Illiteracy…continued

As an addendum to my previous post I came across the following letter – via the Speak Up for Libraries Facebook page – from the Coventry National Union of Teachers. For me it encapsulates not only the importance of library services but also what Nick Clegg should be trying to prevent in order to eliminate illliteracy by 2025. If he is genuine about such a goal then the Liberal Democrats need a strong and clear message concerning public libraries, which should include not closing or handing them over to volunteers. Unfortunately, the Deputy Prime Minister has taken the usual coalition approach of washing his hands clean while laying all the blame on local authorities.

Plans to reduce number of public libraries and other cuts to services – Coventry Telegraph Letters for January 23 2015

“As a representative of the National Union of Teachers in Coventry, representing over 1,800 teachers, we are extremely concerned with the city council’s intention to reduce dramatically the number of public libraries in Coventry. We believe that libraries are uniquely placed to help foster engagement in reading. They offer free access to learning and a ‘safe’ space for children and young people to study and access resources.

They can help students to develop their confidence and motivation, seeing themselves as readers outside school and, therefore, read more widely and independently. They will offer a far wider range of reading materials than the school can offer, inspiring students to extend their reading tastes. Librarians are key to this service. The fact that councillors are even suggesting that we can run libraries on a ‘charity shop’ model with volunteers is an insult to our library service.

Councillor Kershaw rightfully points to them being a ‘golden thread running throughout our lives’ (Telegraph, Jan 16). These cuts, supported by both political parties, will turn that 24 carat gold to fool’s gold if they succeed with this plan.

Libraries are a treasure of information and imagination and we must all join together to fight to keep all our libraries as well as oppose all cuts. Let’s unite to defend the services that matter to us and not be divided by the canker of austerity.”

Jane Nellist
Joint secretary and national executive member,
Coventry NUT

Illiteracy and the Liberal Democrats

Nick Clegg recently pledged that the Liberal Democrats would eliminate child illiteracy by 2025, which while a worthy sentiment has to be taken with a pinch of salt from the Deputy Prime Minister.

During his time in office – and unequivocal support for overly stringent austerity measures – the gap between the rich and poor has become a chasm. Research by Poverty & Social Exclusion UK revealed:

  • Almost 18 million cannot afford adequate housing conditions.
  • 1.5 million children live in households that cannot afford to heat the home
  • 2.5 million kids live in properties that are damp
  • More than half a million children live in families who cannot afford to feed them properly
  • 12 million people are too poor to have a social life
  • 5.5 million adults go without essential clothing
  • One in every six adults in paid work is still poor

The link between poverty and low educational attainment has long been acknowledged so it seems almost absurd to boast of eliminating illiteracy on one hand while creating the conditions for illiteracy to flourish in the first place.

Even in the lead up to the general election when we expect the political rhetoric to flow thick and fast Nick Clegg’s statement appears crass in the face of increasing social inequality, driven in no small part by the government’s economic policies.

Equally, one of the historical cornerstones to challenging illiteracy – free access to books and reading via public libraries – has been consistently undermined by the coalition. Public libraries have long been concerned with raising literacy standards and the current Reading Offer is the latest in a long line of literacy based initiatives.

Despite incredible efforts by the profession to raise standards and instill the habit and pleasure of reading in children the Liberal Democrats have helped to create an environment in which there have been hundreds of branch closures, substantial job losses, and communities forced to take over libraries or face losing them.

John Leech, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Culture, stated that he supports the ‘…creation of volunteer managed libraries as a last resort in the event of the closure of a local authority funded library’ and ‘that a volunteer run library is better than no library at all, though I would not like to see this to become the norm.’ Unfortunately, under the coalition this has very much become the ‘norm’ with libraries being handed over to volunteers almost daily.

Even in his own constituency Nick Clegg was unable to convince fellow minister, Ed Vaizey, to intervene in Sheffield’s mass handover of libraries to volunteers. Despite initially questioning the Council’s plans Vaizey quickly back-tracked and would not order an inquiry into library provision in Sheffield.

As such, it is difficult to reconcile the avowed intent to end illiteracy from a man who has been an integral part of a government that has also overseen significant library closures and the replacement of expert staff with uninformed volunteers.

No wonder author Cathy Cassidy has stated:

“Does Britain really want to add the loss of libraries to an already shocking decimation of services? At a time when far too many British kids are subsisting on food bank handouts, will we take away their ladder to learning, imagination and opportunity as well?” 

So the question is, how exactly do you end illiteracy by closing libraries?

And the award goes to…

Alan Wylie recently suggested an alternative honours list and I was both flattered and amused to see my own name on it. The suggestion caused much hilarity in the household leading to comments such as I had more chance of being awarded a Blue Peter badge – which I have to say I would wear with pride!

There were some far more deserving suggestions such as Laura Swaffield and Ian Anstice. With Ian it might be more appropriate to bypass the honours list and move straight to canonisation for all the work he has done (I just hope that the recipient doesn’t have to have received his heavenly reward first!).

Anyway, staying in a rather frivolous mood Alan’s post did make me think that what we need is the library sector’s equivalent of the Golden Raspberry Awards. And just as the ‘razzies’ recognise the worst in film, perhaps we could recognise the ‘worse’ in public library provision. For instance:

  • Worse impression of a Minister for Culture would obviously go to Ed ‘crisis, what crisis?’ Vaizey
  • Worse funding opportunity I would nominate the Art Council’s grants for the arts libraries fund
  • And of course the worse innovation in library provision could go to…well to almost any authority that has replaced paid staff with volunteers!

Knowing the quick wit and ready repartee out there in library land I’m sure there are many other suggestions! What shape the award should take could also provide hours of fun and debate.

Perhaps Cilip could instigate it as part of the annual AGM. Let’s face it, it might even increase attendance! Anyone up for another tacky award ceremony?