People talk a lot about social mobility these days, not least the government who are embarrassed that the poor appear to constantly get poorer while the rich get richer. It seems harder than ever for someone from a disadvantaged background to break free from the cruel cycles that keep the UK so divided.
So, you ask, why am I as a children’s author, writing about this? Well, today I heard the news that 10 of Bury’s 14 public libraries are closing. 70% of a town’s main free source of cultural provision. I am shocked and truly saddened by this news. But I am also disturbed.
It’s not just that fewer books are available for people to borrow in an area with lots of deprivation – it’s something much deeper and more destructive to one important avenue to social mobility.
Just yesterday I was at a conference in Bradford speaking to a large number of teachers and librarians, all eager to hear ideas for ways to help struggling youngsters with literacy. I told them that, in my view, children can break free from disadvantage by becoming readers, i.e. young people who read for pleasure. I backed this up by research showing that 14 year-olds who read for pleasure have on average a reading age 3.3 years ahead of those who don’t.
Readers are succeeders. Their academic work is better, their concentration is good and their understanding and empathy constantly expanding. They are even better at maths!
When I visit schools and work with strugglers (typically reluctant readers from poor homes where they receive no support or encouragement) I inspire them to read by showing them that books can be fun. But I also tell them that they can become clever by becoming readers. They can do well at school. They can get a good job and succeed in life – by spending time with books.
Of course these are the children who don’t have books at home and also lack families to buy them books. But I tell them there is a place they can get books for free. FREE. It’s called the library. They often stare at me, amazed that this can be true. Many have never entered a public library.
So, children have an escape route from poverty and social inequality and deprivation and the cycle of unemployment and hopelessness. But if we close libraries we cut that off. We’re making it even harder for those who have it hard from birth.
I don’t blame Bury Council. They have very hard decisions to make in the light of budget cuts. This is once again at the hands of the government. The same people who say they want to increase social mobility.
Let’s put the financial picture in perspective. There are proposals for a £200 million Garden Bridge across the Thames in London. Closing Bury’s 10 libraries will save £1.4m a year.
Britain just got a bit stupider.