Minister says reading plan could be just the ticket
Threats to close libraries due to public spending cuts have provoked storms of protest and led to impassioned pleas to protect the services from writers including Zadie Smith and Alan Bennett.
Their campaigns have now received a government- backed boost: schools could be asked to give all pupils membership of their local libraries under plans being considered by schools minister Nick Gibb to encourage children to read more.
Mr Gibb said that the idea, put to him by children's author and poet Michael Rosen, was intriguing and "something I am taking very seriously".
Speaking at Stockwell Park High School in south London, Mr Gibb said that there were still "shadows of Dickens' world in our own", with children from the poorest communities facing more literacy problems than others.
"One could argue that young people have many competing demands on their time, with the attractions of social media, TV, games consoles and smartphones," Mr Gibb said. "But it is gravely concerning to see this country's young people falling out of love with reading."
He added that reading for half an hour a day is equivalent to a year's schooling by the age of 15.
Mr Gibb also said that expectations had to be increased. The percentage of 11-year-old pupils achieving the higher level 5 in literacy has remained largely static over 10 years and, at GCSE, students are only required to study four or five texts, including one novel.
"It has become abundantly clear that we need to think long and hard about whether the expected levels of reading we demanded in the past are still good enough," he said.
Recent research from Europe has found that reading outside the classroom is crucial to becoming a successful reader and that almost all European countries have reading-promotion programmes, which often focus on libraries.
Mr Rosen said he wanted action as quickly as possible. "They could do it tomorrow. I suggested it to Ed Vaizey (the culture minister) 18 months ago. I mentioned it to Ed Balls (the previous education secretary). At least Nick Gibb is pulling his finger out," he said.
"The most important thing is to have children going into the local library, spending time just drifting, browsing, choosing books to take home, so they are surrounded with a variety of texts that they have chosen," Mr Rosen added. "That is how they get control over literacy, that's how they do it: by just hanging around books.
"It is about a whole culture. It is how you discover that this stuff belongs to you too. None of us learn to read so that we can read our tax forms."
Carol Webb, librarian at Forest Hill School in Lewisham, south London, and the School Library Association's librarian of the year, already issues library tickets to her pupils. She said that about half the children arriving in Year 7 did not already have library tickets.
"We contact the local library and arrange for a mass join-up," Ms Webb said. "We send a letter home to parents explaining. The librarian makes all the tickets up and comes into school.
"But we also march them down to the local library - we turn the walk into a competition for a tin of biscuits.
"We literally walk kids through the door; it makes them feel comfortable having a little explore by themselves and that taster means that they feel able to go back and go through the doors by themselves. They see that it is not intimidating and the people are friendly."
The School Library Association (SLA) has said that the closure of local public libraries has a greater impact on children than other groups because they are less able to travel independently.
In its evidence to an inquiry by the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, the SLA pointed out that schools do not have a statutory duty to provide a library and that school libraries often close at the end of the school day.
The SLA added that increased use of volunteers in libraries means that children do not get the same support. "This can be particularly damaging where children are not in a home that esteems academic learning and achievement, and where there are multiple conflicting demands on space available for concentrated learning," the SLA said.