Paul McNamee: To improve child literacy, libraries are a shoo-in

Nearly 130 libraries were closed across Britain in 2018. Some well-intentioned but ultimately futile wheeze involving a number of shops will not make up for this

On a very narrow top level, it’s a good idea. Want to improve the literacy rates and communication skills of children? Involve the entire community. It takes a village, and all that.

Except this village is likely to be found in out-of-town shops. And not all of them, just a couple.

This is where the problems begin.

Last week Westminster’s Children and Families minister Nadhim Zahawi launched his bold new strategy. In the teeth of some damning statistics – a recent Oxford University Press study showed more than 40 per cent of five and six-year-olds did not have a large enough vocabulary to do well in school and a Nielsen Book Research study last year found that only half of pre-school aged children are being read to on a daily basis – Zahawi decided to do something. So he signed up Clarks shoe shops and a few WH Smiths.

Clarks staff are receiving training in children’s speech, language and communication development. The intention, said Zahawi, is to help parents kickstart this early development “helping to take forward our national mission to boost children’s early development”.

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He is thinking, he says, of parents “who have low confidence in their own abilities, it can be overwhelming to know where to start with supporting children’s learning at home before they start school”.

It’s a while since I’ve been in Clarks to buy children’s shoes (though I’m partial to a good pair of Wallabees), but when I did there wasn’t a lot of time for vocabulary development. You get in, frequently get in a queue, try to prevent your child wandering off and toppling a display, urge them to be quiet and try on the bloody things, get red-faced, pay and get out, you hope, without having promised too much as a bribe to get the children into the shop in the first place. The main lessons for growing minds in these situations come in behavioural manipulation and blackmail.

Nadhim Zahawi, stop papering over the cracks and get real

God help the put-upon and hugely patient staff if into this maelstrom they are requested to keep antennae up for language and other skills.

A report from the Economic and Social Research Institute last year found that socio-economic factors played a key part in kids’ early development. In essence, middle-class kids do better in early years than poor kids. Clarks is not a cheap shop. I’d suggest that Nadhim Zahawi is not focusing where it is needed.

In fact, fast-paced retail environments are not the best places to do any of this. Who’d a thunk it!

How about a place that has loads of books, maybe a lot of clubs for young kids and young families, clubs that promote a love of reading and communication and imagination? What if these places were free, open when parents had time, staffed by smart, experienced people who could detect signs that need detected and can help, without judgement. Imagine if these magical places, these Shangri-las, were in every town and village throughout the land, that they also gave books out FOR FREE and encouraged you to return to get MORE FOR FREE. Imagine the start in life these places could provide.

Nadhim Zahawi, stop papering over the cracks and get real. Get your colleagues together, work out the money libraries need and give it to them.

Nearly 130 libraries were closed across Britain in 2018. Some well-intentioned but ultimately futile wheeze involving a number of shops will not make up for this. It will not provide the start and the scaffold millions of Britons need to build a future of opportunity.

Stop tinkering. Be bold.