World Book Day — [Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:19 am on 6 March 2024.

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[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 2:30, 6 March 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered World Book Day.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. Tomorrow, 7 March, will mark World Book Day 2024, the day when we reflect on the importance of reading and literature for people of all ages and encourage the younger generations in particular to embrace reading. World Book Day was created by UNESCO in 1995 as a worldwide celebration of books and reading. The occasion is now marked each year in more than 100 countries around the globe. World Book Day founder Baroness Gail Rebuck explained the reasoning behind the idea as follows:

“We wanted to do something to reposition reading and our message is the same today as it was then—that reading is fun, relevant, accessible, exciting, and has the power to transform lives.”

I could not agree more.

As we celebrate World Book Day once again, I often find myself in conversation with friends and colleagues about our favourite books and authors, which have inspired and influenced our lives. My first memories of reading include Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, followed by the Nancy Drew series and the Hardy Boys. My love of crime and mystery novels has been built on both the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Possibly my favourite novel when growing up was “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. It was a delight to introduce my daughter to the novel when she was younger and she, equally, loved it.

In my late teens, when studying A-level English, I was introduced to Thomas Hardy and particularly his “The Return of the Native”, which included the most fascinating and mysterious character in Eustacia Vye. I have read many Hardy novels since and have always been taken by the complex characters and relationships between men and women that he wrote about. During my twenties, I read most of Margaret Atwood’s collection of novels and perhaps one of my top-five favourite novels of all time is her “The Blind Assassin”. My love of reading has continued throughout my life and I have enjoyed writers such as Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks and Ian McEwan, whose novel “Atonement” also makes it into my top five.

In the UK, we have been blessed over centuries with some of the most world-renowned authors still enjoyed by readers today, from Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, C. S. Lewis and Virginia Woolf to the outstanding J. K. Rowling, who has probably done more to introduce children to and encourage them to read books through her Harry Potter series than any other known author. We should pay tribute to her for her outstanding contribution to encouraging children to read, as well as to the publishing industry in this country.

My constituency of the Cities of London and Westminster is blessed with a rich literary history. Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary Sherlock Holmes was based at the iconic 221b Baker Street. Other famous novels also based in my constituency include “Mrs Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf, which is set in numerous places across the two cities, including Bond Street, Victoria, Green Park and St James’s Park, and the “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, whose characters lived in Soho. Now, you might very well think this; I couldn’t possibly comment, but the Palace of Westminster has been the setting for many a novel, including Michael Dobbs’s “House of Cards”. Just across Parliament Square in our great Westminster Abbey lie a plethora of British authors and poets, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and Alfred Tennyson, to name but a few.

I could speak for the full 90 minutes about the vast wealth of legendary authors and books set in my constituency and from the rest of the world, but we must concentrate on celebrating World Book Day. It is important to remember that the joy of reading can be accessed for free. Whatever the economic background, children and adults alike can borrow books from libraries across the United Kingdom.

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

I welcome my hon. Friend’s debate on World Book Day, which I very much support. On Friday, I will visit schools in my constituency to celebrate it and I am delighted that Stafford libraries are so popular and well used. I pay tribute to HarperCollins and the Publishers Association who arranged for 50 books to be delivered to every primary school in my constituency for World Book Day. I am very keen to get Stafford reading and to support the campaign.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must all work together to ensure that children are open to or introduced to reading at an early age.

We are fortunate in the Cities of London and Westminster to be home to some amazing libraries such as Pimlico, Victoria and the Barbican children’s library. In total there are more than 15 libraries for public use across the two cities. As local authorities’ budgets become tighter and with household incomes squeezed, I do not think it has ever been more important to protect our libraries. They not only offer a diverse range of books, but act as an essential third place between home and school. That is particularly beneficial for children who live in overcrowded homes and need a quiet place to do their homework.

Yesterday, I jointly hosted the World Book Day parliamentary drop-in with my hon. Friend Andrew Lewer. It was an amazing day and I thank all the MPs who turned up to collect books for their schools.

According to World Book Day, reading for pleasure is the single biggest indicator of a child’s future success, more so than parents’ educational backgrounds or income. That is why it is so important to support initiatives such as World Book Day. Last year alone, the organisation provided 50 million £1 book tokens to children in the UK. Children across my constituency benefited from them and will do so again this year. I look forward to visiting schools over the next couple of days to hand out book tokens.

According to World Book Day research, a staggering one in seven pupils stated that the book they purchased with the token they were given was the first book they had ever bought. For those receiving free school meals, the figure climbs to one in five pupils. Also according to World Book Day research, reading for pleasure is at its lowest since 2005. We must all work together, whatever our political party, to reverse that trend.

I am very, very proud that since 2010 the Conservative Government have made improving children’s literacy a major priority, and results are paying off. The most recent OECD programme for international student assessment international literacy tables saw the UK climb from 25th in 2009 to 13th in the 2022 rankings. I fully support the Government’s reading framework that is designed to increase the focus on reading for schoolchildren. Moreover, the Department for Education has invested an extra £24 million to support children’s literacy skills over the past year to help pupils’ recovery from the pandemic and to work towards achieving the target of 90% of primary school pupils reaching the expected standard in literacy and numeracy.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Conservative, Esher and Walton

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and the powerful message she is sending. World Book Day’s theme is encouraging reading for fun, and, with nine and 11-year-old boys myself, I know that that is a real challenge. She rightly points to the increase in literacy levels among young people under this Government. That is one of our proudest achievements and it would not have happened without the emphasis on phonics and the core skills that unlock the independence of mind and creative thinking that goes into reading for fun.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities was Education Secretary he really emphasised that, working with his ministerial team, and the results are paying off.

