Among Ideal Friends – Libraries, Literacy and the Arts for children

Here are some thoughts and findings from phase one of a project I was involved in (and remain involved in phase two). Hopefully anyone interested in libraries, arts, culture and arts education will find it useful.

Among Ideal Friends  (AIF) is a touring performance project developed by The Spark Arts for Children in partnership with Libraries in the East Midlands. Working together to deliver and transport high quality family theatre performances and workshop activities, inspired by books and stories for children, families and schools, alongside training for library staff and community volunteers.”

A Boy and A Bear in a Boat (one of the AIF shows, by Stewart Melton adapted from the book by Dave Shelton)

I worked with The Spark Arts for about a year on this and it was great to be able to vary and refine the approach to evaluation throughout. As someone primarily in the arts & events field, the role of libraries in the wider cultural sector was not something I would have previously considered myself particularly well informed about. Considering that they represent a nation-spanning, universally provided range of facilities or venues usually offering free and unlimited access to assorted cultural experiences, goods and services… in retrospect, well, that seems like an oversight! Especially given the recent and emerging debates around cultural democracy and everyday participation.

(Link to Phase one stuff here)

Fortunately, as the literature review expanded far beyond my initial estimates (and still relatively modest efforts) I quickly discovered that quite a lot of other people were also figuring out what a 21st century library service can, should or be expected to do.

Don’t get me wrong, I was not exactly blind to the immediate pressures facing local authorities either, but regardless of (or in addition to) this situation, there are obviously longer term trends that needed consideration – AND – the mix of influences across arts, education and local authorities created a very potent and interesting brew in itself.

We produced three reports in the end:

AIF17-1: Project summary, conclusions and recommendations
This is nicely designed and laid out and gets to the point. (Rare for me!)
AIF17-2: Arts, libraries and education: a literature review
I am very happy with the shorter review in AIF17-1 but if you want to know more about any of the individual reports, there is more detail here. 40+ odd reports and papers summarized. Save yourself precious reading time and just take my word for it instead. ;)
AIF_17-3: Technical appendices, data and further resources
Not required reading but if you want to see even more detail, data at an individual venue level, things like the surveys and interview designs used, then it’s here.

Also, here is a Tableau visualization of some key points.

A further resource produced was ‘Marvelous Marketing for Story Selling’ by Jayne Williams: “Toolkit for front line library staff. Creative and practical ideas used during Among Ideal Friends that could be used to generate interest in library events. Written by Jayne Williams and Ideal Friends in libraries, neighbourhood centres, community groups with artists, writers, creators and theatre-makers.”

Phase two is now running until mid 2021 and I am sure I will have more to say on things by then! Of course, the real hard work was done by The Spark, the various artists and the library authorities themselves.

I thought I would wrap up with some points of interest below pulled out of the literature review. The majority of these ‘quotes’ below are my wording so do go and check the papers and reports for yourselves, don’t actually quote these. Some interesting jumping off points for you anyway…

“A positive trend in literacy skills has not been matched in attitudes, with studies finding that children’s enjoyment of reading at age 9 and 11 declined between 1998 and 2003, even as their confidence increased” – Two decades of Reading: an analysis of English policy affecting literacy 1997-2016, Gill, K / Read on, Get on, (2014)

“Importantly it was noted that library cards in themselves had almost no impact on library use and should only be seen as the first step. All types of approaches were more effective when part of a wider programme of activity such as the Summer Reading Challenges.” – Automatic Library Membership Pilots Final Report, Siddall, A / ACE (2014)

“Children who do not enjoy reading are ten times more likely to have fallen behind at school by age 11…The UK is the only economically developed country where 16-24 year olds have the lowest literacy skills of any age group in society…22% of children aged 4-11 said that visiting the library was more likely to make them read, compared to being given a new book (9.6%), getting a book from school (5.4%), watching a film or TV programme based on a book (3.1%) or reading a book on a tablet (1.8%).” – Children’s Library Journeys: Libraries background research report – Crossley, L / ASCEL (2015) 

“The national programme (Literacy Hour) cost approximately £25.52 per child per annum and produced a significant increase in reading scores. Reading scores at age 10 were found to be strongly related to future individual earnings by the age of 30. Individuals who participated in the programme were predicted to earn between £75.40 and £196.32 more, per annum, than those who did not.” – The Literacy Hour, Machin & McNally, London School of Economics, (2004)

“…the ‘early childhood caring environment was the a key factor in explaining the cognitive gap between the poorest and richest children; accounting for one quarter of this gap. Within this, differences in the Home Learning Environment had the most impact.” – Poorer children’s educational attainment: how important are attitudes and behaviour? Goodman & Gregg, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, (2010)

“Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) figures show that total spending by councils in England on arts and culture development and support, theatres and public entertainment, on museums and galleries, and on the library service has declined from £1.42 billion to £1.2 billion, a 16.6 per cent reduction. In fact, the biggest surprise is that the rate of reduction is lower than that for spending overall, which suggests that councils have tried to protect these services where they can.” – Funding arts and culture in a time of austerity, Harvey, A, NLGN, (2016)

“The report concludes that parental cultural and educational resources are more influential than material resources for linguistic fluency and this is specifically true compared to other academic skills such as mathematics…The effect sizes explain that the relative impact of a parental degree is linked to increased scores of 4.4-1.7% across tests while childhood reading increased scores by 14.5-8.6%.”- Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: the role of reading, Sullivan & Brown, Institute of Education, (2013)

“The report claims some success in the years since 2010, having closed the attainment gap between the most disadvantaged students and their peers… However, it is stated that there has been ‘a decade of stagnation’ (2002-2012) in both relative and absolute assessment scores despite substantial increases on spending on education over the same period…An earlier PISA survey (2009) is referenced, finding from 15 year old students from across the globe, the difference between those who said they never read for enjoyment and those who read for up to 30 minutes a day was suggested to be equivalent to just over a year’s schooling.” – Reading: the next steps Department for Education, (2015)

“…The experience of both libraries and arts organisations in the risks and opportunities of collaboration. Both may be juggling multiple outcomes and delivering significant outcomes ‘for free’ that other services benefit from, but make no contribution towards (job seeking, health and wellbeing, childrens centre activites). In general there is a sense that cultural organisations can have powerful if broadly dispersed benefits that represents a potentially unfair high burden of evidence for organisations to effectively capture.” – Envisioning the library of the future [Phase 1, 2 & 3] ACE, (2016)

“Nearly 60% of the population holds a current library card and libraries received 224.6 million visits in 2014-2015, more than Premier league football games, the cinema and the top 10 UK tourist attractions combined (27.5m, 151.3m and 42.7m respectively). Local governments spent £762 million on libraries in the same time, around 27p per week per person or under 1% of Englands local government net expenditure.”- Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-2021, Libraries Taskforce, (2016)

“Boys and children from lower socio-economic backgrounds have been found to enjoy reading less. Some evidence suggests that children from Asian backgrounds have more positive attitudes to children from White, mixed or Black backgrounds…Those who receive free school meals are less likely to read fiction outside of the classroom. Most young people read between one and three books in a month…Having books of their own and having higher numbers of books in the home are linked to enjoyment, frequency and attainment. Independent choice is important. Rewards related to literacy such as books or book vouchers are more effective than unrelated rewards. Parents, families and teachers are all important in developing reading for pleasure. The impact of online reading habits is relatively scarce and has had mixed results; one report suggested a negative association whereas another suggested the opposite…It found that nearly half (48%) of children do not use public libraries at all and that this declines from KS2 (63%) to KS3 (42%) and KS4 (24%). Non-library users were more than three times more likely to only read when in class, whereas those who used the library were nearly twice as likely to be reading outside of class.” – Research evidence on reading for pleasure, Department for Education, (2012)

“One particular study, published in 2009, covered the beginning of the recession, comparing records from June-November 2007 to the same period in 2008. The 36 participating libraries (Washington State public libraries) found that: attendance increased by 7%, circulation/checkouts increased by 11%, virtual visits increased 20%, reference transactions increased 4%, the amount of time public computers were used increased 10% and the number of public computer users increased 14%.” – Rising to the challenge: a look at the role of public libraries in times of recession. Rooney-Browne, C, Library Review, (2009)

“While there had been a year-on-year decline in visits and loans of 2.3% and 2.9% respectively, this contrasted with a 6.3% reduction in budget and 14% in stock acquisitions.” – Library Closures: Third report of session 2012-13, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, (2012)

“This notes that while a child’s motivation, connection and involvement with a text is key there is currently no consistent training or up-to-date resource for teachers in ways to build interest among different groups of pupils.” Read on get on: A strategy to get England’s children reading, Save the Children / National Literacy Trust, (2016)

“A survey of library services (58% response rate) showed that libraries were: hiring out space for cultural activities (94%), offering cultural activities at least monthly or quarterly (80%+) organised book-related talks or workshops monthly or quarterly (80%+), arts, film or music events yearly or more often (60%+). Around 40% were offering Fun Palaces. Around 80% had some form of cultural partnership with arts, museums, galleries or heritage sectors. 40% have cultural education partnerships in place, 34% have partnerships related to sport and 26% have economic partnerships with creative businesses.” – ‘Public Libraries Culture Offer’, 2017, ASCEL

