Reading”—I promise we will make it fun.

These events encourage characterisation. Children use their imagination to bring a character to life—we have had plenty of Harry Potters and characters from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”—and staff, teachers and parents join in. One of the biggest lessons I have learned in my time as a Member of Parliament is that parents have an important role in getting children reading at home. We should encourage parents by making them part of the events in schools, and then they can take the books away and read them to their children. We should encourage the presence of more books at home, because many of the households had no books at home.

“Get Witham Reading” is all about encouraging local children and young people to enjoy reading. It gets them away from their consoles—despite the fact that technology is important—and into books. I have a confession to make: in my teenage years, I probably read more Smash Hits and New Musical Express than I did books. Nevertheless, reading has to continue. That means that we need initiatives to support more books going to schools, and we have to encourage the ownership of books. Young people, in particular, like to own books, and we have to make it easy for them. Of course, donating books is one aspect of that. As I said, I have put in a plea to publishers and authors, and they have an open invitation to “Get Witham Reading”. If any of them wishes to come or donate their books, they are welcome to contact me.

There is a marked contrast between the situation back in 2010 and now. Back then, national literacy standards had fallen in comparison with our international competitors, and the Government and Ministers resolved to do a great deal about that. In 2006, we were ranked 16th in the world in the Programme for International Student Assessment, but by 2009 we had fallen to something like 23rd. Bear in mind that this country gave the world Shakespeare, the Brontës, Shelley and Tolkien. If we are not featured in those league tables, what does that say about us?

I pay tribute to the Minister and all Governments over the past decade; their focus and rigour since 2010 has helped to raise standards. In particular, I pay tribute to the Minister for his steadfast commitment. He has written to me over many years about this issue. I have badgered him, and he has supported my initiatives. He has been very open to working with schools and giving teachers confidence, and I have seen the progress that has been made. We should not forget the impact of the pupil premium, particularly in areas of deprivation. It has enabled my schools to focus additional investment on tackling lower literacy standards among pupils from lower-income households. We are now ranked fourth among participating countries in the progress in international reading literacy study, which is incredible.

My message is that we can never stand still. The Government, the Minister and others have worked incredibly hard over the past decade, but the Government can do only so much. We have heard about great philanthropists and organisations doing so much more. Partners are working with educational trusts to get books into schools. We have heard that our libraries can be slightly more welcoming. In Essex, we have worked very hard to keep our libraries open—I pay tribute to the county council—because they play an important role in supporting literacy. This is not just about the summer reading challenge, which is coming soon. We need reading challenges every single day. We need to set the bar high, and I wonder whether we can do more to tie together the summer reading challenge and the holiday activities and food programme holistically.

In conclusion, we cannot stand still. Generations of children should always feel the benefits of literacy, books and reading. We are a fantastic country when it comes to literacy and our authors, and that is the start of children’s journey in life. They can become the entrepreneurs and innovators of the future if they have access to books, and that is something we will support.

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson Conservative, North Swindon 3:10, 6 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and to follow some excellent speeches. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend Alexander Stafford, who is incredibly passionate about and experienced in this important area. Through the various debates and campaigns that he has led, he has made a tangible difference.

We could not have asked for a more receptive audience than the Minister, who is passionate about the importance of this issue. This should be one of those easy debates in which we all agree and come away with lots of positive things. Indeed, we are in esteemed company, because my hon. Friend Dean Russell has written fantastic children’s books. They are definitely favourites on my daughter’s bookshelf and she often chooses them, so I have had the pleasure of reading them on a number of occasions.

Literacy has the power to shape young people’s lives. Through reading, children can improve their knowledge, build confidence and concentration, and inspire their imagination. As the father of two young daughters, I have seen that at first hand. Only last night, I was at a parents evening for my eldest daughter, and the majority of our conversation was about the importance of literacy in building those core aspects. As parents we all want the best for our children, and there is no better way to equip them for future opportunities than by helping them to be confident, articulate and literate. That opens so many doors and opportunities for whatever career path they choose in future.

