Gift-horse confusion;Opinion

6th March 1998 at 00:00
Teachers, as a rule, are the last people to look a gift horse in the mouth. Schools are grateful for any unexpected windfall that comes their way. A small piece of playground equipment from the PTA, a new computer from a local company - even a box of pens from the corner shop. All are usually accepted with heartfelt thanks, and the old nag is patted on the neck.

But the pound;1,000 books "voucher" that the Government has issued to every school of more than 85 pupils may not be received with the unalloyed gratitude which might be expected. Unfortunately, the frantic rush to spend the money by the end of this month has created widespread confusion, prevented staff from carrying out thorough audits of existing book stocks, and prompted fears that some schools will fail to meet the spending deadline (see page 6).

This is a great pity because schools do not want to be seen as curmudgeonly, and the money is undoubtedly needed. Although heavy spending on books does not of course guarantee educational success, it is clear the present level of investment is inadequate. Predictably, educational publishers have been saying so for years; but recent surveys have substantiated their claims. One in five English and Welsh primary schools is now spending less than pound;5 a year per child on books and one in six secondaries invests less than pound;10.

The Office for Standards in Education has not attempted to verify that claim but Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, has confirmed that half of primary schools do not have enough books and nearly one in four has serious shortages. That may, of course, be for various reasons: central government is starving local authorities of cash; LEAs are not devolving enough money to schools; or schools are either mismanaging their funds or choosing to spend their money elsewhere.

Whatever the cause, studies have shown that English and Welsh schools spend much less per capita on books than either the Scots or the Northern Irish. There have also been complaints (possibly apocryphal) about some spectacularly out-of-date textbooks still in use: atlases that do not register the collapse of the Berlin Wall and pre-decimalisation maths books.

The pound;1,000 grant will not help to counter this particular problem because the money must be spent on reading books, rather than textbooks. But it does indicate the Government's commitment to the National Year of Reading - which is designed to cover more than functional literacy by emphasising the pleasure of reading as well.

Ministers will, however, have to produce even more cash if they also want to prove that they care about the future of the library service. It may not be a national disaster that public libraries can no longer buy multiple copies of the latest best-seller. But the now well-established trend towards shorter library opening hours and fewer loans is extremely worrying, as is the steady decline of the school library service. These developments inevitably undermine efforts to improve national literacy levels.

Of course, it can be argued that the development of literacy is no longer dependent on books, magazines or newspapers. The computer can theoretically answer virtually all learning needs, particularly in an age of CD-Roms and the World Wide Web. But books are portable, tactile, user-friendly, and the majority of teachers will agree with Ronnie Williams, the chief executive of the Publishers' Association, that: "If you don't give children a book to thumb, then you have lost something." (TES Friday magazine, February 27).

The truth is that we will continue to need both books and computers for the foreseeable future, and there should therefore be widespread support for the Library and Information Commission's pound;700 million plan for electronic links in public libraries. Anyone who thinks that electronic links alone will be enough, however, should acquaint themselves with the books that made it onto the annual TES Information Books of the Year award shortlist (Friday magazine, page 10).

This year's winners take children on a tour of the Milky Way and recreate the first second of the Universe's creation. They explain how to make everything from cathedrals to doughnuts and they encourage their young readers to fantasise about roaming the wilderness with wolves.

Books that can work this kind of magic will always be needed and cherished.

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