Paul McNamee: Libraries give us power

"At The Big Issue we’ve been asking different governments for years to take the prevention message seriously. To get in early and make sure that where you are from doesn’t keep damaging where you’re going"

It is, said Damian Hinds, a scandal. It matters, he added. Damian Hinds is Education Secretary. He was talking about a new report that warned a growing number of children were arriving at school unable to adequately read and write.

The Department of Education’s found over a quarter of four and five-year-olds couldn’t communicate in full sentences.

And Hinds is going to do something about it. He has kicked off a plan to halve the figures in 10 years. He’s making the right noises, showing the link between early positive intervention and success later in life. He’s saying things about life chances and social mobility.  Which is all very nice. At The Big Issue we’ve been asking different governments for years to take the prevention message seriously. To get in early and make sure that where you are from doesn’t keep damaging where you’re going.

Children who rely on free school meals during term-time are going hungry in the holidays

The problem is, I can’t find a lot of detail in Hinds’ plans. The words ‘positive’ and ‘support’ and ‘advice’ pop up. But not actual examples of things that would help.

So, I have one for him here. Stop closing libraries. Stop it. Don’t say you’re not. Don’t say it’s local government. Don’t say it’s not something you can influence. Your party has been in government for almost eight years. In that time, over 470 libraries have closed across the UK.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

That’s over 470 places where parents could take their children so their children could be immersed in books and language. Where parents could meet other parents in their situation, where they could share stories, pick up tips, discover the books their children can abandon themselves in. Places that start assembling the scaffolding under which lives rich in promise and hope can be built.

One thing Hinds identified as a barrier to reading and better communication amongst pre-schoolers was that at home their parents may be on screens and not communicating with them. That’s another thing that these 470 boarded up places could easily have dealt with.

The austerity cuts from central government have had a direct bearing on all of this. Local government was forced to carry a lot of the weight of swingeing cuts – so they, not central government, could be blamed. And of course they were going to look for cost-saving in soft areas.

Last week the Trussell Trust, responsible for a lot of the foodbanks in Britain, reported a spike in demand due to the school holiday period. Children who rely on free school meals during term-time are going hungry in the holidays. Parents on the breadline, where Universal Credit problems are contributing to difficulties, are in actuality on the breadline. The Trussell Trust said last year 74,000 emergency food packs went to children during July and August. They are expecting more this year.

In the teeth of this reality, rolling out plans for better communication skills amongst kids looks very much a secondary demand.

However, libraries could provide an answer here too. Until we get to grip with this need for foodbanks, libraries could become places where food is provided, by government, or by supermarkets who increasingly look to show they are serving the needs of the entire community by giving away some food, during the summer months. Tie it into reading schemes. Make it available to all so there is no embarrassment. Make it a public health issue. Throw in some cooking classes. Make the libraries growing, pulsing, essential community hubs.

Stop closing the libraries. It’s clearly too costly.

Images: Robin Byles/Flickr