I have been active on this issue for my entire time in politics, both as a councillor before coming to Parliament—I was also part of the 2010 generation—and during my time in Parliament. I was proud to chair the all-party group for libraries, information and knowledge, and I was the lead member for libraries on Swindon Borough Council, which included delivering the award-winning new Central Library. I have recently joined the all-party group on literacy, and I host the annual summer reading challenge in Parliament every year, which does so much to inspire the next generation of young people to take up reading, particularly during the summer holidays. Colleagues across the House regularly turn up to be photographed and help to promote that locally, which is hugely appreciated.

My constituency has the headquarters of WHSmith, which is one of the biggest sellers of books in this country. Its chief executive Carl Cowling is passionate about and supports huge numbers of national and local initiatives, particularly through the National Literacy Trust, to help to create additional opportunities. My constituency also has a wonderful independent bookshop, Bert’s Books, which achieved international fame in a recent social media post: someone innocently posted a picture of “How to Kill Your Family” and Prince Harry’s book “Spare” in the window. That bookshop has bucked the trend and is kept thriving by excellent customer service, a great social media presence, wonderful events for families and people of all ages, and wonderful layout and design. I have seen that with my family: it provides that excitement for children to engage in reading. Finally, the head office of the School Library Association, led by its wonderful chief executive Alison Tarrant, is also in my constituency.

I wish to raise four key points. The first is about school libraries, which I should be less keen to discuss because my first experience of libraries was as a school librarian, and sadly I was sacked. I like to think that my career has improved since then. It is worrying that only a third of primary schools have a dedicated member of staff for school libraries. On average, a library is staffed for less than two hours per day, and two thirds of primary schools do not have a dedicated budget. Ultimately, that comes down to the choices of leadership teams and headteachers, and it is very much a postcode lottery—I have seen that on those visits, and we should do everything we can about it. I commend the School Library Association, which does its best to champion the cause, share best practice and deliver opportunities to make the money go that little bit further. It is telling that those schools with the best libraries have the best engagement—it may seem obvious, but it is not a given. It should be.

Secondly, I want to highlight the importance of engaging volunteers. Many years ago, when the then schools Minister David Laws visited a school in a challenging area in my constituency, the headteacher was extremely excited to tell us about an initiative in which she had linked up with the ladies of the Penhill Lunch Club. On a Wednesday lunchtime she offered them a free Sunday roast, which cost roughly a £1 per head out of the pupil premium budget. Those ladies would then sit and do one-to-one reading with the students who were furthest behind. Pupils who arrived at that primary school were on average 18 months behind, but by the time they finished their education they had caught up with the expected average. That was due in no small part to those volunteers coming in and investing the one-to-one time that was not always a given at home. We should do all we can to encourage schools to utilise members of our community who have time on their hands and are willing to help out.

I also commend all the volunteers who support events such as the literacy hubs that my office hosts each year in conjunction with the National Literacy Trust: they offer those extra opportunities that are not a given in the family home. I would also like to thank Celia of Imagination Childcare. Beyond her work at an outstanding nursery in my constituency, she puts on sessions for parents that are interactive, that are social and that encourage families not only to read together, but to think about the books: they will pause to do some work around what they have read so far and what they think will come next. That really catches the imagination of that next generation. I commend Celia for all she has done and all the families who have benefited.

My third point is about public libraries. Councils have faced challenges for many generations around funding and changing habits. One thing that has worked successfully in Swindon is that the majority of community libraries have switched ownership to parish councils, which have more flexibility in their budgets. That has allowed opening hours to expand and has created a greater emphasis on community events to increase footfall and engagement beyond the community. They utilise volunteers to deliver books to those who cannot easily get to the library. We have seen a renaissance in usage and book issuing in those libraries. My good friend Michelle Dutton did not follow my path as a failed school librarian: she became a professional librarian. She is passionate about emphasising the importance of matching opening hours to those of busy families, particularly in the evenings or weekends, linking them around events to give families a reason to go there.

