I’m currently Vice-Chair of the Great School Libraries Campaign. Our research has found that one in eight schools has no library and that pupils in schools with a higher proportion of free school meals are less likely to experience the range of positive benefits a school library can provide.
There’s no doubt that school libraries reduce educational inequality. They give all children equal access to the same breadth of reading material, regardless of how many books they have at home, and are crucial for supporting children who struggle to get the help they need outside the classroom. Librarians have professional skills that support learning across the curriculum and play an essential part in teaching information and digital skills, ensuring young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are equipped for the digital age.
I can’t imagine a life without books. For as long as I can remember, I have loved reading. My mother would despair as I sat lost in magical worlds, oblivious to the calls to tidy up or do my homework. I have no idea why I became a reader; I suspect it was to escape a small noisy flat filled with six people, but I now read for pleasure, work, curiosity, and information to inform my hobbies and interests.
Reading underpins everything; it has enabled me to gain qualifications, apply for jobs, take an active part in society and continue learning throughout my life. However, around one in six people in England have very poor literacy skills, impacting every aspect of their lives, including supporting their own children’s literacy.
A library gives ALL children access to books
Obviously, the first step in this lifelong skill is learning ‘how’ to read – teaching children the process and mechanics. And yet, if children develop a love of books and reading before this, the physical teaching of reading can be easier. By obtaining intrinsic value from sitting with an adult, sharing and talking about stories and images, they will become people who choose to pick up a book voluntarily. It’s not an either/or situation – teaching children how to read and engendering them to become readers is a parallel journey.
Learning to read usually happens in the classroom and, whilst teachers can instil a love of books, it’s often so much easier with a library and librarian in place. But for either of these to happen, children need access to books. For me, this is an inimitable connection, yet whilst prison libraries are statutory, school libraries are not legally required.
One of the reasons for the lack of a library is down to budget cuts, but if you look at the well-documented research around their benefits, the value libraries bring to a school far exceeds their costs. With one in five children leaving primary school unable to read or write properly, we should be ensuring that we prioritise anything that helps reduce this statistic.
I’m a qualified Chartered librarian and have spent over 30 years managing a wide range of school libraries. I now offer advice, training and consultancy, helping schools create new libraries or revamp existing ones to create a vibrant and welcoming space that reaches out to the whole community and generates a whole-school reading ethos. I see the difference this makes. I’ve witnessed, many times, the transformative power of reading and the delight of a child who has truly connected with a book.
A school library is a unique learning space
Although public libraries play an important role (I’m an avid public library user and currently have around 18 rather esoteric books out on loan), particularly for pre-school children and to fill gaps in the school holidays, many children are unable to use them for a host of reasons. They are not always within easy reach, and transport costs are too high; they are not open outside of school hours; they are self-issue so older children and teens cannot visit them without an adult – and all this assumes they have a local public library in the first place!
Classroom libraries also play a necessary part, particularly in primary schools, supporting curriculum topics and offering children books within their reading levels. Nevertheless, a school library and librarian can extend what is being provided by so much more.
A room of books is not a library; at the very minimum, someone has to select and classify resources to be readily and easily found and organise both the physical space and books. School librarians have a more diverse range of skills than perhaps many people realise. They:
- manage a curated collection of resources, including physical and digital materials, fiction and non-fiction books, magazines, journals, comics, graphic novels, picture books (with and without words), audiobooks and more
- ensure books are up-to-date and relevant, and that stories have diverse and inclusive characters, authors and illustrators
- provide books for less-able and reluctant readers, and challenging texts for the more-able
- provide books that extend the curriculum and feed into children’s current interests and hobbies, e.g., if a child becomes fascinated with space, they can explore this further through appropriate reading material and, perhaps, begin a career path in astrophysics.
- ensure all genres are covered.
No public or classroom library has such a targeted and wide-ranging collection of books for children.
We cannot afford to lose our libraries
In my work, I’ve generated interest in reading using some of the strangest things – a building merchant’s manual, books on fishing, wrestling and model railway construction, to name a few. I’ve been able to do this because I’ve known the children, their reading habits and interests through regular library lessons, where the focus has been reading and talking about books, not measured or graded schoolwork.
I spend a lot of my time advocating and campaigning for school libraries. I want every child to enjoy the benefits of a school library and librarian, including improved reading skills, better communication skills, increased academic achievement in all subjects and a positive attitude towards learning. Libraries are a physical place to study and read and a haven for those who find the bustle of break-times overwhelming or need time out to recharge. Then there’s the positive impact of reading for pleasure on mental health and well-being, which should be given top priority.
To me, the argument for school libraries is quite simple. If a child does not have books at home and access to either a school or public library, where will they find the books they need to develop and improve their reading skills and become readers for life? They won’t. Instead, these children will face even further disadvantages, and this fact alone makes a school library a necessity.
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