“The impact of reading for pleasure among children and young people clearly links to attainment, but it is noted that these impacts seem to be greater when this comes from self-directed and autonomous activity. Interestingly, enjoyment of reading was seen even when the children involved did not consider themselves to be particularly good readers. As with adult populations, social interactions, social and cultural capital can be impacted, as well as more personal-scale impacts in imagination, focus, relaxation and mood regulation.” Literature review: the impact of reading for pleasure and empowerment, The Reading Agency / BOP consulting, (2015)

“A total of 199 studies were identified from eleven international educational, psychological and social science databases. The majority of studies either focused on music (71) or a combination of art forms (38), and most studies targeted primary school aged children (79)…Although the review found “no convincing evidence that demonstrated a causal relationship between arts education and young people’s academic and other wider outcomes.”, it identifies a number of areas showing promise and a wealth of information to inform future investigations….while positive impacts were reported in many studies, it is difficult to assign significance to these due to design flaws in the studies. For example, small, convenience sampling from one or limited locations, limited detail on the actual interventions used, comparing ‘arts-heavy’ schools with ‘arts-light’ schools without controlling for other variables, little replication of studies, teachers acting as the researchers, invalidated assessment instruments, self-reporting and anecdotal accounts.” Impact of arts education on the cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes of school-aged children, Education Endowment Foundation / Durham University, (2015)

“The UK is almost exactly in the middle of the rankings overall (16 of 29) but is comparably worse on Education (24th) and better on Housing and environment (10th). It is worth noting that the UK has risen to the mid-table from the bottom place (21 of 21) in 2000. The Netherlands is the highest ranked overall, with the majority of Nordic countries filling the other top places. Child well-being in rich countries: A comparative overview, UNICEF Office of Research, (2013)

“What the available evidence shows is that public libraries, first and foremost, contribute to long term processes of human capital formation, the maintenance of mental and physical wellbeing, social inclusivity and the cohesion of communities. This is the real economic contribution that public libraries make to the UK. The fact that these processes are long term, that the financial benefits arise downstream from libraries’ activities, that libraries make only a contribution to what are multi-dimensional, complex processes of human and social development, suggests that attempting to derive a realistic and accurate overall monetary valuation for this is akin to the search for the holy grail. Evidence review of the economic contribution of libraries, ACE/BOP consulting, (2014)

“One recommendation of The Warwick Commission led to the ‘Get Creative’ campaign led by the BBC. Alongside this, researchers from Kings College London conducted a 15 month research project which produced a number of internal reports and this public document….A central argument for change in cultural policy is that policy to date in the UK has predominately taken a ‘deficit approach’ to arts and culture…“The prevailing model of ‘access’, and its language of ‘barriers’ and ‘widening participation’ is woefully inadequate in explaining how cultural creativity does or does not happen“…The authors clearly place the ‘Capabilities approach’  at the core of their argument, changing the focus to one around individual freedoms rather than institutionally defined deficits. Human functionings (beings and doings) differ from their capabilities (the opportunity to achieve those beings and doings….Several responses to a Guardian article by Stella Duffy (about the report and her own involvement with Fun Palaces) were collected by musicologist Ian Pace. Overall, a key criticism is that without some gatekeepers and some ideal of ‘Arnoldian’ culture, we would be left with the lowest common denominator; though some fear the role of market forces in this, others point to state populism. Many suggest that, left to both market forces and everyday creativity alone, there would be little room for critical and challenging art and that far from vanishing, gatekeepers would simply emerge from those who had become proficient in this new language…One of the authors of the report, Dr Anna Bull, responded, with the main defence being that critical and aesthetic judgment continue to take place across subcultures outside of predominately white and middle class institutions, and in popular, every day and commercial culture besides. Simply doing more outreach is not the same as fundamentally rethinking what culture is valued most, by the most people. Both Pace and Bull broadly agree that the concept of ‘community’ should not necessarily be always viewed as a ‘wholly benevolent or benign thing’….Further criticism came from Stephen Pritchard, who points to earlier, and more radical ideas coming from the Cultural Policy Collective’s report ‘Beyond Social Inclusion Towards Cultural Democracy’ (2004). Pritchard particularly focuses on the core ‘capabilities approach’, which remains essentially liberal and market driven” – Towards Cultural Democracy, Kings College London (2017)

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