How a ‘gold-standard’ library could transform your school

As new research reveals access to a ‘gold-standard’ primary school library can foster a culture of reading for pleasure, author Cressida Cowell and experts involved in the ‘Life-changing Libraries’ project explain what the findings mean for schools
10th June 2022, 5:07pm
How a ‘gold-standard’ library could transform your school


How a ‘gold-standard’ library could transform your school

It’s no surprise that Cressida Cowell champions reading for pleasure. 

“If you read for pleasure, you’re more likely to be happier, healthier, wealthier, more likely to vote, more likely to own your own home, more likely to not be in prison. I mean, these are astonishing, real-life benefits. It’s all backed up by a wealth of research, and all of the research is linked to the joy of reading,” she says. 

Cowell, who is best known as the author of the How to Train Your Dragon series of books, was appointed the 11th Waterstones Children’s Laureate in 2019. As her time in the post comes to an end, she’s determined to spread the word that there’s one thing every school needs in order to really foster a love of reading: a great school library. 

This, however, is something that many schools are currently struggling to provide. A report by the Great School Libraries campaign in 2019, run by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and the School Library Association, found that 13 per cent of all schools across England, Wales and Northern Ireland do not have a designated library space at all, and 62 per cent of primary schools do not have a designated member of staff to run the school library. Schools with a higher proportion of children eligible for free school meals were more than twice as likely to have no library.

But Cowell is clear: school libraries should be available to every child, and the government should be allocating the funding needed to make this happen.

Cressida Cowell’s life-changing libraries 

In a new report published this week, Life-changing libraries, Cowell demonstrates the impact a well-resourced primary school library can have. The report is the result of a year-long pilot, delivered in partnership with children’s reading charity BookTrust. 

For the project, Cowell identified four elements essential to the creation and development of a gold-standard primary school library: space, resources, expertise and community. She then worked with teachers and leaders to embed these elements in six very different primary schools in disadvantaged communities across England. Each school received:

  • A new library with bespoke artwork (space)
  • One thousand books curated by BookTrust and other industry experts, a library management system software, audiobooks and e-books (resources)
  • A subscription to the School Library Association, a year of CPD and support from Reading for Pleasure UK, and access to the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s “The Power of Reading” programme for a year (expertise)
  • A launch event with Cowell and further opportunities to coordinate virtual and in-person events with authors and illustrators via Authors Aloudwhich specialises in arranging these visits (community)

It’s an extensive list of support. So, what difference did it make?  

According to the report, there were four areas in which the new libraries had a considerable impact: reading engagement, learning behaviours, learning provision and wellbeing (see box, below). 

When it came to reading engagement, teachers reported a transformation of attitudes towards reading, with a considerable increase in the time pupils spent engaged in reading for pleasure both at school and at home. 

Schools also saw improvements in pupils’ writing, particularly in their use of vocabulary and imagination, as well as increased levels of attention, engagement and motivation to learn. 

Catherine Millar, a former assistant headteacher and consultant on the pilot, says that the libraries also led to better relationships between teachers and pupils - and between pupils and their parents. She recalls one parent telling her how reading library books at home had transformed one pupil’s relationship with her father. 

“What the libraries have provided is a human connection, and it has helped children to feel understood,” she says. “That has then spread into the classroom, with children more engaged in their learning and more curious about the world.”

This curiosity has led to the expansion of pupils’ knowledge of experiences beyond their immediate communities, she adds. 

“Communities like Skerne Park [in Darlington] and Dinnington [in South Yorkshire] are very static communities,” Millar says. Before taking part in the project, some of the pupils in participating schools in these communities “used to write stories about how they went to Tesco, but now they are using the stories that they’ve read and they’re imagining”. 

As well as helping to expand horizons, the project also fostered a greater sense of belonging, says Emily Drabble, head of children’s books promotion and prizes at BookTrust, as the improved resources enabled teachers and pupils to make more diverse text choices.

“Many teachers will be recommending books that they know from their own childhood, but the books world has changed so much in the last five years. It has become so much more inclusive,” Drabble explains.

Millar agrees, adding that providing a greater variety of texts offers pupils more opportunities to see themselves reflected. 

“[Some of these schools] have particularly diverse communities. There are many students with English as a second language, and what we kept on hearing from the pupils was: ‘That character is like me’,” she says. “There was a real sense of safety in that, and connecting with a character’s feelings made the pupils feel their feelings were validated, too.” 

Overall, the pilot makes a convincing case for the power of a well-resourced and well-funded library - and the authors hope the evidence will catch the attention of policymakers.


What schools can take from the pilot

However, there’s no guarantee that any ring-fenced funding will be coming from the Department for Education to support this work any time soon. So, what lessons can schools take away from the pilot to put into practice right now?

The key to building a culture of reading for pleasure is about lots of little things that you can incrementally build up, says Millar. She explains that teachers can contribute to this culture just by talking about books and modelling themselves as readers. “When you’re on the playground, ask a child what they’re reading,” she suggests.

Both Millar and Drabble also recommend that teachers read aloud to students, even for 10 minutes a day, because “it has been proven that [this improves] children’s comprehension skills”.

And Millar notes that budgeting priorities may also need another look. In many schools, she says, so much money goes on reading-scheme books that there is then nothing left to support reading for pleasure. 

Meanwhile, Cowell emphasises the importance of working with parents. She highlights that some parents have a negative outlook on reading or have English as a second language, which makes it more difficult for them to read with their children at home. 

“How do you get a kid reading for the joy of it, if the only experience of reading is in a school environment?” she asks. “The real long-term benefits don’t come from the mechanics of reading, but from reading for the joy of it. How do you get that to happen? Part of that is reaching out to the parents.”

And while schools can - and do - make a huge difference when it comes to reading for pleasure, with or without a thriving school library, Cowell stresses that more support ultimately needs to come from the very top. That, she says, starts with ring-fenced government funding for school libraries.

“If you invest in schools and children and teachers in this way, it could have such a huge impact,” she says, “It’s so tantalising, what a transformative impact it could have. What a legacy that would be for any government that introduced that.”

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