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Library service risks being left on the shelf

Diane Spencer on two reports that make gloomy reading for those concerned about books in schools.

School library services have suffered as local authorities have increasingly delegated cash to schools, according to a Government-sponsored report which warns of serious consequences for teaching the national curriculum and on the publishing industry.

The report by Coopers and Lybrand for the Department of National Heritage coincides with a survey of the effects of local management and the contracting out of school library services. This survey, by Loughborough University, reveals that spending on books and materials has been cut by almost a fifth.

The Coopers and Lybrand report says: "There is no evidence to suggest that a commercial provider of loan services will emerge if school library services (SLS) decline. A decline could impact on the range and quality of learning materials in schools and, through this, on the effective delivery of the national curriculum." It might also lead to a narrower range of materials being published, it adds.

In the report's foreword, Iain Sproat, junior minister at the DNH, says the service will "only remain viable if schools continue to subscribe to it. It is vital, therefore, that the service is managed, packaged and marketed to schools in the most effective ways, and that initial decisions on the allocation of delegated budgets do not disadvantage the service."

The report concludes that a "model of partial delegation" might be the best strategy for local authorities. They would hold back more money for libraries than for other educational support services.

It recommends that the DNH and the Department for Education closely monitor the demands placed on public libraries by schools as anecdotal evidence suggests that schools are using what they see as a free service as an alternative to the paid SLS.

The implications of the break up of education authorities under the reorganisation of local government were "almost universally seen as very threatening by the SLS and likely to result in a fragmented and diminished service". A loss of economies of scale, specialist expertise and breadth of service was predicted with rural areas suffering the most.

In a separate report out this week, researchers from Loughborough University, found that SLS staff numbers had declined by nearly 16 per cent, books and materials by just over 19 per cent and there had been an overall drop in spending per head, especially in London.

The research suggests that the effect of local management is complicated. Claire Creaser, the author, says there was a wide variation in services before LMS which had become more diverse since. "No two authorities do the same thing. It makes the collection of statistics more complicated each year; but in general, it is not a happy situation."

She says the decline in spending on materials is worrying. "While books are not the only provision of school library services, they are a substantial part. It is not apparent from our figures to what extent, if any, reduced spending by the SLS has been balanced by increased spending within schools."

Since the process of delegation began in 49 per cent of authorities, 38 per cent no longer serve all the schools in their area. "While the fact of delegation is well known, its extent and effects are not well documented: relatively few authorities are able to provide information on the extent of schools buying back into the service," she says.

In some areas - Oxfordshire, Camden and Barnet, for example - all schools buy back all services, whereas in others such as Staffordshire only 4.1 per cent do so.

"There seem to be as many ways in which services are offered, and charged for, as there are authorities", says Claire Creaser.

Confusion also reigns when it comes to authorities calculating how much they allocate to their service. The most common method is a per capita allowance with or without an additional lump sum. Cheshire applies weighting for special needs and deprived areas; Norfolk has a per capita allowance for primaries and a lump sum for secondaries; Hammersmith and Fulham allocates per teacher.

"Suffolk could only comment that their formula was 'very, very complicated', " says the Loughborough report.

Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire say schools are not told how much of the SLS budget they receive, and this resulted in "some headteachers being unconvinced that the budget had been delegated".

Local authority associations say the report reflected the general concern over funding. Alan Parker, education officer of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, says when schools are under financial pressure it is easier to cut the books' supply than lose a teacher. But that could have long-term effects if savings keep having to be made: "That's the down-side of LMS."

The under-secretary for education at the Association of County Councils, David Whitbread, says one of the "irreconcilable problems of LMS is the protection of central services: if some schools decide not to use them this affects the quality of services for all".

Schools library services and financial delegation to schools, Library Information Series No.21 HMSO, Pounds 9.95. A survey of library services to schools and children in the UK, 1993-94, LISU, Loughborough University, Loughborough, LE11 3TU, Pounds 17.50.

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