Reading and beyond: supporting families in the cost of living crisis

18th October 2022

Gifting and lending books

“A book just for me!” Safiya squealed with joy when she saw a shiny new book with a rabbit and a bear on the front cover. She has just opened a package from Doorstep Library, one of the many we have sent to families who take part in our reading programmes.  In fact last year we shared 4,617 and lent 11,917 books to the children we read with.  We also gifted a further 318 books to those families who take part in our Online Reading Corner.   

This Challenge Poverty Week we want to highlight the important work that Doorstep Library does to support children and families facing disadvantage.  We know that some children from families living in disadvantaged areas often “own” very little. For these children having a new book which belongs solely to them can mean the world.  We also know that children who own a book of their own at home are six times more likely to read above the level expected for their age, but many of the families our volunteers read with face different barriers to accessing a broad selection of books for their children.  

The pandemic together with the current cost of living crisis has had a hugely detrimental impact on many families in London and indeed across the UK. According to a recent report by the National Literacy Trust, the percentage of children in this age group who do not have a book of their own at home is now at its highest point since 2019. Almost one in five (18.6%) children in England between the ages of five and eight do not have access to books at home. The rising cost of living is cited as a key reason for this increase, with 87% of parents saying they now have less disposable income and 64% saying that the amount of money they spend on books for their children has decreased. It is very sad, but for many families, new books are a luxury, as over half (51%) say that books are simply too expensive.  

Yes, they can borrow books for free in their local library, but finances aren’t the only barrier. Many parents and carers don’t have English as their first language and can feel overwhelmed by the selection, others say they are simply too busy with work and childcare to find time and capacity for regular trips to the library. On top of that, almost a fifth of Britain’s public libraries have closed in the last 10 years.  

For many children school remains the main, or sometimes the only, source of books. They will get books which match their reading level, but there are few opportunities to choose books based on their personal interests and preferences. One in eight primary schools in England, rising to one in four in disadvantaged communities, do not have a library or designated reading space. 

Doorstep Library volunteers support children week by week, choosing appropriate books for each child they visit and ensuring children can choose from a great selection of both fiction and non-fiction books.  After all, we are Doorstep Library, and one of our most important jobs is to ensure children get access to the broadest range of books. Our volunteers not only handpick books to read during the visits, but they always bring extra books that the children can borrow, to make sure that they have plenty to read between sessions. They know that Alina loves to read about animals, Ben wants to know everything about dinosaurs, and remember that last week Ranya asked for the next Percy Jackson adventure. Having a choice gives children a sense of ownership and that has an amazingly positive effect on their attitude toward reading. We believe that there is the right book out there for each child and lend almost 1,300 books each month.   

Katie Bareham, Doorstep Library CEO said:

“Many families from disadvantaged areas of London and across the UK are extremely concerned about the rising cost of living.  The pandemic had a hugely detrimental impact on these families with children suffering most.  Disrupted education during multiple lockdowns has massively increased the attainment divide between these children and their more wealthy counterparts.  At Doorstep Library we want to ensure that reading for pleasure, which is fundamental to every child’s development and future success in life, are accessible and encouraged.  We will continue to supply books to families, to share stories with children and to help families get as much support as they possibly can during these difficult times.” 

Signposting to additional local services

Our home and online visits focus on reading, but we’re also there to give a bit of extra support, like passing on information about a family activity or a useful local service. There are often many fantastic activities and services out there that families might not know about or could hesitate to try out. When the information comes from a trusted source, they are much more likely to engage. We handpick offers which are most relevant to our families and are either free or affordable. They include services like financial advice or job opportunities as well as fun and enriching experiences for the children. Some of our recent signposting has included:  

  • access to technology – supporting families who need a PC or tablet 
  • resources on how to reduce energy bills 
  • resources on financial advice and support available   
  • local job opportunities 
  • Government-funded holiday activities and food programmes  
  • affordable online tuition 
  • heavily subsidised theatre tickets 
  • a local bike scheme

In the ‘Pedal Gives Back’ scheme, South West Railways provide abandoned bikes so that a Hammersmith bike shop, Pedal Back, can refurbish them and give them to local residents who would benefit from having a bike. We signposted this offer to all Hammersmith and Fulham families and many applied. The first family have received not one but two adult bikes! The parents, Adina and Endre, applied for the bikes in order to help with commuting and school drop-off/pick up and they are extremely happy with them – its made a huge difference to their daily lives.   
The coming winter will be a tough one for many families and we will be ensuring our families know their volunteers and staff are there to offer support where we can. We are also starting our signposting text service for families who read with us online, passing information to them directly via email and text, which makes it easier for them to directly respond and speed everything up. Approachable and proactive, we will continue to offer tailored support as much as possible throughout this crisis. And of course, we will continue to bring the gift and magic of reading to as many families as we can.

To find out more about how we support reading and beyond, visit our family reading resources.