World Book Day research has also shown that reading with a parent is the single biggest determinant of whether a child will read independently. Some of the most important and happiest memories that I have of my children growing up was reading with them. Of course, they read Harry Potter, but when my son was very little he was obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine and my daughter read every single Jacqueline Wilson book. For a child to be able to read with their parent, the parent needs to be a proficient reader. That is one reason why improving adult literacy rates is also important. According to the National Literacy Trust, in England 16.4% of adults —just over 7 million people—can be described as having poor literacy skills. That has wide-reaching implications and is extremely worrying. On average, an adult with very poor literacy skills will earn 7% less than if they had a basic level of literacy.

Those issues not only impact the person’s confidence and ability to be part of society, but their income generation and the type of job they can get. Research by the National Literacy Trust has shown a correlation between literacy rates and life expectancy. For example, a boy born in a ward with some of the greatest literacy challenges will live 26 years less than a boy born in a ward with some of the fewest literacy challenges.

We must work together to ensure all adults have access to educational resources throughout their lives, particularly when they are in their 30s and 40s and perhaps realising that they need to improve their literacy. Organisations such as the Reading Agency and the Adult Literacy Trust provide a number of free resources to help improve adult reading skills. The Government are also doing their bit to reduce adult illiteracy rates. The Department for Education’s essential skills entitlement provides the opportunity of free study for adults who do not have essential literacy skills.

When I finished university and was looking for a job, I volunteered to teach people who had just arrived in the country how to read. I will never forget the most amazing Somalian woman, who was so eloquent and wanted to learn to read to help her children. It was the most humbling experience of my life to see the passion she had for learning to read. I hope she was able to go on to help and support her children and herself.

Books are not only invaluable for their positive impacts on readers, they also play a vital part in our economy. Across the UK, there are more than 1,000 bookstores, and the publishing industry is worth £7 billion a year to the UK economy. I hope that following the excellent Budget just delivered by the Chancellor, the publishing industry will be able to grow its economy with a number of the initiatives announced today.

It would be remiss of me in a debate on reading not to mention the Publishers Association, the member organisation representing companies of all sizes involved in publishing in this country. I have worked closely with it since entering Parliament, setting up the Conservative women’s book club for MPs; I think my hon. Friend Theo Clarke is a member. She and I are the only ones in this debate who are able to join, because we are women and Conservatives. It has been a joyous experience to bring Conservative MPs from all intakes to talk about a book, and to enjoy fiction again. Some of the MPs involved told me it is the first time they have read a fiction book since entering Parliament. It is so important to put aside time to read books for our health and wellbeing.

I have also worked closely with the Publishers Association to establish a summer reading list for parliamentarians. I thank the MPs and peers who have given us their favourite book recommendations over the past few years. Last summer, my choice was “Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad” by Daniel Finkelstein. I hope that everyone in today’s debate will provide us with their summer reading choice this year.

We all have a part to play in supporting World Book Day and encouraging everyone, whatever their age, to pick up a book. I know I will be doing just that when I visit the schools in my constituency later this week. Sometimes, it really can be as simple as this: one book can change someone’s entire life for good.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:45, 6 March 2024

It is a pleasure, Mr Pritchard, to serve under your chairship. I am very pleased that I can contribute to the debate.

I thank Nickie Aiken for bringing this issue to Westminster Hall. I was just sitting there thinking to myself, “I don’t think there’s been a debate that the hon. Lady has had in Westminster Hall that I haven’t managed to attend and support.” I love to do that; it is part of my task in this place.

I declare a clear interest in this debate, as a book lover. I probably read biographies more than anything else; I love reading those types of stories. I like to hear about people’s lives and what they did, especially those who have changed the world and who have sought to change the world in many ways, and to get an understanding of what made some of the men great men and women of history tick and do the things they did.

The hon. Lady referred to some of her favourite books and some of her children’s. One of my absolute favourite biographies is that of Blair Mayne, or Paddy Mayne as we know him—the local Newtownards boy who founded the SAS and who I still believe was robbed of the Victoria Cross.

That story was transferred from book to TV. But, just for the record, he did not swear like a trooper. In real life, he was quite careful with his words. He might have got angry and used his fists on many occasions—that was fairly obvious in the TV programme—but he did not use the language portrayed in that series; his family and the people of Newtownards are very clear about that.

In the last few weeks, I have read something slightly different: a book by Dan Walker, who most people will know as a BBC sports commentator and an early morning BBC news presenter. He has also written a number of books, and I got the chance to read one in which he told stories about places around the world he had visited as a BBC journalist; he mentioned the Olympic games; the Manchester Arena bombing and South Africa. Forgive me for making me the analogy, but he was almost like Forrest Gump—he seemed to be everywhere when something happened. Well, Dan Walker actually was there when all those things were happening, and the book gives his interpretation of the occasions and the people. It is about not him, but the people he met. It is a lovely story, and I encourage everyone to read his books if they get the chance.

When my boys were younger, we used to go on holidays, but very quickly the boys grew up and they did not want to go on holidays with their mum and dad any more. I genuinely could have read five or six books while I was away. Reading enables you to put your busy mind somewhere else; it is just phenomenal. When I was listening to the hon. Lady, it was quite clear to me that reading books helps her. I believe it helps us all, transporting us to a different place.

The world is open to anyone through a book, which is just wonderful. That is why I love to see World Book Day coming round. Yesterday, there was a World Book Day event in Portcullis House. It was lovely to go, as I do every year, in support. This year, the celebration was in the Boothroyd Room; I believe that is right. That room is much bigger than Room R, Room S or Room U, where the event has sometimes been held, which tells me that World Book Day is expanding. Yesterday it used at least half the Boothroyd Room—and what an exercise it was in how to promote books to children. All being well, next week or the week after I will take the half a dozen or so books that I was given yesterday to one of the primary schools in my constituency and give them to some of the children there. I hope that they will read them.

