Blowing the dust off

18th March 2005 at 00:00
School librarians are often the unsung heroes who struggle with feeble budgets, shabby stock and low pay and status. But there is another way, say the top five nominees for the new School Librarian of the Year award. Elaine Williams reports.

School libraries can be lonely places if you're a librarian, stuck in the place down the corridor that teachers don't have to bother about; the place where books are sorted and stamped; the place where pupils can be out of sight, out of mind. Librarians can be in there day after day, managing ancient stock and inadequate budgets, unrecognised and underpaid, and grabbing a 10-minute lunch break if they're lucky.

That's one way of looking at it.

An alternative view puts the school library at the hub of a school's learning culture, a place full of buzz where reading for pleasure and for study are met with imagination and technological savvy, and where the librarian is supported by all staff to direct and create a plethora of resources to meet learning needs. In such places librarians are appreciated as teachers as well as managers of budgets; fundamental to the process of turning children into independent, critical learners.

But when it comes to celebrating the people who turn our children into readers and thinkers, school librarians have missed out. We have awards for teachers, authors and illustrators, but what about the person who is often the best at matching the child to the book, who is often responsible for setting the most recalcitrant of readers along an exciting journey into literature? That person has not been honoured, until now.

School librarians can be nominated in the new National Awards for School Support Staff, launched earlier this year by the National Bursars Association. And now they also have their own award.

When author and Carnegie Medal winner Aidan Chambers became president of the School Library Association (SLA) two years ago, he made setting up a School Librarian of the Year award his priority. The move was celebrated this week with the announcement of an honour list of five (profiled below) at the London International Book Fair; the overall winner will be named next term. The five were selected after schools were asked to nominate their librarians, and a longlist of candidates were visited by a panel from the SLA.

Mr Chambers hopes the award will highlight centres of excellence as well as becoming a campaigning tool for the improvement of library facilities and the status and conditions of librarians. Born into a mining family in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, in 1934, the prizewinning author (and former school librarian, in Stroud in the 1960s) believes he would have grown up to be "an unemployed miner" had it not been for his school library. "The library was a powerhouse of learning where I was given a love of literature," he says. "It was the calm centre where things of the mind and heart could happen. It saved me."

Many schools, he says, retain a "strangely philistine" attitude towards their libraries, underestimating what can be achieved by them. "I cannot understand how we can have headteachers who still do not understand the importance of having that resource in school in the richest form it can possibly be."

Kathy Lemaire, chief executive of the SLA, welcomes Ofsted's move last year to raise the status of libraries by requiring schools to undertake library self-evaluation. But she regrets that the Government has fallen short of making school libraries statutory. This means that schools don't have to spend money on libraries if they don't want to and that significant numbers continue to run on wafer-thin budgets with poorly paid staff, some earning no more that Pounds 8,000 a year pro rata.

State secondary schools in the UK spend on average around pound;24 per pupil on books; nearly 50 per cent spend less than pound;20 per head, compared with the pound;60 per head spent by independent schools. More than 40 per cent of independents spend more than pound;60 per pupil on books. Librarians say it is always a struggle to secure adequate resources.

Schools, says Ms Lemaire, should never underestimate the impact that a school library can have. Research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has shown that a child's engagement in reading for pleasure is a bigger indicator of school achievement than social class.

There is plenty of evidence, says Ms Lemaire, to show that when a library is well stocked and run by a well-qualified person who works hand in hand with teaching staff and enjoys equal status (only one-third of state schools employs a professional librarian), then standards improve "hugely".

Anne Robinson, the librarian at Nicholas Chamberlaine technology college in Bedworth, Warwickshire, employs bouncers at lunchtime to manage the door of her "learning resources centre". Not because of pupils'

disorderly conduct, or because she's the formidable battleaxe and guardian of her lair that her name might imply, but because the library is always full and pupils must wait their turn. According to staff, Mrs Robinson presides over the strongest, not the weakest, link in the school's structure: a library that is a teeming hive of activity, the control room of a school that has worked hard to pull itself out of special measures.

The bouncers are pupil library helpers, the majority of them boys, who sign up from a waiting list to support the running of the library: booking out computers, maintaining noticeboards, helping other pupils with their web or intranet-based learning, helping to choose the books the library buys.

Mrs Robinson came to the school five years ago as an experienced chartered librarian, determined that the library would play a major part in school improvement. She briefs the senior management team and is directly responsible to the curriculum director. Nicholas Chamberlaine's learning resources centre is spacious and light, with attractive furniture, but stock was in a sorry state and the library was under-used when she arrived.

According to deputy head Graham Tyrer, Mrs Robinson has established a vast range of resources and research packages for pupils and staff, balancing old and new technology, books and the internet. "It is amazing what she has achieved," he says.

Mrs Robinson is an avid reader of contemporary teenage fiction and an authority on the impressive range she stocks on her shelves. She can match any child to a book and has done much to foster enthusiasm for reading.

Total issues rose from 2,428 in 199899 to 17,400 in 200203. Staff have worn badges with lists of their favourite books, and she has published league tables to find the most popular books and the classes who borrow the most. She will swap books with pupils, always willing to read what they recommend to her. "I can't think of a better way of validating a child's reading," she says.

Sue Bussey, the librarian at Derby high school, had her passion for libraries severely tested when she arrived at the girls' independent day school nine years ago in a part-time post. Having worked previously in a multicultural public library, she was keenly aware of the important role a library can play in developing literacy and galvanising a community. She found a couple of rooms with books, many old and out of date, no catalogue, and users who discarded on the floor whatever they took from the shelves.

