Amol Rajan: We need books to stoke the fires of imagination

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A gloriously uplifting tale has crossed my desk, and there's so much guff and depressing nonsense in the news just now that I thought it only decent and proper to report it. At St Cuthbert and St Matthias Church of England Primary School in Earls Court, West London, yesterday afternoon, Lady Borwick, deputy mayor of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, opened a new library. It was the culmination of an inspirational campaign by school governors.

Despite its location and denomination, the school's intake is more than 70 per cent Muslim, with a large chunk of Buddhists, Hindus and Catholics thrown in. About 80 per cent of pupils have English as their second language; at least 26 languages are spoken across the school (Arabic mainly); and more than half the 220 or so pupils are on free school meals. They have had 20 volunteer readers for five years, but because so many parents do not speak English well, the governors decided they needed a library.

So they started fundraising – selling cakes and running stalls at a fair, lobbying the council for a double-size portable cabin, squeezing contacts for funds – some Eton old boys gave £1,000; two private trust funds gave £2,000 each – and running up and down mountains for sponsorship. Best of all, the librarian at St Paul's prep school, Colet Court, arranged for some of her pupils to deliver new books.

The significance of efforts such as these can hardly be overstated. A perfect sentence or memorised poem is a friend for life; and just think what fires will blaze in the imaginations of these inner-city kids now they have a library. What an unspeakably delicious prospect.

In his seminal 1957 book The Uses of Literacy, the socialist Richard Hoggart polemicised on the value to poor children of reading. His case grows stronger by the day. When you know that 80 per cent of prisoners have writing skills at or below that of the average 11-year-old, or that the Prison Reform Trust reckons 48 per cent of inmates are at or below Level 1 in reading, you realise what a literacy revolution could do for social mobility. Two final thoughts. First, could there be any better location than St Cuthbert and St Matthias for Liz Truss, the new Education Minister with responsibility for early years, to make her first official visit? And second, shortly after Woolwich Polytechnic bought 600 copies of this newspaper every week for its children to read, they scored record results. If we want to boost literacy, we should flood the classrooms of Britain with copies of i. Now that really would be education, education, education.

 

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