I love to see pictures of children dressed up as their favourite characters: from Disney princesses to Marvel heroes; from Bananas in Pyjamas to Toad of Toad Hall; and from characters in the Bible to war heroes like Blair Mayne, who was always my hero as a young boy in Ballywalter and Newtownards back in the ’60s and early ’70s.

World Book Day is a day to encourage children to immerse themselves in the world of reading, to escape from the world we live in and perhaps travel elsewhere. One of my local primary schools, Victoria Primary School, this year has an initiative whereby children wrap up one of their books and swap it with someone in their class. I think that is a fantastic idea: a child reads a book and gives it to someone else, who gives them their book in return. All of a sudden, their knowledge becomes greater and they become even more avid readers.

My parliamentary aide is an avid reader—she must be to be able to read up on every topic that I speak on! Her knowledge is encyclopaedic; with respect, it is perhaps much greater than that of other people who do speechwriting. She has passed that joy on to her children. Indeed, this year Santa brought her two girls a bookcase with books on it for their rooms. Every Saturday morning, they go with their grandad to the library, which conveniently has a park beside it, and the staff watch their wee dog while they get their new book. Every Saturday, they go to the library with their grandpa to get a new book—what an insatiable desire to read! Their school has a rewards programme: the children progress from belt to belt until they end up with a black belt—not in judo, but in reading. That is encouraging.

I tell these stories not to boast, but to explain what schools in my area are doing to progress reading. All these things make it interesting for children to get engaged. However, the fact of the matter is that literacy is a challenge that has to be met head on, and for that schools need funding. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place, although he does not have responsibility for Northern Ireland. I will tell some stories about what we have done in Northern Ireland. What I wish to do in this debate is encourage people: I wish to encourage the Minister and highlight the importance of reading; and I want to encourage the two Opposition spokespeople. I know they will all encourage me in return.

It is great for children to have grandparents who can take them to the library or a dad who has the time to read to them before bed each night, but the issue is that that scene is not replicated everywhere. That is why many children are in reading recovery, as schools attempt to fill the breach and help children not only to attain an average level of reading but to improve more easily.

There is a duty on us, and a real interest in this issue. We are blessed to have so many teachers whose vocation is to educate children and make them better. Everyone here advocates that—in particular, Mr Walker, who has just arrived. Reading recovery needs teachers, and that needs funding. In the gentlest of ways, I remind the Minister and others in the Chamber that reading levels are largely based on the funding that schools can access.

The other day, someone in Westminster Hall—I cannot remember who—said that some schools do not have a library at all. I was quite amazed; I did not think any school did not have a library. I think it is important that they do. Giving those on free school dinners book tokens, and paying for teachers dedicated to helping with reading and encouraging others to be more passionate about it, can be done only if the prioritisation—the focus, demand and drive—is right here.

Thankfully, Northern Ireland is ranked fifth in the world for reading proficiency among primary school children. Data from the 2021 progress in international reading literacy study revealed that children from Northern Ireland significantly outperformed those in 52 of the 56 participating countries. I am very proud to be here to tell others about what our schools do, what our education system does and what parents do in Northern Ireland. That is something we can be very proud of on World Book Day, but we cannot be complacent. There are still children who cannot read well, children who struggle and children who have no enjoyment of reading. The fun of World Book Day is a time to focus on all that. Collectively and singly, we should attempt to do better.

When it comes to reading, I always try to leave with a quotation. This quotation is from my favourite book in the whole world—the Bible—and it is Proverbs 22:6:

“Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

What are we doing for our children through books? We are teaching them about the world, about life, about social engagement, and about how they can be great adults in a world that may seem incredibly strange and, for some, may even be a world that they are not sure they want to be in. If we give our children a love of books, that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives. For me, that is a definite priority, and one that we should all, collectively, try to achieve.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Conservative, South Staffordshire 2:55, 6 March 2024

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken on securing this debate. I think we all feel very passionate about this subject, because we all understand how important reading is to our children. One of the most precious things we can do is take the opportunity to sit down with our child and read them a book.

We have to be acutely aware that although that often occurs in households right across the country, it sadly does not happen in all households. A recent BookTrust survey found that out of over 2,000 low-income families, less than half of children under seven were being read a bedtime story. That is one of the very simple acts that can really transform a child’s outcomes, making sure that they develop and widen their range and vocabulary. That early language development is so incredibly critical for their outcomes later in life. Perversely, that is the case not just in English, but in other subjects, such as maths and science.

World Book Day is incredibly important. It is an opportunity to put a real focus on the importance of a book for every child right across the country. We should all feel a great sense of pride in the scheme, which the Publishers Association has championed over the years. It is not just about what is being done in schools and for children; it is also a celebration of the fact that Britain is a world-leading nation in publishing. We have some of the best companies in the world based here in the United Kingdom, employing so many people right across the country.

The heart of the publishing industry is here in the United Kingdom, and that means we have an amazing stream of talented authors who have the opportunity to get their works published. Indeed, there are many parliamentarians who think they are talented authors as well, and who like to take up the opportunity.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Conservative, South Staffordshire

I think their book sales speak to it—but we are getting slightly distracted.

