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A new report calls for £200m investment and a national reading movement to improve the UK’s mental health, wellbeing and social mobility.

Photo of books

Reading can be a radical solution to the “great challenges of our time” presented by loneliness, mental health, dementia and an ongoing attainment gap affecting the country’s most deprived children, a new report claims.

Calls for the UK Government to invest £200m in setting up reading groups and book clubs to tackle loneliness, and support a national ‘reading for pleasure movement’, are among recommendations it says would help create a society that “saturates itself with books for everyone at every point of life”.

National intervention

The report, by Demos and the Reading Agency, says that Government support for reading interventions would help tackle major future challenges including loneliness and social isolation, mental health, dementia and social mobility, which it says could “grow into insurmountable problems” if not addressed.

The £200m investment would be ploughed into a “national loneliness intervention that uses reading to tackle loneliness for all ages”. 
This would build on the success of Reading Friends, a new lottery-funded programme launched by the Reading Agency, which encourages older people who are vulnerable and isolated, or people with dementia, to share stories in groups or one-to-one sessions. 

Initial evaluations suggest that 88% of participants valued the increased social contact from reading-inspired conversations, and that the activity added purpose to their week. 

Another recommendation is the development of a national “reading for pleasure movement” to help adults feel comfortable and secure talking about reading with their peers.

The report also calls on the BBC to play an active role in a fundraising campaign for reading, on the model of Sports Relief and Comic Relief, raising money to invest in reading and education causes both within the UK and around the world.

And it recommends that there should be a dedicated focus on loneliness, including advice on reading-based community and volunteering activities, in new guidance for schools on sex, relationship and health education, which the Department for Education is currently consulting on.

Social mobility

The report also calls for greater co-location of children’s centres and public libraries, and the creation of a universal entitlement for disadvantaged children to enjoy a programme of sport, reading and cultural enrichment over the summer holidays to prevent a ‘summer slide’ in attainment for disadvantaged pupils.

These measures are intended to address an attainment gap predicted to affect more than 1.5m of the most disadvantaged pupils by 2030, that if left unchecked could take “half a century or more to close”.

It advises Government to create a national lifetime book gifting scheme, through which book ownership and reading would become a key “citizen entitlement”. 

And echoing recent moves to boost social prescribing, it encourages Clinical Commissioning Groups to invest more in book-based interventions and “fund the provision of book-based therapies in libraries across the country”. 

It argues that reading can be a form of social connection that can benefit wellbeing and mental health by regulating mood, exercising the brain, and alleviating anxiety, anger and depression.

Force for good

“Of course, reading is no panacea,” the authors write. “But upon review of the evidence, there is simply no excuse to not take reading seriously as part of the solution”. 

They believe that the activity should be “a strategic social objective for us all – state, market and civil society – to work towards”.

“Reading is a powerful force for good that can change people’s lives,” says the report. “It builds creativity and imagination, knowledge and skills, empathy and understanding. It connects people and strengthens communities. It improves our prospects, shapes our life chances. 

“Reading enables us to be the best we can be, whoever we are, whatever stage of life we are at, whatever challenges we face.”

Polly Mackenze, Chief Executive of Demos, argued that the nation’s perception of reading should change, saying: “Reading may not seem like a radical solution to solving some of the biggest issues of this generation, however this report proves that reading can train our brains and hold off dementia, help us foster connections with other people and alleviate loneliness and depression. It’s no exaggeration to say that reading can transform British society.”

Sue Wilkinson, Chief Executive of The Reading Agency, said: “Through reading-based national interventions, we can futureproof our society, and ultimately use reading to help protect younger generations at risk of rising levels of loneliness. 

“We have already seen through our Reading Friends programme that social reading can have profound impact on older people who are often the most vulnerable in society. We hope these benefits will eventually be opened up to everyone.”