Jeremy Sutcliffe opens a survey of the latest figures for spending on reading materials. Some pupils get one new book a year.
Government plans to raise literacy standards in primary schools could be seriously undermined by cuts in spending on books and reading materials.
According to a nationwide survey, the results of which are published exclusively in today's TES, nearly half the country's primary schools could only afford to buy one book per pupil in 1996-97.
The findings, based on a survey of almost 2,000 primary and secondary schools throughout the United Kingdom, paint a gloomy picture with two out of three schools complaining of inadequate funds to buy library books, textbooks and essential printed resources last year. Almost half expect to make further cutbacks in the current year, while just a third expect to spend more.
The survey, commissioned by the Educational Publishers Council, uncovers widespread funding differences, with local authority schools trailing behind those in the independent and grant-maintained sectors, and primary schools losing out to the secondary sector. It also shows that, when it comes to book purchasing, English and Welsh schools are poor relations compared with their cousins in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
But the most serious situation is in primary schools, with almost one in five able to spend less than Pounds 5 per pupil last year. Nearly half spent less than Pounds 10 per head, at a time when a single copy of a primary textbook costs Pounds 9 on average.
When it comes to book purchases, the poorest primary schools are concentrated in English and Welsh authorities where concern about literacy levels is often at its highest. Here, average spending per pupil is Pounds 12.81 - well below that of schools in the independent and GM sectors, as well as in the rest of the UK (see panel).
The main priority for primary schools is English and maths textbooks, followed by new library books. More than a quarter of English, Welsh and Scottish primary schools spend less than Pounds 50 on science books and materials out of their entire budget.
This emphasis on the 3Rs is expected to intensify with the Government's decision to set targets for literacy and numeracy.
Primary specialists warn that, unless ministers find a way of earmarking extra cash for books and other reading materials, the result of the current financial squeeze will be "a further narrowing of book purchasing policy". That, inevitably, would mean a narrower choice of books for children to read.
Professor Colin Richards, formerly head of primary inspections at the Office for Standards in Education and now a consultant, believes that the growing influence of the National Literacy Project and the introduction of a daily reading hour from next year, will lead primary schools to concentrate their purchases on the basics. Non-core and library books will suffer.
"Children may improve on basic literacy, but what do they do with those skills if they do not have the opportunity to use high quality books in other areas, like history, geography, science, technology and art?" Such fears are unlikely to be allayed by comparing spending on maths and science in LEA primary and secondary schools with those in the independent and GM sectors. The latter spent twice as much on average last year.
One indication as to whether schools have sufficient books for their needs is the extent to which pupils are allowed to take textbooks home to help with homework.
On this, the survey's findings are more encouraging, with less than 5 per cent saying pupils are seldom or never allowed to take books home. Roughly two-thirds of secondary schools say pupils are "usually" or "always" able to do so. Among primary schools, the response is higher still, with almost three-quarters usually or always able to allow children to take textbooks home. However, as Professor Richards points out, there could be acute pressure on textbooks if - as the Government would like - more primary pupils were given homework.
Since 1995, when the EPC commissioned a similar survey, spending on books and printed materials in real terms has continued to fall in England and Wales (up just 2.8 per cent, before allowing for inflation).
According to the researchers, there is not much optimism to be found from the latest survey. Just over a third expect to spend even less on books this year, while a further third expect no increase.
Here again, primary schools are notably more gloomy about their prospects, with 37 per cent expecting to spend less. Only a quarter of them expect to spend more.
The School Book Buying Survey 1996-97, prepared for the Educational Publishers' Council by Roger Watson, is based on responses from 1,880 primary and secondary schools throughout the UK.
* Almost two-thirds of primary and secondary schools believe their funds for books and printed resources are inadequate.
* One in five primary schools spent less than Pounds 5 per pupil. Only one in 10 spent more than Pounds 30 per head.
* One in six secondary schools spent less than Pounds 10 per head, while one in 10 spent more than Pounds 50.
* Average spending per primary pupil in England and Wales was: LEA schools Pounds 12.81; independent and GM schools Pounds 19.86. The average for secondary schools was: LEA schools Pounds 20.57; independent and GM schools Pounds 32.83.
* Average spending per pupil in Scotland was: primary Pounds 17.21, secondary Pounds 22.61. The figures for Northern Ireland were: primary Pounds 25. 72, secondary Pounds 45.35.