World Book Day brings that focus, because we do face challenges. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster picked up on some of the challenges faced by children from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds, who do not have access to a book. It is sad to think that in so many households there is not a book for a child to pick up—for them to discover a new world and have their eyes opened.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster read a long list of authors from her constituency, and I would like to point out the great literary tradition that Staffordshire has provided in Arnold Bennett. In my own constituency, Arthur Conan Doyle—my hon. Friend touched on him—visited Great Wyrley during the Great Wyrley outrages and was a great champion of making sure that justice was done. He did not just write about the fictional characters who were meant to have walked the streets of my hon. Friend’s constituency, but also actually delivered justice in Staffordshire.

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

I absolutely agree with what my right hon. Friend and neighbour in Staffordshire is saying. I will add that Tolkien lived in my constituency and was based in Brocton in the world war, which is one reason why I am keen to promote literacy. Does my right hon. Friend agree how important it is that the Government continue to promote reading? Does he welcome the fact that children in England now rank fourth globally for reading? We have gone from eighth in the league tables up into the top five. Is that not fantastic news, which we should welcome?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Conservative, South Staffordshire

That is absolutely fantastic news. It is a testament to the work that has been done and to the focus we have had in this country on reading over the last 14 years, and we have to continue to build on that. My hon. Friend mentioned Tolkien; it is not necessarily widely known, but the Shire in “The Lord of the Rings” was based on the Kinver Edge rock houses in my constituency, and I strongly encourage people to come and visit them—[Interruption.] I notice that my hon. Friend Mr Walker is going to intervene and disagree with me on that.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I am delighted to intervene on that point. I congratulate my right hon. Friend for the points he is making, but Worcestershire would certainly dispute the suggestion that the Shire was based on Staffordshire. Tolkien enjoyed looking down from the Malvern hills and comparing the black Black Country, which may have been the inspiration for Mordor, with the green shire below him.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Conservative, South Staffordshire

I fear that the point is not going to be resolved in this debate, but it is fair to say that I am right and my hon. Friend is wrong. I will, however, move swiftly on.

The Department for Education plays an incredibly important role in the promotion of World Book Day, working with the Publishers Association and schools and creating the underpinning to ensure that we get our children reading. We have seen children make amazing progress up the PISA scales in terms of reading outcomes and understanding literature as part of our curriculum. That is also true of phonics, which I know is close to the heart of my right hon. Friend the Minister, who has championed it over the years, along with many of us. We know that phonics delivers results, and we are seeing that in the international tables. Sadly, we are not necessarily seeing the same results in every component part of the United Kingdom, and I urge those parts that have not embraced phonics as a central part of developing, promoting and teaching reading to look at it as a matter of urgency.

I particularly welcome the DFE’s £60 million English hubs programme—an intervention focusing on designing and developing the expertise to teach reading. Getting that right is critical, and a number of us in the Chamber have probably seen that work. Getting the very best teaching, as well as encouraging, developing and, most importantly, sharing it right across our schools, is critical for all our children.

Libraries have already been touched on, and it is so important that children from right across the country always have access to a good library and the opportunity to pick up a good book and to be transported to a different world and a different country—or even Worcestershire. With the support of that book, they can go anywhere their imagination takes them. The £20 million libraries improvement fund is certainly welcome, but I suggest that we need to do more in that area. There are some concerns; we saw library book stocks decrease by 11% across England, Wales and Scotland between 2021 and 2022. We need the best possible range of stock in our libraries so that when youngsters have that book that they picked up on World Book Day, they have the opportunity to feed and develop their enthusiasm.

It is important that we thank all the people who have been instrumental in creating the structure for World Book Day. We must also thank all the teachers, teaching assistants, support staff and parents, and the children themselves, who make World Book Day the living, wonderful, beautiful thing it is.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe) 3:05, 6 March 2024

It is a privilege to take part in the debate, Mr Pritchard. I do not really understand why it is not better attended—it is not as if there is much else of interest going on anywhere. I commend Nickie Aiken for bringing this issue forward, and I thank her for her contribution to the drop-in we had for World Book Day.

This debate is one of those events in the parliamentary calendar that I always try to put in an appearance at. Having seen the difference that World Book Day has made in some of the primary schools in my constituency, which have some very high levels of deprivation, I think it is vital. Somebody being given a £1 book token to spend on a book might not seem like much, but if that £1 is the only pound spare in the family budget that month, it can make a big difference.

As so often happens in Westminster Hall, I have not heard much I would disagree with—maybe a bit, but nothing particularly significant. Jim Shannon made a comment about schools without libraries, which is something that concerns me. I will come back to that in a minute, because I have a story about how a school library almost literally saved the life of someone who has gone on to do great things in my constituency.

Talking of libraries, I had the great pleasure a few years ago of visiting Innerpeffray library in Perthshire, which is Scotland’s oldest free lending library. It opened in 1680; I think the first one in England was about 20 years before that. By the way, the oldest continuously operating library in the world is in Fez, in Morocco, and it has been going since 859 AD. We sometimes forget how much of what we regard as western civilisation we owe to people who, these days, are not seen as part of western culture.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster reminisced about her experience of reading. Although I do not directly remember this myself, my mum and dad would reliably tell me that the first sentence I learned to read was “How they ran last time out”, because my dear grandad Quinn taught me to read the racing results before he became so ill that he could not read them for himself. That was when I was three—I had originally learned to read from my pyjamas, which would have pictures of cats and dogs and so on. I know that I was only three, because I then learned to read and taught my big brother, who was four. I must have done something right because he eventually came out with an honours degree in chemical physics from Glasgow University and much else as well. If we get well taught when we are young, there is no holding us back.

