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Gaps on the children's library shelf

Diane Spencer on the latest evidence of a patchy service to young readers.

Children in some parts of the country are starved of books in their school and public libraries.

A survey by the Library and Information Statistics Unit at Loughborough University showed the proportion of pupils served by school library services has fallen from 85 per cent in 1993 to 80 per cent this year.

Fewer than 14 per cent of local authorities spent at the levels recommended by the Library and Information Services Council, which says spending on children should reflect their proportion of the local population. But the survey found that only in Northern Ireland did all the library providers beat the LISC formula by a substantial percentage.

A handful of authorities in England and Wales - Berkshire, Gloucestershire, Northumberland and Clwyd and Gwent - spent twice as much as the proportion of children in the population.

But Newcastle spent 10 per cent against a child population of 13 per cent, Westminster 8 per cent against 13 per cent and the Rhondda 12 per cent against 19 per cent. The London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham spent just 5 per cent of its funds on books and equipment on children. Solihull allocated 7 per cent and North Yorkshire 8 per cent.

The LISU's report, which has just been published, follows a survey by the Educational Publishers Council which, The TES reported last week, showed that one in five primary schools could not afford even one book per child per year.

It discovered that spending in the London borough of Barnet this year fell from Pounds 7 to Pounds 3 per head since 1990, the outer London borough of Waltham Forest dropped from Pounds 6.74 to Pounds 1.02 but Powys' spending increased dramatically from Pounds 2.71 to just over Pounds 8 this year.

The LISU calculated that in 20 authorities it would take 20 years to replace current stock while seven authorities reported having less than one item per pupil on the shelves.

The survey, which had a 78 per cent response rate, found that eight authorities had no schools library services, that three provided only a support service and six served only primary schools.

It will add weight to the Library Association's Library Power campaign launched earlier this year to raise the profile of public libraries.

Sherry Jespersen, the LA's director of professional services, was concerned at the decline in staff and resources. She said the association would continue to lobby for school library services to be statutory.

In its 180-page report, the LISU forecasts an alarming decline in spending. English counties expect to spend 7 per cent less on children's books and materials in public libraries than they did four years ago and 14 per cent less for their schools library services.

On a brighter note, the survey found that three-quarters of libraries provided books and materials in minority languages.

Regular storytelling sessions were held in 90 per cent of authorities and reading clubs in more than a third.

Year-round events were on offer in 73 per cent, school holiday events in 90 per cent and reading schemes in 68 per cent.

A Survey of Library Services to Schools and Children in the UK 1994-95 is available from Claire Creaser, LISU, Loughborough University of Technology, Loughborough, Leicestershire, LE11 3TU. Price Pounds 19.50.

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