Libraries are a vital ally of teachers and teaching assistants at a time when they need support. Library staff are at the crossroads of so much - it is often the one place where all curriculum intersects, as well as providing a sense of place and atmosphere where children can be themselves and talk about things they've achieved, or that are worrying them.
Teachers and schools generally can sometimes seem embattled - everyone's a critic and no one is asking the opinions of the people who may actually have the answer. Times are frustrating, and libraries are sympathetic and supportive - supportive because it's our job to help you build great lessons using the latest and best resources and sympathetic because we're in a similar situation. I would love to write eloquently about the number of school libraries closed and librarians made redundant, but the truth is no one knows. We know its happening, we see colleagues forced out - told that the pupils can do their job, or 'no one needs books any more - it's all on the internet'. But these are entirely short sighted decisions made out of desperation or ignorance.
'It's all on the internet'. Well, yes, there's far more information than we could ever hope to consume on the internet but, despite the fact that Google provides access to a mere 4% of the internet, it's not actually access to information that's the issue. It's access to the right information. The issue is being able to distinguish bias and 'fake news' from reputable, accurate accounts. If a child doesn't look further than the first two hits it's completely reliant on their background knowledge to make a judgement call about the accuracy of the information in front of them - and if they don't have that background information, the new information they've found is meaningless. Another issue is that other than by headlines there is no accidental gaining of information - you find what you need and move on, making learning much more linear, and students increasingly dependent on being 'taught' as they are discovering less for themselves.
In the meantime, teachers are being told that 'just' being a teacher isn't enough, despite the fact that everyone in the industry knows that teacher workload is a problem that needs to be solved. Teachers are now expected to fight 'fake news'; be responsible for mental health; and have an in depth knowledge of children's literature - a sector which grew last year by 7%, with some estimating that 10,000 children's books are now published in the UK each year.
Budgets are tight, and I do know the difficult decisions that are having to be made, but does anyone really think it's appropriate to be asking teachers to do the work of other professions? Is it even possible?
A Library is responsible for two of the three things mentioned above, and a well-trained, experienced librarian can do so much more for a school. Here are just some examples:
- Schools are currently looking at their curriculum and the librarian will have the threads of this already
- Many teachers are talking about disadvantaged students and cultural capital - librarians can be key allies in running activities that expose students to a range of ideas and vocabulary
- The Librarian can read aloud with impunity - making sure that students with lower literacy levels are still exposed to a variety of texts in a way that doesn't result in increased pressure or feelings of isolation
- Librarians are well placed to disseminate the powerful knowledge and a range of vocabulary and texts to all students
Having a picture of the state of school libraries is important so that we have an accurate idea of the students and teachers who have this support, and those that don't. The SLA is part of a group called the School Library Data Group who are collecting data to build this picture of school libraries. The first part of this is going to be the 'Big Conversation' more details about which will be announced at the end of April. Details will be available from the SLA website in due course. Importantly anyone can take part, so you can still get involved if you don't have any library staff. School libraries and teachers have more in common than most people think - both are professions done for love, not riches. Both have academic sides that seem to be forgotten by many (librarians can have a Masters in information and Library Management, and teachers one in Education); both have professional bodies: The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and the Chartered College of Teaching; and both struggle to overcome stereotypes! I once was asked by a teacher how long I was going to do 'this' for. The idea that working in a school library was a career choice had clearly never occurred to him, and this results in limitations being placed on librarians - as if somehow they are not dedicated professionals who have their place in the educational landscape.
All the research shows the impact that choice can have on children's reading - but given tight budgets and the amount of content available it can be difficult to maintain a well curated collection.
Variation and volume are key to children's academic success. Variation in format: newspapers, fiction, information, graphic, wordless. Print; e-book or audio book - all have their place in the varied diet of reading. Reading for fun, for information, for experience - they all stretch and extend the mind in different ways! And volume: reading for 20 minutes a day over a year means that a child acquires 1.8 million words a year, as opposed to a child who only reads for one minute a day who will only acquire 8,000 words. It doesn't take much to imagine how much easier it will be to access all kinds of things for the first child. Think about all that knowledge, all those situations encountered, all those ideas inspired... It is even more impactful when you consider the new GCSEs. These are set with questions that have a reading age of 15 meaning that any child not reading at their chronological age is going to be at a serious disadvantage.
Children's literature now makes up a significant percentage of the overall UK book market, and this means that even a well curated collection can be overwhelming to children (and parents) who are literacy shy. New research by Egmont reinforces the knowledge that children's literacy can be hugely influenced by being read to. Yet another important, life changing thing that school librarians can do. Children's librarians are not stern gate-keepers, glaring and shushing but more like helpers in a toy store:
"Have you tried this? It's great fun!"
"Oh you like that, do you? This is the updated model - it has extra features!"
Children's librarians sell nothing but enthusiasm and excitement, and there is no money expected from the family in order to take part. It is a joyous, powerful job, but one that is becoming rare in these educational times to the detriment of teachers, and all students.
The School Library Association is there to support any school library and any member of staff. £89 a year buys an organisational membership for a year with access to a personalised advice line (for free); a quarterly journal which includes plenty of book reviews and articles about teaching digital literacy and reading for pleasure, discounts off our training courses and our specialist publications. For more information please call 01793 530111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Alison Tarrant is the Director of the School Library Association. She worked as a school librarian beforehand, and has experienced a range of schools. Alison was on the Honour List for School Librarian of the Year in 2016, and was a Trustee for the SLA and Chair of Youth Libraries Group Eastern before her appointment to the SLA.