Vulnerability in the UK: The reading book crisis.


Children reading a book together at the library


In the 21st century, it seems hard to believe that children do not have access to basic essentials, yet sadly this is still the case for thousands of children across the UK. In 2020/21, we saw an increased need for support with free school meals as COVID-19 rampaged through the country. We've also seen an arising requirement for support with clothing, utility, and cost-of-living bills, which the government’s recently released Household Support Fund aims to assist with.

It’s clear that there are other areas of poverty in the UK that are as yet misunderstood, overlooked, and unsupported. Whilst the UK government is putting plans in place to support children in every area of development, there’s still more to be done.

It now often takes a celebrity influence to affect change, no matter how important the cause. The free school meals initiative was driven in a large part by footballer, Marcus Rashford. His drive and determination to fight for the funding to be released nationally was commendable.

It is great news therefore that Marcus Rashford, like us, is now looking at other types of poverty in the UK and has partnered with Burberry in a bid to raise awareness and provide funding to support the development of literacy skills.

As part of the joint initiative, Burberry has worked with the National Literacy Trust to identify the 10 UK libraries in most need of transformation. There will also be dedicated training for 200 teachers, and each school will take part in the Marcus Rashford Book Club – an initiative set up in collaboration with Macmillan Children’s Books.

Rashford says: “Far too many children do not currently have access to books, typically because of financial restraints and there was a need to inspire them and allow them to see beyond the challenges they face daily. These children need the escapism of reading more than most and access to books should not be restricted by the area you grow up in.”

The importance of a good reading book

We are all aware of the benefits of reading books. A key aspect of brain development relies on the positive and negative experiences that children have in their early years, and stories such as those found in popular books allow a better understanding of life situations. So then, it is shocking to learn that a 2021 study by the National Literacy Trust found that over 413,000 children in the UK did not own a book of their own. This is a building crisis that will have an ongoing effect on the education of the current and future generations.

After the completion of Year 1 (age 5 – 6), the National Curriculum’s dependency on satisfactory literacy skills becomes more important with each new school term. Those who have had less access or time to read begin to lack the background understanding and advanced vocabulary that their peers will benefit from. Children who have struggled with reading and writing find that they cannot take full advantage of the knowledge they are being taught and as a result begin to dislike these subjects and fall behind.

The educational impact of COVID-19

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, children of the UK lost up to two months of vital education as local school boards navigated a previously unknown territory of needing to provide virtual classrooms. Reading groups and tasks usually taking place at school were unable to continue and it became a challenge to provide disadvantaged children with the correct technology in order for teachers to offer even basic support. It is unsurprising that these children experienced up to a 50% higher loss of their education during this time.

According to The National Literacy Trust’s study, those without owning a single book were generally found to be from disadvantaged backgrounds (1 in 11). In the time that children with additional resources at home were able to spend continuing to learn, there were others who simply had nothing to fall back on. Where the majority of children could pick up a reading book, circa. 413,000 faced an entirely different lockdown experience.

Pre-lockdown, reading enjoyment levels in children were at a 15-year low. Largely, the pandemic seemed to have a positive impact on children’s reading enjoyment.  The extra time spent at home away from packed social schedules allowed more children to better engage with the stories they were reading. Even those children quoted as having not previously liked reading were found to have increased their enjoyment as a result of the additional time available.

However, some reports showed that a lack of access to books or quiet areas at home did negatively impact both ability and motivation to read during the lockdown periods.

The issue of reading book access

It seems that the beginning of the problem found by The National Literacy Trust could stem from the barriers associated with actually getting an appropriately aged reading book. It can be harder to find cheap or free access to books of the right difficulty level for young readers. With these specialist books often not available from public libraries, parents are expected to purchase additional resources if their child has already read the school-provided materials.

Whilst there are good value subscription services to help combat these costs, vulnerable families across the UK would still not be able to afford such a luxury.

The joy of children’s reading books

The National Literacy Trust’s study found that children who own their own books are six times more likely to read above the level expected for their age, they are nearly three times more likely to actively enjoy reading and are more than twice as likely to agree that reading is ‘cool’. What’s more, over 50% find that reading encourages them to dream about the future.

With all this evidence that reading is educational, confidence-boosting and positive for future-planning, it is clear that we must do something to combat reading book poverty in the UK. There is a specific population of disadvantaged children who would benefit from an initiative that gives them easy access to their own independent reading material. Even just one book would help to bridge the gap.

How could Blackhawk Network help?

Gift vouchers are proven to be a highly effective, scalable mechanic to deliver a broad choice within a specific category, whilst capping the spend and tracking redemptions. An ongoing example is the way in which the Free School Meals initiative has been rolled out from multiple providers, whereby families identified as vulnerable have been able to redeem their preferred supermarket vouchers during holiday and lockdown periods.

Providing a £7.99 Book Voucher to 400,000 of the UK’s most vulnerable children would be a targeted and cost-effective intervention in a growing crisis.

This initiative could be designed so that:

  • Vouchers provided can be restricted to guarantee spend on reading resources
  • Choice can be given locally between physical or digital dispatch
  • Recipients have access to the broadest range of retail bookstores in the UK
  • Recipients have the largest choice of children’s reading books, including staged levels and old and new titles

There would be clear long-term educational and social benefits.

Not only would an initiative like this support the recently published reading framework, but it would also likely aid the post-pandemic catch-up learning agenda. A campaign aligned to the winter school holidays would ensure that those children could spend their time reading out of school hours and share their experience on return to school.

Additionally, this style of book voucher would naturally encourage footfall onto the high streets, simultaneously supporting government policies around high-street regeneration and consumer spend.

We’re keen to do our bit.

Our Payments for Good team have worked passionately since the onset of the pandemic to stand up solutions that support some of the UK’s most vulnerable families. Having identified the significant need of the free school meals movement, this small but dedicated team have engaged with councils, schools, and non-profit organisations to deliver support for food and utility bills when it’s mattered most.

This in-depth focus on the kind of social impact that gift cards, eGifts and vouchers can provide has inspired the team to look beyond the issues reported in the mass media. By examining wider angles and delving into other areas of the devastation caused by hidden poverty in the UK, the team hope to be able to further assist government and charity bodies with their mission to lessen, and ultimately prevent poverty in years to come.

If you’d like to discuss the finer details of a book voucher scheme that could support vulnerable or disadvantaged children in your area, please get in touch using the form to your right. Likewise, if you have another area of vulnerability you’d like to draw attention to, we’d very much like to hear from you and offer our support.

Our Payments for Good team would love to support your cause.