Reading in the school library. Photograph: Graham Turner
A high-profile group of children’s authors, publishers, teachers and librarians is calling on the government to make school libraries statutory. Signatories to a petition to Number 10 include Philip Pullman, Horrid Henry creator Francesca Simon and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen, as well as the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers Christine Blower, Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, top children’s publishers and the directors of a raft of youth library associations.
The campaign’s supporters, who also include the Carnegie medal winners Mal Peet and Beverley Naidoo, are concerned that while prisoners have the statutory right to a library, schoolchildren do not, and they believe it is essential that children get the habit of reading for pleasure. “[We] wholeheartedly support the right of prisoners to a library. It can be part of the process of rehabilitation through education. We are concerned however that school students do not have the same right. Research indicates that many young people who offend have low literacy levels,” they say in a letter that will be sent to secretary of state for children, schools and families Ed Balls this evening by the campaign’s head, the twice Carnegie-shortlisted author Alan Gibbons.
Only half of all secondary schools have a full-time librarian, they say, and only 28% have a qualified librarian. “Sadly, some of our schools still lack adequate library provision,” they write. “It would not be expensive to rectify this situation, even in these difficult times. The social costs of poor literacy are significant.”
Gibbons said this morning that the petition was only the start of a concerted campaign to make school libraries statutory. “When it’s just the book world, particularly if it’s just libraries, the government feels less pressure than if it is a broad cultural movement supporting literacy,” he said. “That’s why I’ve been working on publishers, teaching professionals and public service unions.”
Last November Pullman told a comprehensive school in Chesterfield that it would become “a byword for philistinism and ignorance” if it went ahead with plans to close its school library. Since then, Gibbons said, there have been “worrying indications” that more school libraries are likely to close. “It’s nibbling at the edges at the moment but the signs are there that they are being cut down,” he said. “We want to at least get the discussion going about how to deal with it.”
The petition itself – which calls on the government “to accept in principle that it will make school libraries, run by properly qualified staff, statutory” – will run until December, but by the end of the summer school term Gibbons hopes to have consolidated the support of the book world and to have started soliciting support from community figures, faith groups and celebrities within the wider community.
Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, he added, was top of his list. “We don’t want to stand on the sidelines – we want to engage with government,” he said.