New research by the Book Trust charity suggests that primary schools in England, Wales and Scotland are spending less than a third of the amount necessary for "adequate" coverage of the national curriculum and barely a quarter of what is needed for "good" provision in classrooms and school libraries.
Secondaries are spending less than half what the Book Trust believes is needed to ensure an adequate supply of books.
After conducting a detailed survey of schools' book needs, the Book Trust is recommending that primary governors budget for Pounds 45 per pupil per year for "adequate" provision (defined as books needed to cover the mandatory nine-subject national curriculum) and Pounds 54 for "good" provision (20 per cent added to the cost to cover non-national curriculum subjects).
But the most recent survey of actual expenditure, published by the Educational Publishers Council last November, found Scottish primaries spending an average of Pounds 13.61 per pupil per year and English and Welsh primaries just Pounds 14.21 - less than a third of the Book Trust "adequate" benchmark. Schools in Northern Ireland are closer to the recommended levels, with average spending of Pounds 28.37 per pupil per year.
The "adequate" (10-subject mandatory curriculum) and "good" figures for secondary schools are Pounds 56 and Pounds 67 respectively, compared to average spending in the EPC survey of Pounds 21.57 in Scotland and Pounds 27.54 in England and Wales. Northern Ireland again emerges far better, with average expenditure in secondaries of Pounds 46.68 per pupil.
Richard Hoggart, chairman of the Book Trust, said that the huge gap between what staff feel they should be spending and what they can afford "could hardly be more depressing" and highlighted a "deepening crisis" in schools.
The five-member Book Trust committee, chaired by Professor Eric Bolton, a former chief inspector of schools, is critical of the Government, the Office for Standards in Education and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.
It concludes that "it is clear that schools need to spend considerably more on books than they are spending at the moment. It appears . . . that book provision in schools has suffered disproportionately from the tight squeeze on funding", and calls on the Government "to remove the chronic under-spending from which the whole system suffers", possibly by targeting additional funds specifically for book-buying.
The report says that book-buying is no longer "sacrosanct" and suggests giving budget control to schools in local management may have led governors to cut book spending to build up contingency funds.
"In the absence of a well-reasoned benchmark figure for book spending, the book-buying budget becomes particularly vulnerable . . . there is an obvious need for guidance as to where a judicious stretching of resources shades into a dangerous inadequacy," the report notes.
The Book Trust findings echo those of the latest annual report by chief inspector, Chris Woodhead. He warned of "significant weaknesses in [book] provision in a disturbing proportion" of primaries and "a serious lack of books in nearly one school in four" in the secondary sector.
But the Book Trust is also critical of school inspectors. "It is extraordinary that OFSTED's national system of inspections does not appear to require a routine gathering of information about book supply and use in schools," it says. OFSTED should, instead, "take the lead" in collating such data.
Responding to the recommendation, OFSTED spokesman John Love said: "We do take a very great interest in books spending and will look at the Book Trust's recommendations."
The Book Trust notes that frequent reform of the national curriculum over the past eight years has left many schools with "cupboards full of redundant books and insufficient funds to re-stock". In developing the curriculum, SCAA "often fails to take into account the costs of change that fall on schools". But a SCAA spokeswoman said: "I do not believe that the Dearing review of the curriculum last year resulted in many books becoming redundant."
Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "This report bears out the experience of teachers, who are baffled by the Government saying that it wants to improve literacy, while failing to provide the resources with which schools can buy the books needed to improve children's facility in reading."
The Book Trust survey of book needs at 12 primary and 15 secondary schools revealed enormous disparities in the amount of money that staff felt they needed to spend on particular subjects. One urban maintained comprehensive felt that Pounds 1.51 per year on English books for each Year 7 pupil was sufficient, compared to Pounds 67.76 per year spent by one GM secondary.
The report concludes: "There are clearly schools with inadequate expectations as to their book needs . . . such schools must place a higher priority on books as a vital and cost effective resource for learning."
School Spending on Books (Pounds 4.95) available from the Book Trust, Book House, 45 East Hill, London, SW18 2QZ. Tel: 0181 870 9055
Spending on books per pupil
Actual spending compared to Book Trust's 1996 recommendations Primary Secondary Good provision Pounds 54 Pounds 67 Adequate provision Pounds 45 Pounds 56 Actual spending in England Wales Pounds 14.21 Pounds 27.54 Actual spending in Scotland Pounds 13.61 Pounds 21.57 Actual spending in Northern Ireland Pounds 28.37 Pounds 46.68 Source: Book Trust (96), Educational Publishers Council (95).