My final point is about having an emphasis on new parents. Through the National Literacy Trust, book packs are handed out by health visitors. That is really important, but we should build on it to emphasise what we all understand, so that all parents know that supporting their children to benefit from the enjoyment of reading genuinely opens the door to future career opportunities.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Conservative, South Staffordshire 3:18, 6 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend Alexander Stafford on securing the debate. As has been touched on, it is great that there is so much consensus and understanding among Members about the importance of promoting reading and the availability of books.

I echo the comments that have been made about my right hon. Friend the Minister, whose work promoting and ensuring the highest quality of teaching of reading, and the establishment and embedding of phonics within teaching in our schools, has been so vital. I cannot remember how many years he has been a Minister, but he is knocking up more than 10. During that time, he will have had an impact on children’s lives and their ability to read to the highest level. He has made a real difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of children.

I will make a few short points, conscious as I am that the Minister and the shadow Minister want to speak. Twenty per cent of parents are buying fewer books today than they did just a few years ago. We are seeing real challenges. As other Members have touched on, it is vital that children have books in their home. Having books available in the home encourages the innate curiosity that every child has to pick up a book and explore it. A new world is opened up to them as they go through its pages.

Photo of Dean Russell Dean Russell Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

May I thank hon. Members for the kind mentions of my books during this debate? On the point about opening up new worlds, we have not yet spoken today about the role of comic books. I am a big sci-fi, comic book and graphic novel fan. At the weekend, I popped into Lewis B Comics & Collectables in Watford—not for a visit, but to see what it had on offer. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must not be snobby about the types of books that will get kids—and adults—to read? Graphic novels and comic books have a really important role to play.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Conservative, South Staffordshire

I certainly agree. Getting a child reading anything is an incredibly important start. It fires their imagination, whether it is a comic book or one of the books of my hon. Friend, who is going to pass me a list of all the titles to read out later so we can give them a plug—they are available at all great local bookstores, and probably on Amazon as well. It is about inspiring children. Opening a book opens different worlds. Getting children to lose themselves in the imagination and excitement of a book is one of the most precious gifts we can give.

The sad reality is that children in some of the poorest homes have the least access to books. That is of great concern to all Members in this House. What more can we do to make sure that those homes do not lack books? I pay tribute to BookTrust and its amazing Bookstart scheme.

One area of concern is families where mum and dad cannot read. How do we help those children, at the very earliest stages of life, to discover the joy of books? It has been said to me many times that even if mum and dad cannot read, if they just go through the books, explain the pictures, point things out and tell the story, even if they are making it up with the aid of the pictures, that is an important part of the child’s learning. Perhaps we should look at how health visitors can encourage parents who cannot read to understand the importance and value of doing that with their children. It is critical to get books into the home and have that early intervention, because we all know that if children are able to read and to discover the joy of books, it gives them the best opportunities later in life.

Children face real challenges. Of parents surveyed by the National Literacy Trust, 41% said that there was no quiet space for their children to read at home, and 92% thought that it was important for children to have access to a good library. In South Staffordshire, we are very lucky to have a broad spread of libraries. Whether they are in Great Wyrley, Cheslyn Hay, Brewood, Kinver, Perton, Codsall or Wombourne, people can easily access a local community library. I would like to take the opportunity to thank the many volunteers who go into libraries to ensure that service is available, along with the professional services provided by librarians. Many community libraries, such as those at Brewood, Kinver, Great Wyrley and Cheslyn Hay, are manned entirely by volunteers. Visitors get not only a book, but a cup of coffee, which is a welcome added service. Such libraries rely on volunteers to keep them open and provide that vital service to so many.