Bryan Cleary, the now retired head of English, encouraged her to fight her corner all the way. "She took the place by the scruff of the neck," he says.

Mrs Bussey now works full-time, with equivalent status to a head of department, and presides over a warm, cosy library, open at all times, that has been rebuilt and extended. According to Derby high's recently appointed headteacher, Colin Callaghan, the library is now "pivotal" in the school.

Mrs Bussey teaches study skills in a range of subject areas; she employs sixth-formers to read to kindergarten pupils, and last year organised younger pupils to bake "friends" for Biscuit Bear from Mini Grey's picture book. She posts up summaries of latest acquisitions, and involves pupils in fundraising for overseas charities connected with libraries. She also stages games and events in the library. For example, the outline of a body on the library floor is a clue to a "murder mystery" session, which includes a talk by forensic members of Derby police force on collecting evidence.

Mrs Bussey encourages the rest of the staff to read children's literature.

"It horrifies me that people in charge of literacy do not read children's fiction."

Angela Hunter was until October the librarian at St Alphege Church of England infant school in Solihull. St Alphege's library may be pocket-sized, no more than a converted store cupboard, but its lack of space in no way limits the imaginative scope of its activities. Mrs Hunter, a former child protection police officer, spent two and a half years making the space her own. In that time, she transformed it into a magical place where young children can lose themselves in stories.

On sunny days Mrs Hunter would take the books out into the nearby rector's garden and encourage the children to cloud-gaze, making stories out of the shapes they saw. On rainy days she would gather the children under a giant duvet. Mrs Hunter, who left St Alphege's to become a part-time librarian at Coppice junior school, also in Solihull, saw her year-long involvement in the library as an opportunity to recreate for small children the close, secure relationship they enjoy with their parents when sharing stories; the best stepping-stone into literacy.

Employed for seven hours a week (in reality she worked for two to three hours every day), she mobilised parents, organising them for library duty to which she attached stringent conditions: parents had to commit to regular times and work on their storytelling skills. "It is a way of helping children love books by feeling cared for," she says. "Knowing that parents are willing to give of their time in this way is a great encouragement."

She forged links with the nearby public library and the local branch of Waterstone's so that children became confident consumers of books. She organised regular events with authors and illustrators and on one occasion invited author Celia Rees, a former St Alphege pupil, to hold an "assembly of memories", recalling her own pupil days. She is now studying for a libraries degree alongside her new job. Cathryn Bartley, the school's literacy co-ordinator, says: "Angela has given our children a real love of books and helped to foster a lively, vibrant school."

Frances Sinclair, the librarian at Stromness Academy, Orkney, knew she had made her mark when a former pupil got married in the library. The ceremony took place on the library's upper floor; the festivities in the school's dining room. Ever since she started 12 years ago she has wanted to make the library a focal point for the school community, a central meeting place where children who tend to live in remote corners of the island could gather to study, but also for relaxation.

Ralph Harnden, head of geography, says Mrs Sinclair makes pupils welcome at any time of day. "She's enthusiastic about lots of different subjects, and pupils like to come here before school starts and at the end of the day," he says. "This is a very social school because pupils are isolated where they live, so they love to come here. There's always a real buzz. The library's a great place to be."

Mrs Sinclair allows the pupils to play board games, but she also involves them in reviewing stock. She collects a box of books from local bookseller Tam MacPhail and lets a student working group with a budget of pound;100 choose what they want for the library. "They love it. It's a good way to get them to talk about ideas and preferences," she says. On one National Poetry Day she set up a flip chart in the library, giving everyone the chance to write a line of poetry.

She teaches careers and thinking skills and accompanies students on trips.

"We try to get a balance in the library between curriculum and leisure," she says. The library is centrally placed in the school. As Mrs Sinclair says: "It's a place that brings everyone - staff and pupils - together."

Jane O'Loughlin is the librarian at Colaiste Chathail Naofa secondary college, Dungarvan, County Waterford, Ireland. School libraries can be found in private colleges in Ireland, but not in most publicly funded schools. However, as part of a research project, Ireland's education department has put 11 libraries into schools in disadvantaged areas, to study the part they play in school improvement.

Colaiste Chathail, formerly Dungarvan technical college, moved into new premises in 2003. The library, all oranges and blues, is the most colourful room in the school and much loved by students. Many of the 180 12 to 18-year-olds are from impoverished estates in the town and struggle with literacy, but Jane O'Loughlin has drawn them into the library, allowing them to make collages out of book dust jackets, encouraging them to contribute to the "book gossip board", to write and display their own poetry or short stories, to chat and play games. In her own time, she makes recordings of herself reading books to widen the choice of audiobooks for students.

A former English and geography teacher, Ms O'Loughlin believes a library is crucial to students developing the information retrieval skills that are essential for the knowledge economy. But the library has had to overcome a lack of interest in literacy among the Dungarvan community; when she arrived, some of the students didn't even know what an author was. "We had pupils here with reading ages of six or seven," she says. "We have improved those by several years by developing a good attitude to reading, as something that is relaxing and rewarding."

She has made the library a fun place to be, an alternative living space, with themed displays for Valentine's Day and St Patrick's Day and events including a performance by a Jamaican drummer (the first time many of the students had met a black person) and an "animal magic" session with the chance to handle snakes and chinchillas. She is said to have a special relationship with each student, so it's no surprise that it's a student who nominated her.

Nominations for next year's School Librarian of the Year award must be made by July 31. For a nomination form, email, see or tel: 01793 791787. For more information on the the National Bursars Association awards, go to

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