The following is an extract from a speech given by Miranda McKearney, our CEO, at The Festival of Politics debate at the Scottish Parliament on 18 August 2012.
Too narrow a debate
Currently, the debate about the value of reading in children's lives has become very narrow, focussing obsessively on the role of schools and literacy skills. Instead we need a frame which embraces reading's role in children's growth, creativity and well-being in the widest possible sense, where getting children reading is the business of a whole range of agencies, not just schools. If different people, including health professionals, understand the wider role of reading in children's lives we will build a new, much more effective and holistic approach.
If we look at reading's contribution to children's lives more broadly we also start to map out a much stronger case for libraries' role, something we're passionate about at The Reading Agency. Libraries play a stunningly important role in helping children enjoy reading and helping them practice the skill. Libraries are changing. They're no longer just providers of access to books; the best are an active force for social change which promote reading groups, author events, rhyme times and much more. We're proud to be one of the many partners working alongside libraries in changing what they offer and increasing their impact.
Taking a holistic view
The Reading Agency is ten years old this year. Our next ten years will see an emphasis on the role of reading in people's wider well being, putting the debate in a wider frame. There are huge problems, and costs, to society of people being unhappy, and suffering from mental health problems. We are currently researching how reading can be used as an alternative, cost effective strategy for keeping people well and happy.
There are frequently cited arguments linking literacy and the wider determinants of well being. Less prominent are the arguments around a more holistic view of reading's role but the evidence base has been building - Toronto University has completed research showing that reading fiction develops social skills like empathy and Surrey University research found that reading is stress busting. Early results from research we're doing with the RNIB shows that people with a visual impairment see reading as a total lifeline, the bedrock of their well being.
Focus on health and happiness
We're developing a range of practical tools along the health and well-being theme, through the Reading Well Mood-boosting Books and Books on Prescription schemes. This means GPs will send patients to the library for health information and, for the first time, for creative reading experiences too.
I want to end with a quote from a young person: "Reading is like going on a holiday without packing your bags. Better than any doctor's medicine." I think that beautifully shows how we need that bigger frame in which to think about the value of reading; one which embraces that wonderful word, happiness!