However, I met my match when I got married. My wife, Fiona, is such an avid book reader that she once managed not to realise that the toast under the grill had gone on fire when she was standing next to it, because she was so engrossed in her book. She also caused consternation at the then Glenwood library in Glenrothes in the days before computers. I do not know how many people are young enough to remember this—I think it is an ever decreasing number—but library books were once managed using wee card envelopes that we had to put a tab in. [Interruption.] I see the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster nodding—she obviously learned about that in history at school. Fiona used to get four books out of the library in the morning, read them and take them back in the afternoon, which completely knackered the system because the tickets were still in the “Issues” and were not ready to be taken back in the “Returns”. They came to a compromise: when she went in in the morning and got books, the library staff would leave her tickets to one side, because they knew she would be back later in the day.

Something else that not many Members here will remember—this was actually on my fifteenth birthday— is that the BBC started a programme called “On the Move” to encourage adult literacy. A big part of it was trying to get adults who could not read, or who were not confident in their ability, to learn that that was not something to be ashamed of. If, for whatever reason, they had not had the chance to learn to read adequately in childhood, they would be given the chance in adulthood. That programme launched the careers of people such as Bob Hoskins and Martin Shaw. Those who have seen it will immediately recognise the wee logo that went with it, although they might not be able to describe it now. My uncle, Alex Mackenzie, designed that wee logo for “On the Move”. He has never received a single penny in royalties for it, but he did it for the love of adult education.

Nickie Aiken suggested that we all chip in with nominations for a summer reading list, and I notice that no one has risen to the challenge. I am going to suggest a book called “On the Come Up” by Angie Thomas, which was recommended to me not on World Book Day but at a summer reading event in Parliament a few years ago. One of the volunteers asked me what kinds of books I usually read, and went and picked it out. It is the story of a young, black, inner-city American girl who is a very talented rapper. The only one of those words I would identify with is “young”, and that was quite a long time ago. I said, “That’s not what I usually read,” and the volunteer said, “Exactly.” Sometimes it is important to encourage ourselves and others to read something completely different. People say that travel broadens the mind, but reading can broaden the mind a great deal without us having to travel very far.

I often make a point of reading about things I think I am not interested in, just to see whether I become interested in them. But we all like to go home sometimes, and I still love finding books by Val McDermid, a great Fife author; books by Ian Rankin, who was brought up in Cardenden, in my constituency; or some of the Scottish books of Sara Sheridan. The two books on my bookshelf that are falling apart because they have been read so often are “Yes Minister”—that was before I got interested in politics, by the way—and “Hamish’s Mountain Walk”, which was written by another person with a long association with Fife. Hamish used to teach in a school in Buckhaven, and was the first person to do a continuous non-powered journey across all 278 Munro mountains in Scotland. “Hamish’s Mountain Walk” is a about that, but there is a lot more in it than just mountain walking, and it contains a phrase I have always remembered. He encourages people not just to walk up and down a hill, or to cycle around the roads, but to take in as much of what they pass through as possible. He writes:

“Any book can be ordered from the local library where a whole world of vicarious fun lies ready to hand.”

That is as true today as it was when Hamish wrote those words almost exactly 50 years ago.

The difficulty is that, because so many local libraries have closed or restricted their opening hours, they are sometimes not that local any more, which is very sad. Although local authorities in Scotland—and I think elsewhere in the UK—have to provide for library services, there is no minimum standard of provision, and there is no statutory inspection system, in the way there is for policing, education or social work. Inevitably, if councils get squeezed but want to avoid going bankrupt, they have to keep providing the services for which there is a required standard of provision, and, sadly, the things that are not an absolute legal requirement start to suffer. That often means that cultural services, library services and so on are the first to suffer, which is sad.

Getting read bedtime stories by a parent or another adult is a great thing, but the earlier that children learn to read for themselves, the quicker they will learn to start thinking for themselves. That is vital, and it is something that modern society seems determined to stamp out. People are not encouraged to think for themselves enough, and reading a book allows them to do so. I have seen evidence that children who read a lot of fiction, regardless of whether it is, in the eyes of middle-class folk like us, worthy or trashy fiction, are less likely to grow up to be psychopaths—I mean clinically diagnosed psychopaths; I am not using it as a slang term. When someone reads fiction, they have to put themselves in the position of somebody else. We cannot read a book of fiction without putting ourselves in the shoes of one or more of the characters. Simply by reading what looks to be just a story about spacemen, ballet dancers or whatever, children learn to be empathetic.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Conservative, South Staffordshire

The hon. Member makes an important point. Some of the statistics are interesting: people who read just 30 minutes a week are 20% more likely to have greater life satisfaction, and 19% of readers say that reading stops them feeling lonely. Similarly, non-readers are 28% more likely to report feelings of depression. Reading is therefore good not just from an educational point of view but from a mental health point of view.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

Absolutely. That is one reason why it is sad that children sometimes almost have to be forced to read at school. If somebody is forced to do something, the chances are that they will stop doing it as soon as they are no longer forced to do it. That is why I commend the work of the Publishers Association, through World Book Day and many other initiatives, in encouraging children and young people to want to read. Children should be encouraged to do so for fun—because they like doing it, rather than because they have been told they have to do it and to recite it when they go back to school the next day.

I promised that I would go back to the story about the school library. I am sorry that I cannot give any hints as to the identity of the two people concerned, partly because of the sensitivity of the information that the lady provided, but this is somebody in my constituency I know very well. I wish I could tell hon. Members what she has achieved and delivered for other vulnerable people in and around Glenrothes over the years.