Some 73% of pupils who have access to a library attain higher literacy scores than those who do not, which shows the importance of libraries in our communities. Comments have already been made about the importance of having library facilities in schools, but we also want to ensure that there is somewhere warm, comforting and enjoyable for young people, and people of all ages, to go in their community in the evening and at the weekend. For example, Perton Library has done an amazing job of bringing the written word to life, as well as encouraging people through science fairs and a spring watch project. It has brought in partners, including archaeological societies and environmental groups, providing broader-based learning alongside learning from books.

Before I conclude, I will touch on a few brief additional matters. The importance of having a library in every single school needs heavier emphasis. The Minister and I probably agree that there is a certain nervousness about ringfencing budgets because of the problems that that can cause. However, with his longevity of service he well knows that there are many ways in which schools can be gently persuaded, either through guidance or through working with Ofsted, of the importance of having a library. We need to place a heavy emphasis on the importance of having a library in all schools, not just secondary schools: we want the passion and enjoyment of reading books to come at primary school age.

There must be a real emphasis on local authorities, although I appreciate that is not within the Minister’s remit. Closing a library may seem an easy choice, but it is always the wrong choice. I ask the Minister to ensure, in the robust, vigorous and authoritative way he does so well, that his fellow Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which I believe leads on libraries, and in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities make it clear to local authorities that libraries must be protected. Libraries deliver so much to every single child, as well as to people of all ages. For people in later life who may not have the reading skills that we would wish them to have got at an earlier stage, community libraries are so vital in enabling access to great and brilliant literature.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Farming, Agriculture and Rural Affairs) 3:28, 6 June 2023

I begin, as others have, by thanking Alexander Stafford for bringing forward this debate. I stand to speak as a former English teacher of 23 years, an avid reader and somebody whose life story has been shaped and transformed by the power of reading.

Through a difficult childhood, books were my solace and comfort, and I do not think it is overstating the case to say that books were my life support. No matter what was going on around me as a child, while I was growing up, books gave me an escape, without which I really do not know what would have become of me. Every child should have that escape, comfort and access to building literacy, which cannot be just about what happens in a classroom. The ability to read the words on a page is one thing, but it is another thing entirely to understand how language works, how meaning is created and how language can be used to persuade and manipulate. That can be taught, but ultimately it is inherently linked to someone’s experience of reading and the written word; that is the true meaning of literacy and we should want it for all our citizens.

I have discussed this subject with Members from across the House and I confess that I have never understood why folk in England, and MPs in this House from England, do not trumpet more loudly their wonderful literary heritage and canon, as it is hugely impressive; I do not understand why they do not make much more of Dickens, Trollope, Shakespeare and Collins, because I certainly would if I were in their shoes. As an English teacher, I always made sure that every class, from the first year to the sixth year, regardless of ability level, had the opportunity to enjoy a Shakespeare play—I persuaded them that it was an opportunity and they really did not have any choice. I understand that Shakespeare plays were written to be performed, but they are also extremely important in terms of the written word.

I grew up in a home without books, as too many children still do, as we have heard. However, I was lucky, because I was the youngest of eight children and I was often able to top up the three books I was permitted to check out of the local library at a time, as I was able to use the library tickets of all my older siblings. I could also use my primary school library, in which I took such an interest that my primary 7 teacher used to consult me about what books he should buy with the library school budget allocation.

Many other children are not so lucky as I was. It almost goes without saying that children who do not have access to books, are not exposed to them and are not provided with the opportunity and encouragement to cultivate the habit of reading will not reach their academic potential. The evidence on that is stark and unequivocal: reading improves outcomes for children across the board. As a former English teacher, I know that when the new S1—secondary 1—intake arrives, the first piece of short writing we ask them to do immediately tells us which children read and which do not. That is immediately apparent in their level and sophistication of expression, and it is very clear to see. There is no downside to encouraging and supporting children to read—unless we count the numerous rows I got into at primary and secondary school for hiding in the changing rooms during PE so that I could finish the chapter of whatever book I happened to be reading.

