Michael Morpurgo leads call for urgent children’s reading investment

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By Alex Taylor

Culture reporter

Authors including Sir Michael Morpurgo and Malorie Blackman have written an open letter urging the government to invest in early years reading.

A BookTrust survey suggests that only half of children aged between one and two from low-income families are read to daily.

The letter notes that some families struggle to access books and support.

“It is not right that children from poorer backgrounds are deprived of a life that is rich in reading,” it says.

The letter was addressed to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

The government said it was “committed to raising literacy standards for children”.

Signed by every children’s laureate from the past 25 years, the letter says the UK’s cost-of-living crisis is “tipping more families into poverty”.

Signatories include current laureate Joseph Coelho plus Julia Donaldson, Dame Jacqueline Wilson, Sir Quentin Blake and Michael Rosen.

According to official figures, some 4.2 million children in the UK are now living in deprivation.

“It is vital to recognise that children who read regularly are more likely to overcome disadvantage,” the letter continues.

Reading a ‘child’s right’

The letter forms part of a new Get Reading campaign from charity BookTrust – of which Sir Michael is president – to support disadvantaged children in family reading.

It follows a recent survey from the charity of over 2,000 low-income families in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which found less than half of children under seven are being read a bedtime story.

This is despite the early years being a crucial window in child development.

Further research released this month by the BookTrust suggested a quarter of parents struggle to get children under seven to read.

Last year, a study by the National Literacy Trust found more than half of children and young people surveyed said they did not enjoy reading in their free time.

Sir Michael, the best-selling author of over 150 books, including Private Peaceful and War Horse, said the initiative aims to give children “their right” to discover the enjoyment of reading.

“Children who come from disadvantaged homes are the most likely never to discover the joys and benefits of being readers, of loving books, of fulfilling their aspirations in life, of developing their talents,” he added.

“These are also the most likely children to be suffering from mental health issues, from lack of self-worth and from family problems at home. These are the very children who most need to find the pathway to fulfilment and achievement that books can bring.”

Former laureate Cressida Cowell, bestselling author and illustrator of the How to Train Your Dragon series, called for “urgent investment” from the government to help rebalance reading opportunities.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are committed to raising literacy standards for children across England, including for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Our Little Moments Together campaign provides free resources and advice for parents to support their children’s early development helping schools and parents in creating a positive culture of reading.

“Our reforms – including the focus on phonics and our £67 million English Hubs Programme – are also helping to ensure more children leave primary school with a secure grasp of reading and writing are clearly having a positive impact as primary aged children came fourth of the participating 43 countries in the 2021 Progress in International Literacy Study – making them the best in the western world at reading.”

The children’s laureate is one of the most prestigious accolades in children’s literature, awarded biannually to a renowned writer or illustrator.

Coelho is the 12th holder of the prize.