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Leadership - Libraries are necessities, not luxuries

These underappreciated facilities should be given the credit, and cash, they deserve

These underappreciated facilities should be given the credit, and cash, they deserve

A number of public libraries have closed in the UK over the past year and the School Library Association (SLA) has pointed to "anecdotal evidence . that the position (of libraries) in many schools is worsening", with budgets and librarian posts being cut.

Wherever they are in the world, school leaders may be reading this and asking: what's the issue? What place, after all, do libraries have in the modern digital age? If this is your response, it is a very short-sighted view that could be damaging your school.

The importance of reading widely and for pleasure is now well established as a vital ingredient in turning children into fluent readers. In 2000, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) reported that: "Being more enthusiastic about reading, and a frequent reader, was more of an advantage on its own than having well-educated parents in good jobs." Libraries are central to facilitating that reading.

In addition, research by the National Literacy Trust confirms that young people who receive free school meals enjoy reading less, do it less often and think about reading more negatively than those who do not receive free school meals. These are the students who especially need libraries. Librarians are expert at turning children on to reading, and the argument for libraries in this context is an argument for fairness and opportunity for all.

School leaders should be building libraries into their strategic plans and exploiting the potential for better, more joined-up use of school and public libraries. Even if technology facilitates reading for some children, it will not do so for all, or contribute the full experience and benefits of a library.

Installing a school library is not just about giving over a corner of a corridor to some bookshelves, or asking one of the senior staff to act as a part-time caretaker. It requires commitment.

First, a library needs to be well-stocked, relevant and led by a knowledgeable and well-qualified professional. That person needs to be given the authority to work in a position of responsibility alongside subject leaders to develop school literacy.

Schools must also improve the quality and coherence of programmes for teaching information literacy across all subjects.

Finally, school leaders and governors need to know if the library is having an impact; this means better and more systematic evaluation. The SLA's standards for school libraries, launched in 2011, are helpful in this context.

Another priority is to make better use of the creative approaches and resources available via public libraries. Partnerships between schools and these facilities can be built into a powerful force for change.

Help is available in this area from UK charity The Reading Agency. One of its initiatives is the Summer Reading Challenge, a successful programme for encouraging students to read books during the summer holidays. Last year, 98 per cent of UK public libraries took part and roughly 750,000 children were involved, helped by 4,382 secondary school students acting as volunteers (and building their own skills in the process); 48,200 children joined their local libraries to take part.

The Reading Agency is now looking at ways of integrating its summer reading initiative into schools' routine reading programmes, including opportunities to enjoy and discuss books in reading groups. Any school leaders concerned about the standard of reading in their establishments should consider as a first step working with charities in this way and also with local library services.

This will help to raise standards for the most vulnerable students, and also begin the process of providing an invaluable library service in schools.

Phil Jarrett is a former national adviser for English at Ofsted, England's schools inspectorate

In short

  • A lot of evidence suggests that school libraries are central to improving literacy and attainment in schools.
  • School leaders should budget for libraries and build better relationships with public libraries in their areas.
  • This provision must be properly thought through, with well-stocked and relevant libraries staffed by professionals who have real power to change things within the school.
  • Working with reading and literacy charities can help schools to build up their own libraries and make more effective use of them.
    • What else?

A librarian makes the case for statutory provision in this impassioned webchat. bit.lySchoolLibrariesChat

For more information on the Summer Reading Challenge and downloadable resources, go to

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