Many Members have talked today about the importance of supporting literacy in the very young, which is self-evidently the case. In Scotland, our Scottish Book Trust delivers two universal book gifting programmes funded by the Scottish Government, Bookbug and the “Read, Write, Count” initiative, which supports families in playing, reading and learning with their young children. It helps to instil an early love of reading. Through that programme, all children in Scotland receive six free bags of high-quality books between birth and the age of eight, with 16 books across the six bags, and an additional two books gifted to expectant parents in the baby box. It is thought that Scotland has the largest universal book gifting offer in the world. Given my lifelong relationship with books, I am deeply proud of that and the transformative potential it provides for children. However, across the UK as a whole, 19% of five to eight-year-olds do not own a single book, according to the National Literacy Trust. That is deeply sad.

In Scotland, millions of pounds have been provided to support our libraries through the Scottish library fund and other such schemes. I wish there was more funding—I genuinely do—but what is important is the commitment and recognition of the value of access to books and promoting reading. That has been established as an important principle. We can build further on that, and we certainly should. I also appreciate the comment from Jim Shannon about Dolly Parton, which we all applaud.

Cultivating the habit of reading is important. Over the years, people have come up with various ways to do that, but I am quite old-fashioned. I do not think we need to rely on children dressing up as their favourite character and such, although I know they take great pleasure from that. If they want to, that is fine; it does not hurt anybody, but a love of reading need not require such dramatic pursuits. Ultimately, it is learned through appreciating the calm, quiet and powerful joy that is found in the gentle unfolding of an exciting narrative captured between the covers of a book, or on a Kindle, or even—as Members have said—through an audiobook, in a way that cannot be replicated through the passive, although enjoyable, activity of watching a film.

As has been said, our public libraries are a real prize in our communities. Aside from the opportunities they provide for social interaction, warm spaces and digital inclusion, which are extremely important, public libraries are integral to our quest to raise attainment. In order to close or narrow the attainment gap, one important thing we need to do is provide access to books for not just children, but their parents. We need to bring parents with us on that journey to narrow the attainment gap. Some of them may have grown up with no access to books, and may not have cultivated or discovered the powerful joy that reading for pure pleasure can bring.

We need to create a wider culture of reading. If we want parents to read to and with their children—as I say, my 23 years as an English teacher tell me that even at the age of 17 or 18, young people love being read to—we need to get parents reading. We need reading as an enjoyable pastime to become normalised in households. Very often, it is not, and we cannot tackle that issue properly or seriously without access to public libraries. In many households, it is now unusual for the TV or the music to be switched off, and for people to sit and spend an hour either reading in the same room or reading the same book together. It is frankly uncommon—I will put it no stronger than that, but it is less common than it ought to be. The role of teachers and school libraries is of course vital, but public libraries allow children and parents to actively and literally discover and explore the pleasure of books together.

Access to books matters, but instilling a love of reading also matters. As an English teacher, I often found that children were very happy to respond to the encouragement to read, and to read independently. However, around the age of 14 or so, the cultivation of a reading habit seemed to plateau or fall away altogether. There are a number of things that schools, teachers and English departments can do to tackle that, which I do not have time to tackle now, but we need to support and encourage children, and model to them the fact that reading is a joyful way to spend our time. It can be an escape, a solace and, importantly, a companion to us throughout our entire lives.

We should continue to ensure that there are the best, most accessible and richest opportunities to read, but we need to take parents with us. We need to reach out to the parents we have not yet taken with us. In a digital age, reading and literacy has never been more important. Coincidentally, the digital age is also a very important tool to support reading and get our communities between the covers of a book.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 3:40, 6 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank Alexander Stafford for bringing forward this important debate. Books are the cornerstone of our education system and how we learn, so it is a pleasure to speak on how we can improve access to books, close the literacy gap and ensure that every child has the opportunity to thrive.

