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Cressida Cowell's Open Letter: Life-Changing Libraries

By Laura Jones and Rosie Burgoyne

Cressida Cowell by Wikicommons

In April, Waterstones Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell announced her latest project. In a bid to highlight the necessity of library spaces and the ‘Reading for Pleasure’ agenda in primary schools, the ‘Life-changing Libraries’ project was launched with an open letter to the Government. It is an initiative which has garnered much support from industry professionals, including senior figures from the National Literacy Trust, School Library Association and Publishers Association, as well as prominent authors and illustrators from the world of children's publishing.

In this feature, we explore the key concepts behind the project, the importance of projects such as this and what other creative campaigns exist to support children with reading.

Life-Changing Libraries

In her letter to the government, Cowell has stated the need to address “inequality in education by putting primary school libraries at the heart of our long term response to the pandemic with a ring-fenced, yearly investment of £100 million.” This money could be used to tackle the alarming figure that one in eight primary schools currently has no library space (Great School Libraries Report, 2019).

In reference to the impact of the pandemic on children’s literacy, Cowell writes of the “millions of children, particularly those from the poorest communities worst hit by the pandemic, are missing out on opportunities to discover the life-changing magic of reading.”

Looking at figures from The Sutton Trust, the sense of urgency that is desperately required in addressing this problem becomes clear. In the trust’s ‘Learning in Lockdown’ report looking at the impact on children of the second period of school closures, there is found to be evidence of an ‘attainment gap’ between children when considering the figures for parents being able to financially support their children’s home learning, with the trust finding: “31% of those with the lowest incomes had not been able to spend anything on their child’s learning from home since September 2020, while 29% of those on the highest incomes had spent more than £100.”

The Great School Libraries Initiative

Such is the importance and potential impact of projects that promote high quality library spaces in school, it is no surprise that Cressida Cowell is not working in isolation to make a change. In 2018, the ‘Great School Libraries’ campaign was launched. A three-year research project, scheduled for completion this summer, the campaign seeks to secure logical investment in school libraries whilst ensuring that there is a clear strategy in place for school libraries across the whole of England. Launched by CILIP, it is a collaborative project in conjunction with the School Library Group and School Library Association driven by the "firm belief that every child deserves a great school library."

Match Funding Initiatives

As Cowell’s letter to Government demonstrates, often it is economic positioning that has the greatest influence on a child’s access to books. Children living in low-income households may not have access to books as the family cannot afford it, prioritising essential items instead. This is particularly relevant given the economic uncertainty caused by a global pandemic, with parents and carers remaining on long-term furlough or facing job losses. Schools are not immune from such financial pressures, often facing smaller budget allocations each year, impacting the feasibility of purchasing new and engaging books. In response, several publishers such as Raintree and BookLife have, in recent years, launched Match Funding initiatives to support schools in extending their reading provision. These publishers offer a pound-for-pound match on school orders, enabling them to access twice as many books within the constraints of budgetary restrictions.

Love Our Libraries

This initiative, set up by the National Literacy Trust, aims to help support schools in revitalising “uninspiring” or “under-used” school libraries by offering them a training programme to provide the tools and knowledge required to transform school libraries into vibrant reading communities. In reference to the programme’s positive impact, the findings from the trust’s research paper, in collaboration with Nottingham Trent University, has found that “these benefits are particularly profound for children on free school meals,” which emphasizes the positive effect these schemes can have. This is also reflected in the success stories on the trust’s website, which include Steyning Church of England Primary School who were so inspired by the training programme that they have organised reading-inspired “whole-school events”, including a “Harry Potter night, Elmer Day and Where’s Wally? Hunt,” which the school credits as having “contributed to the library’s ever-increasing usage by pupils.”

You can read Cressida Cowell’s open letter in full here.



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