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School libraries

Photographs: Blend ImagesBrand

Additional research: Sarah Jenkins

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If the purpose of 21st-century education is to create independent, lifelong learners able to handle a range of information sources with confidence, what better place to nurture this new generation than the school library? Accordingly, some schools have invested in state-of-the-art "learning resource centres" packed with new books and exciting multimedia. In a recent Ofsted survey of good practice in primary and secondary libraries, HMI Phil Jarrett concluded: "The best school libraries have a positive impact on pupils' learning. Good headteachers understand this and resource the library appropriately. This includes the provision of well-qualified and knowledgeable staff." Because libraries are not statutory, however, in some schools they are way down the list of priorities, and many librarians are still struggling with small budgets, ancient stock, and a general lack of status. With school leaders now required to evaluate their library facilities in preparation for inspections, how can schools make the most of this important resource?

Changing role of the school librarian

An effective school librarian does far more than just stamp books and keep them in order. One of their most important roles has always been to engage pupils in reading (research for the Organisation for EconomicCo-operation and Development found the amount of reading for pleasure a child does is often an accurate predictor of academic achievement). This involves developing strategies for enticing reluctant pupils into the library and extending the range of able readers, as well as organising extracurricular activities such as visits from authors, book clubs and competitions.

Librarians also need to keep up with the latest children's literature - something that many teachers struggle to find the time to do - and to be able to match pupils to books they will enjoy.

In recent years, however, there has been increased emphasis on developing pupils' research and study skills, often termed "information literacy".

Although the Ofsted team identified much good practice in the schools it visited, it found the development of information literacy skills across the curriculum was rarely a part of whole-school policy - another area where a professional librarian can make a huge impact.

Anne Robinson, learning resource centre manager at Nicholas Chamberlaine technology college in Warwickshire and winner of this year's School Library Association (SLA) librarian of the year award, says that when she first started working in schools in the early Eighties, pupils were taught "library lessons" skills such as how to use the Dewey system. However, these were often taught in isolation. "Nowadays there is more emphasis on embedding a structured programme of information literacy skills throughout the whole curriculum so that students use them in a relevant context," she says. "This means that librarians are increasingly involved in gathering reference materials for particular topics, creating web links for the school intranet, and developing resources and delivering lessons alongside teaching staff."

One aim is to help pupils become critical and selective users of information sources, and to be able to edit the results rather than just download chunks of data from websites. "The internet is a great motivator and the content is up to date," says Mrs Robinson, "but when pupils start to analyse it they may realise that a book aimed at their age group is more useful for their purposes."

The Ofsted survey also points out that the best librarians have effective measures in place to monitor and evaluate the impact of the library on pupils' learning, and can analyse library data to demonstrate this. The team concluded that schools should be recognising the significant role innovative librarians play in curriculum development by raising their status. Mrs Robinson, for instance, is ranked as middle management, equivalent to a head of department.

A thankless task?

Working in a school is not always the most attractive option for a chartered librarian, as jobs in public libraries and the private sector frequently offer better pay and prospects. The job of school librarian is widely seen as having low status and typically done by women with school-age children. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals' (CILIP) salary guide for school library workers recommends that pay starts at pound;13,000 a year for an unqualified library assistant, rising to pound;31,000 for a chartered librarian with significant responsibilities. These are only guidelines, however, and schools are free to pay more - or less - if they wish. Some library staff are paid as little as pound;8,000 a year.

Kathy Lemaire, chief executive of the SLA, says too many schools employ unqualified library assistants and pay them a "pittance", despite the fact that many spend a lot of time acquiring skills. They are also often part-time or on term-time only contracts, which means they receive no holiday pay. She also points out that many schools are unclear how to deal with library staff when it comes to workplace remodelling, as they are not classified as teachers or support staff but fall somewhere between the two.

Money matters

The Ofsted survey found a wide variety in the funding that schools allocate to developing their libraries, and that spending on books and other resources rarely reaches the levels recommended by organisations such as the SLA and CILIP. According to the latter's secondary school guidelines, the library should stock a minimum of 13 items per pupil in key stages 3 and 4, and 17 for each sixth-former. The organisation also recommends replacing 10 per cent of stock annually. At average book prices, this would cost around pound;17 per pupil, per year. However, a survey of secondary school libraries carried out for the institute in 2002 found that the mean spending per head on library stock was only pound;6.62, and most schools did not anticipate spending more the following year.

Of course, it is no longer just about print media. Students also need to have sufficient access to ICT facilities alongside books, but it seems that, in many schools, the library has lost out as funding has tended to go on equipping computer rooms in other areas of the school.

What about accommodation?

Size, location and organisation are also important. The SLA advises that the library should be central and easily accessible to students and staff, including those with disabilities. It should also be large enough for whole-class teaching and, ideally, able to seat 10 per cent of all pupils at one time.

The CILIP guidelines recommend that a school with 1,000 pupils should allow a minimum of 400m2, plus an extra 400m2 if the library is to include a sixth-form study area. Consideration should also be given to the arrangement of resources and furniture. Shelving should not be too high and there should be a mix of tables for group or individual study, and soft, low seating with coffee tables suitable for browsing.

