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Cressida Cowell – Funding primary school libraries is vital

July 5, 2021, 10:48 GMT+1
Read in about 9 minutes
  • Cressida Cowell MBE, Children’s Laureate and author/illustrator of the How To Train Your Dragon series, speaks about the Life-Changing Libraries initiative...
Cressida Cowell – Funding primary school libraries is vital

How did your career begin?

I read English literature at Oxford, I then went to St. Martins School of Art, and I ended up doing an MA in narrative illustration at Brighton University. So I was in education for a long time. Because I’m a writer and an illustrator, I use my education every day.

At Oxford, I was studying Anglo-Saxon and that’s where I first read the viking sagas. Obviously, that had a big impact! I was learning the nitty gritty of putting a book together and the visual side is a big part of what I do.

I’m presenting books which are for the mass market, that are highly intelligent, not dumbed down at all, and it’s an interesting challenge, but they are also highly visual. And that’s a way of getting children reading - writing books that look like sweets, not brussel sprouts. I write my books to be read aloud.

If you think, from a child’s point of view, things on telly are just beamed magically into their heads and they don’t have to make an effort. Whereas books require decoding and it can very often come to represent something that makes them feel stupid. So a way of bypassing that is reading aloud, because then you’re giving them the story to their intelligence rather than their decoding ability.

So, I deliberately write them to be read aloud by adults to children, which doesn’t always happen, but it means that the children are still getting the words even if they’re not up to the decoding. And books read to you in an adult’s voice live with you all your life.

Do you feel the Covid-19 pandemic has put a strain on young children’s reading skills?
Well, we already had a problem even before the pandemic. According to the Sutton Trust the most disadvantaged children were already starting school 11 months behind their better off peers.

Following the pandemic children from less better off backgrounds are in a worse position. Research shows that the two biggest indicators of a child’s later economic success, let alone their happiness or anything like that, were reading for pleasure and parental involvement in education.

A study by professor Stephen Krashen, of the University of Southern California, discovered that one of the biggest indicators of doing well in reading scores was coming from a higher income economic status. However, if you came from a position of poverty, you still had a likelihood of getting the same reading scores as somebody from a higher income if you had access to a library of 500 books. I mean, so school libraries are essential!

Is that why you’ve called on the Government to increase primary school library funding?

Yes, I am not blaming headteachers or the teaching community at all. It has been an extremely difficult situation.

But, we’ve ended up with a situation in which children on free school meals are twice as likely to be in a school that doesn’t have a library. That just doesn’t make sense. Especially when there’s so much data to show what an impact it has on literacy skills and your later educational success.

Every increment that your literacy goes up the more likely you are to vote, to own your own home and more likely you are to not be in prison.

How can a child become a reader for pleasure if their parents or carers cannot afford books, and their primary school has no library, or that library is woefully insufficient? I’ve made this political ask for money over and above the present minute amount allocated, a bit like the sports premium, to be ring fenced for school libraries so that schools don’t have to look within.

I’d like to see a yearly investment of £100m to help ensure that all schools have access to the key ingredients required to create and sustain a library space and develop a culture of reading for pleasure. Surely the opportunity to become a reader for pleasure is just as important as the sports premium ? How is it fair that some children are being given this immeasurable advantage in life, but stark book poverty means many more are denied this same chance to change their future? Every primary school child should have access to a gold standard library.

What do you class as a gold standard library?

Space, book provision, expertise, and whole-school and parent involvement. We need books that look like sweets and not brussel sprouts and somebody in school who’s in charge of that reading for pleasure culture.

What can you do to help this?

Well, with the support of the BookTrust, we are launching the Life-Changing Libraries initiative.

Over the course of a year, six very different primary schools across England – all of which have at least 25 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals – will be helped to develop a reading for pleasure culture.

A bespoke, dedicated library space will be created by BookTrust in each of the six primary schools and stocked with a specially curated book list of approximately 1,000 titles, selected by BookTrust’s book selection team with guidance from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, to inspire and engage children.

Staff will be provided with professional training and mentoring from specialists at the School Library Association, as part of a two-year membership. The project is being supported by: Reading Cloud, who are providing a library management system subscription for each school; FG Library and Learning, who are helping refresh spaces with furniture and display products; Promote Your School, who are creating bespoke wall art; Rising Stars Reading Planet and Jobtrain; Tonies, who are providing each school a Toniebox; leading UK publishers, who are donating books to stock the new library spaces; and CLPE who are providing access to their Power of Reading resources.

The project will monitor the impact on pupils’ engagement, attitudes and reading behaviour across 12 months, collecting qualitative stories and case studies. The six schools are: Benwick Primary School (Cambridgeshire), Dinnington Community Primary School (Rotherham), Griffin Primary School (Wandsworth), Saviour CE Primary (Manchester), Skerne Park Primary School (Darlington) and Woodchurch C of E Primary School (Wirral).

Why are you backing this project?

It’s because 15 per cent of primary schools have no designated library space at all and only 34 per cent have a designated library budget.

Only 38 per cent have a designated person responsible for the library space. Also, we want to draw the public’s attention to the lack of library provision - you have libraries in prison but not in schools. So parents can then ask ‘what’s the library like at my child’s school’.

And it’s also about book poverty. If a family can’t afford to put food on the table then they can’t afford books. So primary school libraries are vital.

Because I have visited so many schools over the years, I just want to say, again, how incredibly impressed I am by teachers and the hard work they put in and how valiantly they have been trying to make things work, and they’re continuing to try to do that.

Career Timeline

  • 1998: Wrote and illustrated her first published book, (Little Bo Peep’s Library Book)
  • 2003: Publication of How to Train Your Dragon
  • 2010: Release of the first film in Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon movie franchise
  • 2017: The Wizards of Once is a number one best seller
  • 2019: Became the 11th Waterstones Children’s Laureate
  • 2020: Received an MBE for services to children’s literature