She had a troubled childhood. By the time she was at secondary school, the path her life seemed to be set on was not a good one. On one of the relatively few days she went to school, she happened to go past the school library and she went in to see what was going on. She got talking to the school librarian, who was someone I later got to know very well. He sat down, heard her sad story and asked if she wanted a book. I do not think that the girl had read a book in her life. He gave her something simple and told her to take it away. He said that even though she was only supposed to have it for a week, she could take as long as she needed to get through it. The girl brought it back two days later. She had finished it, and she asked for another.

Simply pointing that young girl in the direction of books helped her to see life from a different perspective. That quite possibly saved her life, because she might have ended up with a lifestyle that would have led to an early death. Because of that almost chance encounter, and because she was introduced to books when she needed something to show her an alternative path in life, she has continued for decades to provide an enormously valuable service in my constituency. I wish I could identify the two individuals concerned.

The story also says a lot about the school librarian at the time. Simply by being prepared to take a few minutes and help someone who needed it, he helped to turn a life around with the aid of some books. Reading books of any kind can change lives for the better. It should be encouraged, although we cannot force people to do it, because that does not work.

I consider myself lucky that I went to school when every town had its lending library that was open all day, every day. Mine in Coatbridge was one of a great many public lending libraries built on the legacy of Andrew Carnegie. I fully appreciate the difficulties that library services have across the United Kingdom. They have had to change—they no longer just provide books and a place for people to read—but it will be a sad day if financial constraints cut down the library profession any further or stop its original purpose, which is not only life-enhancing but sometimes lifesaving: to encourage people to take time from their busy day to sit down and lose themselves in a book.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 3:17, 6 March 2024

It is a real pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard. I thank Nickie Aiken for securing this World Book Day debate, and I thank hon. Members who have contributed. It has been an incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion.

This is one of those topics that reminds us why we got into politics: to ensure that all children get the best start in life. I know that my children have enjoyed many a World Book Day, getting stuck into stories and the occasional dressing up. I had a look through some old photos of costumes that we had made over the years: many were of dubious creativity and quality, but the experience of sharing them has always been fun. I really commend the work of the World Book Day charity.

Beyond World Book Day, there is something incredibly special—hon. Members have touched on this point—about reading with a child, rediscovering old favourites and discovering new stories and authors with them. Anything that promotes and encourages that is to be hugely applauded.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster on bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. We have heard many examples of the contribution that World Book Day, and reading generally, can make to a person’s life and particularly to a child’s education and life chances, yet we know that there are huge challenges in this space. Last year, the annual literacy survey found the lowest levels of reading enjoyment since the survey began almost 20 years ago, with just two in five children saying that they enjoy reading in their free time and only 28% saying that they read daily. Those are incredibly worrying statistics. They form a trend that we really need to work to reverse.

For the 1 million children in the UK who do not have a single book in their home, World Book Day is a fantastic opportunity to introduce or reintroduce reading into their life. That is especially true for the children in our poorest households, where books can often be seen as a luxury during a cost of living crisis. Ensuring that every child can choose a book with their £1 token is an important step towards igniting that passion for reading and making it accessible to all.

Being immersed in a story can help a child to think creatively or to become interested in an entirely new topic that they may never have encountered. Reading is so important, as many hon. Members have highlighted, and too many children are leaving school without those essential reading and writing skills. Without getting the basics right, they are being left behind, and it is often the children in the most challenging circumstances, who have the least access to books, who are hit the hardest.

A Labour Government would prioritise a curriculum and assessment review to ensure that we provide an excellent foundation in the core subjects of reading, writing and maths. We want to get the basic building blocks right and give every child access to a broad curriculum that not only reflects the issues and the diversities of our modern society, but ensures that children from all backgrounds do not miss out on the things that make school fun, like music, art, sport, drama and reading. Together, those building blocks will ensure that children are able to develop life skills such as better communication skills, which are essential for their future. For Labour, the key to that is resetting the relationship between Government, schools and families so that we can improve literacy outcomes together as a community.

Schools that have faced challenging budgets have had to make some difficult decisions, and many do not have designated funding for libraries. Whether they are in schools or in our communities, libraries play such a vital role in encouraging children to read and ensuring that every child has those resources. I have vivid childhood memories of going to our local library when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, flicking through the dockets of books and seeing what delights might have newly arrived when the exchanges took place. I also remember the library buses that used to come round our school, and how excited I always was about books. We all need to recognise, as we have done today, how important that is for every child. Every child should have books available to them.

A lack of books in schools can entrench inequality in access to reading, and we know the impact on literacy outcomes. Michael Morpurgo, among others, has highlighted that crucial point. We also know that parents value it when children have access to books, or to a good school library or local library. It is a big pressure for parents to ensure that their children have the same access to books and the same love of reading as every other child.

There is a gap in the support available, and many charities have filled in where they can. I pay tribute to the amazing work of the National Literacy Trust and BookTrust. In its strategy, the World Book Day charity says that it wants to see

“more children, from all backgrounds, developing a life-long habit of reading for pleasure, benefiting from the improved life chances this brings them.”

We could not sum up the purpose of this debate any better. In a recent Westminster Hall debate, the Minister himself said that

“we cannot knock down barriers for children if we do not teach them to read well.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2024;
Vol. 744, c. 137WH.]

I could not agree more.

We should all focus on improving literacy outcomes for our children. A Labour Government would focus on that as part of our curriculum review to make sure that we have the building blocks in place. We would focus on hiring more teachers to fill the gaps left in our classrooms and make sure that everybody can be supported to reach these aims. We would invest in early language and speech interventions to ensure that the very youngest schoolchildren get the strongest possible start.