ICT arrangements are at the discretion of the school. Some choose to have fixed computer workstations in one area or scattered around the library, while others have found that wireless laptops are more practical as they are easier for pupils to use at a table with books and other resources.

Who runs the libraries?

Resources and environment are undoubtedly important but, according to Kathy Lemaire, of the SLA, it's often not the library itself but the people working in it that are vital to its success. But only around a third of secondary schools employ a professional librarian; others rely on unqualified staff or teachers. In primary schools, the job is even more likely to fall to support staff, parent volunteers, or to the teacher with responsibility for the literacy strategy or English. Many schools use willing pupil volunteers, but most will need training and adequate supervision if they are to do an efficient job. In the Ofsted survey, it was noted that schools with the most successful libraries often employed an additional member of staff to undertake routine tasks. Clerical help allows the professional librarian to give full attention to developing resources and working with pupils. It also makes it easier to keep the library open throughout the school day as well as before and after school to cater for homework clubs and private study. Extending opening hours is another priority identified in the survey.

What about primary schools?

Many primaries don't have space for a library, so the stock may end up in the corner of a classroom or spread throughout the school. It doesn't have to be that way, however. For Mark Wildman, head of Wicor primary school in Portchester, Hampshire, it's all a matter of priorities. "Many schools see the library as a bolt-on resource and choose to spend their budgets on other things but, for us, it's the hub of learning and it's something we've always invested in heavily," he says. The school spends pound;5,000 a year on library resources and employs a librarian for 25 hours a week, as well as an assistant. Mr Wildman believes running the library is too big a job to be taken on by a teacher and should not come under the remit of the English specialist as it is vital to learning in all subjects. Until recently, Wicor's library was in a corridor which served as a main route through the school and a waiting area for parents. But a building programme completed last year means that there is now a well-resourced, dedicated library area at the heart of the school. In addition, all classrooms have an attached mini-library so that pupils get constant practice in using the information sources. Since the new library was opened, the school has worked hard to maintain its high profile, with weekly and annual awards for classes with the highest usage rates.

"Borrowing statistics show that most pupils use the library on a regular basis and, because they value it, our return rates are much better. We're not losing nearly so many books," says Mr Wildman. It has also had an impact on the way pupils learn. "We have more of an enquiry-led curriculum now, with topics generated by a question so pupils are encouraged to use the library much more in the course of their work." The school has also forged links with the local public library through a scheme intended to encourage its use among pupils - something the Ofsted survey says more schools should do. Children soon to join the reception class are enrolled in the local library and encouraged to borrow 10 books from a selection set aside for the school. Each time they borrow one their "passport" is stamped, and they receive a certificate and book token when they start at Wicor primary.

School library services

With the funding and space limitations faced by many schools, particularly primaries, centralised school library services (SLS) are an important resource. Most such services were originally LEA-run but, since the introduction of local management of schools, funding is often allocated directly to schools, which can then buy into the service if they wish.

There are local variations, but SLS usually include long-term loans of books and other resources that are maintained and replenished periodically, as well as special topic collections that are often borrowed for one term.

Many sell dust-jacketed, bar-coded and catalogued books to schools at a significant discount. SLS staff also visit to provide in-service training for teachers and to advise on such issues as design and planning, stock audits, computerised management systems and self-evaluation for Ofsted inspections, as well as offering help in recruitment. Being non-statutory, services are vulnerable if schools choose not to buy into them and a growing number are closing due to lack of funding. According to last year's figures, 19 local authorities had no SLS. This is a worrying development as the Ofsted survey identified SLS reviews and support as among the biggest catalysts for development of school libraries, and it is significant that virtually all the schools identified as having good practice bought into their local service.

Despite Wicor primary's own high level of investment in its library, the school also chooses to buy into the local Hampshire SLS. "They provide excellent training for our librarian and we rely on them a lot for stock recommendations," says Mr Wildman. "Recently one of the advisers came in with a selection of books that were suitable for able readers and returned at a later date to discuss them with the pupils. We also prefer to buy their discount books as they're shelf-ready and that saves our library staff a huge amount of time. The service provides superb value for money."


* The CILIP school libraries group can be found at schoolactivities. The institute's Guidelines for Secondary School Libraries can be ordered from the site and its Primary School Guidelines are available to download. A CILIP conference on "Building School Libraries for the Future" will be held at York University on March 31 to April 2, 2006.

* The School Library Association: of the School Librarian of the Year award can be found on the site. Nominations for the 2006-07 award must be made by July 31 2006.

* is a site set up by school librarian of the year 2005 Anne Robinson.

* supports school library services and librarians in asserting the importance of their role. School libraries - making a difference can be downloaded from the site.

* The DfES self-evaluation model for primary and secondary libraries is at

Did you know?

* Only a third of secondary schools employ a professional librarian; others rely on unqualified staff or teachers

* School leaders must now evaluate their library facilities in preparation for Ofsted inspections

* Secondary schools should spend an average of pound;17 per pupil per year on resources, according to the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). However, a 2002 survey revealed that the mean spending per pupil was pound;6.62

* Some staff earn only pound;8,000 per year, despite CILIP's recommendation that pay should start at pound;13,000 for an unqualified library assistant, rising to pound;31,000 for a chartered librarian

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