Next week marks the end of Malorie Blackman’s tenure as Children’s Laureate. I will be sad about this, not only because Malorie has been a terrific laureate, but because she strongly advocated for school libraries. She has asked on numerous occasions why it is mandatory in this country for every prison to have a library, but not every school.
In fact this month also marks a year passing since the publication of the report, The Beating Heart of the School, by the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group about improving educational attainment through school libraries and librarians.
But in the past year I’ve seen more and more school librarians being made redundant, and visited more schools in which the library space is simply a bookshelf in the middle of a corridor, or schools in which the sole person looking after the library is a mealtime supervisor who merely ‘tidies shelves’. There are obviously budget and space constraints, but it would be good to stop using these as excuses and start trying to re-prioritise.
I’ve banged on before about how reading improves a child’s chances in life. Studies in the US point to the fact that students in schools with effective library programs learn more, get better grades and score higher on standardised tests than their peers in schools without (American Library Association). Reading for pleasure is more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education (Institute of Education, 2013). Students who have access to and use school libraries are more likely to hold positive opinions on reading – they are twice as likely as non-users of libraries to say they enjoy reading. Also non-users were three times as likely to say that reading was boring.
Researchers have also found that spending £100 per primary school pupil on books has a greater impact on average test scores across English, maths and science than the same amount spent on ICT or staffing (Open University/Liverpool John Moores/Liverpool Hope University). According to statistics from Booktrust, 61 per cent of primary schools spent less than £10 per pupil per academic year on library books. In fact Britain spends less money on books in secondary schools than any other developed country.
Statistics from last year show that 1 in 4 children cannot read well by the time they leave primary school, and it’s increasingly evident in children from disadvantaged backgrounds. For these children in particular, school libraries are their only access to books.
There is still no data available on the number of school libraries, particularly in primary schools, nor of numbers of librarians or expert staff (although scant data has emerged that between 2012-2014 280 school librarians were cut from the system); meanwhile the number of school library services (council run bodies who provide expertise and resources to schools on children’s books) continues to dwindle. A 2007 Booktrust survey showed that two thirds of primary schools who did have libraries did not staff them with a librarian, library assistant nor a teacher. It’s important not just to have a stack of books, but to have a trained expert who can disseminate information gathering to the children, who can recommend the right sorts of books, and can demonstrate how important reading and love for reading is.
There’s a great deal more to being a school librarian than tidying shelves. Turnover of stock, preparing welcoming library displays, book competitions, involvement in the wider book community, author visits, recommendations, repairing broken books, replacing lost books, advising the school on books for use in the classroom and topic work, explaining how research is done – how information can be sifted and gathered, providing a safe haven in the school – a quiet contemplative place to study, showing love for reading by example, knowing the children’s book market and the range of titles available, reading with the children, leading book discussions….
Back in 2011 there was a campaign from the National Literacy Trust to promote school libraries and a plea to stop school libraries services from closing, as without a qualified librarian or expert in children’s books, the SLS was some schools only option. Despite this, it is still not a requirement of OFSTED to consider libraries in their reports. School librarian Caroline Roche said that on Ofsted inspections librarians need to “jump up and down saying: Look at me.”
If the government wanted to eradicate illiteracy, or even just promote reading for pleasure, all our schools should be centres of excellence for reading; it should be as important for a child to have a school librarian as a school teacher. And it would also take some of the burden from those teachers – who wouldn’t have to compensate by also attempting to be experts in children’s literature and information services, but have, on hand, an expert of their own.
Yet it doesn’t seem as if progress has been made. I can’t find data on which schools have staffed libraries. Anecdotal stories tell me that librarians are a dying breed. And we cannot rely on volunteers. Well-meaning grandparents can’t fill the gap of an expert. Charity book donations may stock a school library full with Enid Blytons or Roald Dahl books, but it’s time we taught our children there’s a book out there to suit everyone, and a welcoming person on hand to help them find it and love it. Maybe if we gave more of our school children access to and advice on books, we wouldn’t need to be building all those prisons, complete with their own libraries.