I conclude by paying tribute to the amazing work that World Book Day does year in, year out to encourage more children and their parents to take up reading. I thank the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster for giving us the opportunity to discuss such a positive thing today.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education) 3:25, 6 March 2024

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard, and to take part in this debate—or is it a discussion? It felt more like a discussion: sometimes a discursive discussion, but a very good one. Even as politicians, we will probably struggle to find things to disagree on. As Catherine McKinnell said, this is one of those things that brought so many of us into politics, both directly and indirectly: seeking ways to improve the life chances of those who are disadvantaged, and wanting to open up the discovery of the world, including the literary world, to as many people as possible through the power of education.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken on securing the debate and on having the foresight to apply for it. I thank everybody who has taken part: my hon. Friends the Members for Stafford (Theo Clarke) and for Worcester (Mr Walker), my right hon. Friends the Members for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) and for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson), and the hon. Members for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who comes from the beautiful County Down. Those who spoke and those who intervened made interesting and insightful points.

The hon. Member for Strangford reminded us of the variety of what we are talking about when we speak of books. Although perhaps we think first of novels or children’s books, World Book Day is also about biography, non-fiction and eyewitness accounts. The hon. Member for Glenrothes rightly mentioned the joy of discovering a new genre, something we were not expecting. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North spoke of the joy of rediscovery in reading with our children or coming into contact with books that our children and their friends have. This may be a debate for another day, but we might reflect on how, in a world where so much is about electronica, it is wonderful to celebrate the simplicity of a book and being able to lose oneself in a story—me time, if you like, which I would argue is good for the soul.

I was struck by the very touching story that my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster told about her time volunteering. She also reminded us about the importance of book clubs, a category that has recently grown significantly; I did not know about the Conservative women MPs’ book club. She took us on an interesting journey through the literary chapters of her own life, as well as through the rich literary heritage of the two cities.

There was a competitive spat with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester about who was from where. I will gently say that I would never join in that type of competitiveness. I will just mention that I represent East Hampshire, the undisputed home of Jane Austen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster said that she was a Famous Five girl. I was a Secret Seven boy, but I agree with her on just about everything else. It was only a month ago that we were last here discussing the importance of reading. It is a real pleasure to be here today to recognise and celebrate World Book Day. We all look forward to tomorrow.

The Government wholeheartedly believe that all pupils deserve to be taught a knowledge-rich curriculum that promotes extensive reading, both for pleasure and for consuming information. The texts that our young people read play a significant part in their wider development, broadening their horizons and introducing them to new ideas and different perspectives. Reading is a principal way of acquiring knowledge about the world, language and vocabulary. Such knowledge eases access to the rest of the curriculum. It really does underpin all education.

Ensuring that pupils become engaged with reading is one of the most important ways to make a difference to their life chances. Evidence shows that reading for pleasure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, is more important for children’s educational development than even their family circumstances or their parents’ educational background or income. That is why the Government have introduced a range of measures to promote reading and improve literacy standards, as part of that mission to level up education standards across England.

We have strengthened the national curriculum to focus on reading, requiring pupils to study a range of books, poems and plays throughout their schooling, to encourage a lifelong love of literature and appreciation of our rich and varied literary heritage. But we recognise that for children to develop a love of books, we need to build a strong foundation in reading early on, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire rightly said. That is why many of the measures the Government have introduced support the effective teaching of reading right from the start.

In 2021, we introduced landmark reforms at the early years foundation stage, to improve early years outcomes for all children, particularly those who are disadvantaged. The reforms to curriculum and assessment requirements focused on the critical areas that build the foundations for later success, including language development and reading. We have invested in the Nuffield Early Language Intervention—NELI—improving the speech and language skills of an estimated 150,000 children in reception classes. More than 320,000 primary school children have been screened to identify those with language development difficulties, who will receive targeted language support.

We also recently launched Start for Life’s Little Moments Together home-learning environment campaign, in partnership with the Department of Health and Social Care. That campaign follows the Hungry Little Minds home-learning environment campaign of a few years ago, and aims to increase rates of school-readiness, by alerting parents to the importance of the early years and their own critical role in their child’s development for school-readiness.

As we were reminded by my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton, among others, to drive up the teaching of reading in primary schools, we have focused on high-quality systematic synthetic phonics teaching for every child, starting as soon as children join in reception. The evidence for phonics is indisputable. Phonics approaches have consistently been found to be effective in supporting younger readers to master the basics of reading, with an average impact of four months of additional progress, compared with other approaches.

Because of that, since 2010 we have placed phonics at the heart of the curriculum. In 2012 we introduced the phonics screening check, to assess pupils at the end of year 1. We have also incorporated phonics into the teachers’ standards, the baseline of expectation for teachers’ professional practice; placed a greater focus on phonics and the teaching of reading in Ofsted’s framework; and supported schools to choose good phonics programmes, by publishing a list of schemes validated by the Department. Our focus on phonics is making a clear impact. When we introduced the phonics screening check in 2012, 58% of pupils in year 1 met the expected standard. By 2023, that figure was 79%.

To support schools to embed phonics into their practice, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire mentioned, we have funded the English hubs programme since 2018. The programme has so far supported more than 1,600 school intensively, with a focus on helping those children making the slowest progress in reading, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It includes Chesterton English hub, which offers support to primary schools in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster.

That programme is having a palpable impact. I saw that at first hand during a recent visit to the Knowledge Schools Trust English hub last month. The programme’s impact is also measurable. Schools supported intensively as partner schools by English hubs outperform non-partner schools by around 7 percentage points, when comparing the change in year 1 phonics screening check results between 2019 and 2022.

English hubs are also doing excellent work to develop reading for pleasure and early language. For example, in 2021 we rolled out the “Transforming your school’s reading culture” programme, which was developed by hub schools and sector experts to support reading for pleasure. Reaching around 600 schools last year, English hubs are now into the third year of delivering this research-based continuing professional development programme, which trains teachers in schools across the country to ensure that every pupil in their school develops a love of books.