I would like to open my remarks by paying tribute to all English teachers, librarians and literacy charities across the country, from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to the Pompey Pirates in my constituency. Behind school libraries and bookshelves is the hard work by teachers, teaching assistants, librarians, parents and volunteers to support child development and literacy attainment. The hon. Member made some helpful points on the value of reading, owning books and the importance of storytelling. I echo the remarks about his advocacy for reading. We have heard a number of interventions and speeches on investing in catch-up, the variety of forms books can take, the value of reading to children, and the importance of independent bookshops and libraries in our communities. I thank all Members for their good-spirited contributions to the debate.

As we heard, books are fundamental to a child’s journey in learning how to read and write, but they do not serve that purpose alone. Books open the door to our entire education system: to a world of learning from geography, history, English, physics, maths, music and beyond. Books enrich all aspects of our lives. They educate us, motivate us and inspire us. They open new worlds of exploration and imagination.

For many of us, it is hard to imagine a world without books. It is hard to imagine how we would function without the ability to read or write. Unfortunately, the National Literacy Trust has found that one in four children are still leaving primary school unable to read at their expected level. It also found that one in six adults in England have literacy levels below level 1, considered to be very poor literacy skills. It has been shown that lower literacy can go on to impact every aspect of an individual’s life, with negative impacts on personal relationships, wellbeing and further education, as well as a greater risk of unemployment or being in low-paid work. It is a skill as crucial as understanding road signs or price labels, dosage instructions on medicine, filling out a form or making sense of a bus or train timetable.

Unfortunately, in the past decade, it has become increasingly difficult to access books. Britain has faced the closure of almost 800 public libraries since 2010, a decade that saw local authority finances slashed. We know that in schools when budgets get tight, library resources are often among the first to get cut. Recent research by Penguin Books UK shows that one in eight schools in England do not have a library or dedicated reading space. That jumps to one in four schools in the most deprived communities in our country. Teachers up and down the country are using their own money to buy books. The problem is even bigger in primary schools, where one in seven state primary schools do not have a dedicated library or library space. That translates to 750,000 children in the UK who do not have access to books to read through a school library at a crucial age when children need to learn to read, a point made by Justin Tomlinson.

It is no wonder that schools are being forced to make difficult choices when their real-terms funding still remains below 2010 levels. Yet again, it is the most vulnerable who are paying the price for this Government’s decisions. While better-off families may be able to provide home-purchased books, those from poorer backgrounds do not have the same luxury. One in three parents who are struggling financially because of the cost of living crisis have said that they are buying fewer books for their children as a result. Experiences of financial strain have a direct impact on literacy, with families not being able to afford books and having less time and energy to spend on reading. Two in five disadvantaged children leave primary school unable to read at the expected level.

The Government claim that literacy is a priority. Their levelling-up White Paper

“set a new national mission to ensure that 90% of children leaving primary school in England are reaching the expected standard in reading, writing, and maths by 2030.”

Yet the share of pupils leaving primary school meeting literacy and numeracy benchmarks fell from 65% in 2019 to 59% in 2020. The Government’s target is a far cry from reality. Children are moving backwards in their achievements, and the attainment gap is growing.

The problem is compounded by crisis in the recruitment and retention of teachers and the lack of budget available for specialist school librarians. Last year, more teachers left our schools than joined initial teacher training courses. The Government fell 16% short of their target for English teachers, and this year, the National Foundation for Educational Research predicts that the Government will fall 30% short of their targets.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. A headteacher in my constituency, which may be typical of many parts of the south-east of England, recently told me that she had one applicant for a job. Unfortunately, that is the level of difficulty that our schools face. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and I look forward to the Minister’s response and to hearing more about how the Government will tackle this severe recruitment and retention crisis.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

My hon. Friend is a tireless champion for schools in his constituency, and we absolutely have a teacher recruitment and retention crisis in our country. We need to look very boldly at some of the solutions to address that crisis.

The first step to addressing the problem is to ensure that children are taught how to read and write properly. That fundamental skill must be given the attention it deserves, which means schools having the necessary resources to do so, with children being taught by experts, not by overstretched teachers covering for their colleagues. That is why Labour has committed to ensuring that every pupil is taught by specialist teachers in each subject, including English. We will do that by recruiting thousands of new teachers across the country, making sure that schools are not understaffed, that English classes are not being taught by cover staff or other subject specialists, and that teachers are not burned out by doing multiple people’s jobs. Once in our schools, we will also support teachers with an entitlement to ongoing training.

