Friday 26 January 2024

A Call To Arms For School Libraries?


This was not my planned topic of my first blog for 2024. I was talking to friends about New Year Resolutions and book reading targets so was going to write up a few tips about how you can achieve this. But you’ll have to wait for that because my social media has been full of talk about libraries.

First we had twelve Children’s Laurates teaming up with BookTrust to launch their “Reading Together, Changing Children’s Lives” campaign that aims to support families in the early stages of a children’s reading journey. This was followed by Philip Pullman, with the support of Michael Morpurgo and Julia Donaldson, calling on the government to legislate to “ensure all schools in Britain have libraries” and then there’s been Baroness Sanderson’s Review of Public Libraries. I guess I should also mention that the Ipsos Veracity Index has put the category of librarians back on the list, resulting in the profession being the third most trusted in Britain.

I love it when the media talk about libraries because it’s an opportunity for advocacy and there are always people who are astounded to discover that school libraries are not statutory. But all this has a slightly déjà vu feeling about it.

Over a decade ago, I organised a Mass Lobby in support of School Libraries; I learnt a lot about “green carding” MPs during this process! We had placards and T shirts, and marched from Victoria Embankment Gardens to Westminster. Leaflets had been printed explaining why school libraries were important and given out to passers-by, most of whom seemed quite amused by this large and loud group of librarians, although I should add that we weren’t all librarians – we had support from parents, students, authors and illustrators.

The result of this lobby was an APPG Libraries report “The Beating Heart of the School”, published in 2014 with four recommendations:

·         The Department for Education starts collecting figures about the number of schools that have a library and librarian

·         The Minister for Schools examines the full contribution that school libraries make to children's education and development

·          Ofsted includes libraries in their inspections

·         The Department for Education has a lead staff-member for school libraries

If these look familiar it’s probably because very similar recommendations have been made by both Michael Morpurgo and the Sanderson review. Time will tell if any recent recommendations are followed through but, suffice to say, that 2014 Report is still gathering dust somewhere 

What’s interesting is that in all of this talk about libraries, librarians are rarely mentioned. Now, it may be that the assumption is they are automatically included when libraries are discussed but those of us who work in the school sector know this often isn’t the case and a look at the statistics around school libraries confirms this; the 2023 Great School Libraries (GSL) Campaign report shows that 58% of schools (both primary and secondary) don’t have designated library staff. 

This doesn’t give the whole picture though because “designated library staff” could simply mean somebody assigned for a few hours a week.

I could regal you with horror stories about libraries I’ve visited that are run by volunteers or staff whose main role in the school is not being the librarian so this doesn’t get priority and they often “lose” this time to other tasks. The result is frequently libraries where inappropriate books have been put on the shelves (this regularly happens when a popular children’s author writes a YA or adult book and the person choosing the stock has limited book knowledge); where the majority of the fiction has been written by dead white men; libraries full of books that haven’t been labelled in any way so that picture books are mixed up with chapter books and information books; and libraries where the only supplier used was an Usborne rep so that’s all you’ve got on the shelves (I should say here that I love Usborne books but a library should have a range of publishers amongst their resources).

All this happens because the person responsible for the library does not have the relevant skills or experience, ie: they are not a librarian. You need a librarian to turn a room of books into a library, the same way you need an instructor to turn a room full of bikes into a spin class. You don’t have to take my word for this. There is a growing body of international research-based evidence that shows the impact of having a school librarian - some examples include:

·         A Pennsylvania study showed that  schools that had a full-time librarian, reading scores were consistently better for all students

·         An Australian report found that having a qualified librarian improved student literacy outcomes with up to two month’s learning gain

·         An HMI Ofsted report found that “well-trained specialist librarians had a positive effect on teaching and learning”

·         Research from New Zealand shows evidence that school libraries and library staff have a positive impact on student achievement

·         Scottish Book Trust research indicates that school libraries and librarians have value beyond academic achievement

Experienced and trained librarians bring so much more to a school library and its community. They are not simply curators of books or supervisors of the space; they manage a range of resources (hard copy and online) to meet curriculum and teaching needs of students and staff; they support learning to read, reading improvement, reading for information and reading for pleasure; they help students find relevant resources for educational and personal needs; they deliver information and digital literacy skills teaching; they promote the library resources and services throughout the school community; they engender a range of inclusive activities and events; and they provide a safe and welcoming space.

As I said in a guest blog for BookTrust last year, you can create a wonderful library space full of books but it needs a librarian – to plan and implement strategies and actions that link to school community needs – otherwise it is likely to become a rather tired-looking and muddled room. I know school budgets are at breaking point but you will not get the full package, the full benefits or full value-for-money from your library without a librarian.