Of course, teachers play a vital and irreplaceable role in inspiring a love of literature. The Government have committed to supporting their professional development, including with the national professional qualification for leading literacy in October 2022. As part of our education recovery plan, we announced £184 million of funding to deliver 150,000 scholarships across a range of NPQs by the end of 2024. The NPQLL saw 3,064 funded starts in its first year, which was 8.6% of all funded NPQ starts.

The hub programme cannot reach every school, and the NPQ programme cannot reach every teacher, so, to ensure that all teachers have clear guidance to support their teaching of reading, we published the reading framework. Updated last year, the framework offers non-statutory guidance on best practice in the teaching of reading from reception up to year 9. It recognises the importance of encouraging a love of reading, including the vital importance of pupil choice and access to a wide variety of books. It also includes helpful guidance for schools on how to organise the school library, book corner or book stock to make reading accessible and attractive to readers. I thank the organisations and authors who work tirelessly to promote the importance of libraries. Alongside school libraries, public libraries have a strong offer to support children’s development as readers beyond school, and are part of the vital social and cultural infrastructure of the country.

Our clear focus on reading is making an impact, and it has been recognised internationally. In the progress in international reading literacy study—better known as PIRLS—England came fourth out of 43 countries and first among western nations. I am hugely grateful to all the primary school teachers, teaching assistants and other staff, alongside the parents and children, whose commitment to reading and embracing the phonics approach introduced by the Government has made that possible. Indeed, the strongest predictor of PIRLS performance was the year 1 phonics screening check mark, with higher marks predicting higher PIRLS scores.

I absolutely recognise the important contribution of charities and organisations to promote the importance of reading for pleasure, and that very much includes our subject today, World Book Day. We should also mention the National Literacy Trust overall, the Reading Agency, BookTrust and many more. World Book Day is a fantastic worldwide celebration of books and reading marked in more than 100 countries around the world. Its book and book token scheme, distributed through schools and early years settings, aims to appeal to all children, particularly those who need encouragement to read for pleasure. I thank those charities for the enormous contribution they make.

The National Literacy Trust’s National Storytelling Week took place last month. It, too, is a wonderful annual event that celebrates the power of sharing stories. The charity provides excellent storytelling resources to early years practitioners, teachers and families to help to bring the magic of storytelling to life and strengthen children’s imaginations, critical thinking and literacy skills.

Like everyone else here, I look forward to celebrating World Book Day. Some of us will celebrate it tomorrow and some of us on Friday in our constituencies. I think some have already started, and we are all sort of celebrating it together today. I will be celebrating with the children and staff at High Hazels Academy in Sheffield, and I am excited that best-selling children’s author and artist Rob Biddulph will be there too. The Secretary of State is also busy celebrating World Book Day. She attended the grand final of the BBC 500 Words competition last week to celebrate the finalists of one of the UK’s most prestigious children’s writing competitions, and yesterday she visited Hampden Gurney Church of England Primary School to celebrate World Book Day with the children and staff there.

The last time I spoke in a debate in Westminster Hall I concluded by saying, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North was kind enough to repeat, that

“we cannot knock down barriers for children if we do not teach them to read well.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2024;
Vol. 744, c. 137WH.]

I reiterate that point today, as I know the hon. Lady does. The Department is firmly committed to improving literacy for all pupils, ensuring that all children can benefit from high-quality teaching, and giving them a solid base on which to build as they progress through school and beyond with a lifelong love of books.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 3:40, 6 March 2024

I thank everybody who took part in this celebration of World Book Day.

Jim Shannon pointed out that he has always supported my Westminster Hall debates. I am not sure how many I have left before I stand down from Parliament, but I expect him to attend each one. He made an important point about reading non-fiction: it is not just about fiction; it is about whatever book.

We should remember that libraries are so important. I was fascinated to hear from Peter Grant about the oldest library in the country, and the oldest in the world, perhaps. Both he and the hon. Member for Strangford made important points about how reading and libraries can change people’s lives. That made me remember my visit, several years ago when I was leader of Westminster City Council, to the Westminster pupil referral unit in St John’s Wood. The head there wanted to extend the library, which was very small, and he wanted his children to embrace reading, and hopefully to change their lives, like the constituent of the hon. Member for Glenrothes. I contacted David Campbell, the person behind the Everyman’s Library, who donated so many books to the PRU. I am sure that his donation and the work of the headteacher has changed some of the most vulnerable children in Westminster.

I thank my right hon. Friend Sir Gavin Williamson, a former Education Secretary who made a huge contribution to ensuring that children can and do read, and to supporting schools. He highlighted how utterly important phonics are and how important it is to introduce them at the earliest age to help children to read.

I finish by celebrating World Book Day and thanking the organisers behind it and the Publishers Association. I also thank the teachers, the teaching assistants and the parents who will be supporting their children tomorrow. After we leave this place, when we walk through the streets tomorrow, whether it is in our constituencies or in Westminster, we will see children walking to school in goodness knows how many different designs, whether related to a book or not—I remember several occasions when my children wore things that had nothing to do with a book. It is so important that we celebrate World Book Day, thank those involved, and ensure that parents know that it is World Book Day, because we do not want children turning up for school in their school uniform when everybody else is in their World Book Day costume. So parents, remember that it is tomorrow.

Let us really celebrate reading: it can change people’s lives for the better and open up worlds for children living in very different conditions. For as long as we can, we must have a World Book Day.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered World Book Day.

Sitting suspended.