We want every young person to have the opportunity to succeed academically and in life. As has been outlined today, central to that is developing their reading and writing skills, which open the door to our education system and to a world of further learning. Their ability to read and write is a bridge to the ability to explore, create, innovate, imagine and thrive.

As we have heard, all children deserve to have their lives enriched by books, for their health, for their future and their future life chances, and for their enjoyment. The importance of access to books to literacy levels is simply too great to be met with empty targets and empty rhetoric. In his response, I therefore hope that the Minister will outline what his Department is doing to improve children’s access to books, to decrease the number of children leaving primary school without the required standard of literacy, to recruit its target number of English teachers, and to retain the brilliant English teachers already in the profession.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks, and I restate my thanks to all Members who have contributed to this debate.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 3:49, 6 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Sir Christopher. The subject of the debate is of enormous importance, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Alexander Stafford for securing it, for the way in which he introduced it, and for his work as an active champion for literacy in his constituency.

I totally agree with the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) about the importance of children of all ages being read to, instilling in them a love of reading and improving their vocabularies. I look forward to visiting the constituency of my right hon. Friend Priti Patel later this year to see “Get Witham Reading”. I pay tribute to her passion in ensuring that children in her constituency read well and have access to books. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson for his commitment to high-quality education in his constituency, about which we talk regularly—not just general education, but reading in particular.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley says that we should improve children’s access to books. I wholeheartedly agree. That is why we have strengthened the national curriculum to focus on developing reading, and putting phonics at its heart, to ensure that children can read. Reading is the principal way to acquire knowledge, and the national curriculum encourages pupils to develop the habit of reading widely and often, both for pleasure and for information, and to develop a love of reading.

The texts that young people read play a significant part in their wider development, broadening their horizons and introducing new ideas and perspectives. As a child, I loved C.S. Lewis, C.S. Forester, E. Nesbit and L.P. Hartley, and today, I am ploughing my way through the 97 books that have won a Pulitzer since the introduction of the fiction prize in 1919. Charities such as World Book Day and the National Literacy Trust work tirelessly to raise the profile of reading for pleasure in our country, and for that I thank them and recognise their enormous contribution.

The Government are committed to continue raising reading standards. We place great focus on ensuring that early reading is taught well from the very beginning of a child’s time at school. Following that focus, and the commitment of hundreds of thousands of teachers up and down the country, England came fourth of 43 countries that tested children of the same age in the 2021 progress in international reading literacy study. The results were published only last month, and I am grateful to all the primary schoolteachers and teaching assistants whose commitment to reading and embracing the phonics approach introduced by the Government made that possible. Indeed, the strongest predictor of PIRLS performance was the year 1 phonics screening checkmark, with higher marks predicting higher scores. England’s average PIRLS score of 558 was significantly above the international median of 520 and the European median of 524, and significantly higher than all other participants testing at the same age, with the exception of Singapore, Hong Kong and Russia. There were very high PIRLS scores in Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to teachers there for their achievement in the study.

That success in PIRLS follows the Government’s greater focus on reading in the primary curriculum, with a particular focus on phonics. It also follows reforms such as the English Hubs programme, the introduction of a phonics screening check in 2012, the reading framework, and the leading literacy national professional qualifications for teachers. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley mentioned the importance of children having books at home, and the correlation between book ownership and educational success. In the 2021 PIRLS, overall performance was strongly associated with the number of books that pupils had in their homes. The average score of pupils in England with fewer than 10 books in their home was 507 points, compared with an average score of 591 points—down from 598 in 2016—for those with more than 200 books at home.

The English hubs programme is designed to spread best practice in how schools teach their pupils to read. So far, it has supported 1,600 schools intensively, with a focus on supporting children who are making the slowest progress in reading, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds. That includes schools in Rother Valley, which are supported by two of our English hubs: Learners First and St Wilfrid’s. Between them, those two hubs have supported more than 100 other schools in the area. Schools supported intensively as partner schools by English hubs outperform non-partner schools by about seven percentage points when comparing the change in the year 1 phonics screening check. We have also introduced the reading framework, which is guidance for schools that was first published in 2021. Over 90% of schools have read the framework, which provides guidance to schools about how to improve the teaching of reading.

My hon. Friend also raised his concerns about provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities, particularly children who have chronic fatigue syndrome or Addison’s disease and who suffer from migraines. The next reading framework will include guidance on supporting children who are struggling to read, including those with special educational needs, and we regularly speak to experts, including SEND specialists, specialist schools and English hubs, about the way in which the Department can support teachers to ensure that children with dyslexia and other learning difficulties can progress well in their reading and meet the expectations by the time they leave primary school.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not, because there are only four minutes left in the debate.

The hon. Member for Strangford raised the important issue of children with visual impairment, and I will ask my officials to engage with the RNIB about the most effective way of harnessing the power of digital media to improve literacy, including through the use of audio books.

The Department also recognises the vital importance of the teaching profession and is committed to offering the very best professional development. As part of our long-term education recovery plan, we announced £184 million of funding to deliver 150,000 fully funded training scholarships for national professional qualifications by the end of 2024. To incentivise small schools to participate, the targeted support fund provides an additional grant for every teacher who participates in the national professional qualifications in the next year. We also have a national professional qualification for leading literacy, which was launched in October last year, to train existing teachers to become literacy experts who will drive up standards in the teaching of reading in their schools and improve outcomes for every child.

The Government believe that all pupils deserve to be taught a knowledge-rich curriculum that promotes extensive reading both in and out of school. The national curriculum promotes reading for pleasure, and evidence shows that that is more important for children’s educational development than, for example, their parents’ level of education. I agree with my right hon. Friend Sir Gavin Williamson about the importance of libraries in increasing children’s access to books and promoting reading for pleasure, whether in schools or through public libraries.

Libraries are particularly important in ensuring children have access to books during the current difficulties surrounding the cost of living. A national literacy survey conducted in December last year, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley referred, reported that nearly 30% of parents stated they were borrowing more children’s books from libraries and that a quarter said they were asking their children to borrow more books from school libraries. Of course, it is for individual schools to decide how best to provide and maintain a library service, which is something to which my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire alluded. I enjoyed working with him at the Department for Education for a few years; we worked very well together, and I pay tribute to him for his time at the Department for Education. Many headteachers recognise the important role that school libraries can play in improving literacy by ensuring that suitable library facilities are provided.

There are several schemes that look to improve reading for pleasure and children’s access to books in school and public libraries. First, the Reading Agency’s summer reading challenge, to which hon. Members referred, is the biggest reading-for-pleasure programme for primary school-aged children. Each year the challenge motivates over 700,000 children of all abilities to read for enjoyment over the summer holidays. I also highlight the National Literacy Trust’s primary school library alliance partnership, which aims to bring partners together to transform 1,000 primary school libraries by 2025, providing them with books, training and support. Partners include World of Stories, the Marcus Rashford Book Club and “Raise a Reader” Oxfordshire. The partnership reported in November last year—a year after launch—that it had worked with over 330 schools and reached over 120,000 children across the country.

The Department is committed to improving literacy for all pupils, because unless children learn to read, they cannot read to learn. Reading is an essential foundation of success in all subjects, and we are determined to drive progress still further in the years ahead.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley 3:59, 6 June 2023

I thank everyone who took part in this important debate. There is clearly cross-party consensus on the importance of access to books, not just at school but in the home, whether that is being gifted books by libraries or charitable organisations—the Dollywood Foundation was mentioned by Jim Shannon—or reading with parents, guardians and community groups.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).