Is this the final chapter for school library services?

20th May 2011 at 01:00
Analysis - Some 600,000 children now go to schools without a supply of new books, and the evidence suggests more struggles ahead, despite the system's many advocates. Helen Ward reports

When acclaimed children's author Pete Johnson spoke to 200 primary school pupils recently, he was amazed at the "buzz" from children who had read his books.

"It was one of those events where I thought, 'It doesn't get better than this'," Mr Johnson told The TES. "About half a dozen children had brought along, quite spontaneously, stories they had been writing at home; there were four boys, and their teachers were quite amazed."

But Mr Johnson - along with other children's authors, teachers and campaigners - fears such inspirational events are under threat for hundreds of thousands of children with the demise of school library services.

As the name suggests, the services, such as the one in Berkshire that organised Mr Johnson's talk, provide an up-to-date stock of books to schools. They also offer a range of resources, from maps to sculptures, training and events such as competitions.

But local authorities do not have to run a school library service. Currently, just 85 councils out of more than 150 with responsibility for schools run their own dedicated service.

It is also up to schools whether they want to pay for their local service, and with budgets under the most intense pressure for a generation, many heads are deciding it is something they can no longer afford.

The drop-out rate has been so high that in just over a year the services in six authorities - Cambridgeshire, Solihull, Birmingham, Kent, Gateshead and Sutton - have closed. A seventh, Greenwich, suspended its service in 2009 and confirmed this week that it will not re-open, meaning that in total around 600,000 children across the country now go to schools with no library service.

Cambridgeshire County Council closed its service after only 66 schools out of 211 subscribed in 20092010, resulting in an income of just #163;224,000. In the late 1990s it generated around #163;1.25 million.

Meanwhile, Ann Borthwick, head of libraries, arts and culture for Gateshead Council, said a review of services was made necessary "as a result of greatly reduced funding from central Government".

In other areas, services are surviving for now, but with dwindling numbers of school subscribers. If numbers continue to fall, it is feared that many more services will go.

When The TES asked 66 of the surviving services about the future, 46 said they were not making any changes. But 10 authorities said falling demand had led to changes including cutting what they offer or charging remaining schools more money. A further 10 authorities said the situation was still unclear.

Schools were not told their budgets until last month, meaning that as heads assess what they can afford, more may well pull out.

Bart O'Shea, head of Our Lady of the Wayside RC Primary in Solihull, one of the authorities that has shut its library service, said it had been a "great resource".

"Brand new books are wonderful for children and its demise is to be regretted," he says. "We have tried to work very hard to redress it by taking advantage of offers from companies and I've allocated a reasonable budget to build up good-quality reading resources. But I am not surprised it closed because we live in an age where we do have to steel ourselves for the next round of cuts."

The cuts to school library services come at the same time as threats to many community libraries. Despite outspoken support from authors including Zadie Smith, local authorities are targeting what they view as under-used libraries as a way to make savings.

According to former children's laureate Michael Rosen, too many teachers do not know about the good work of school library services, meaning they cannot apply pressure to help them survive.

"When I go and talk to teachers, I ask who uses the school library service, and one person will," Mr Rosen says. "I say, tell everybody here what you do. They'll explain they were doing a project on space and had 45 books in the classroom and other teachers' jaws will drop."

Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, condemns the way the services are being allowed to crumble away (see box). "It is an absolute disgrace," he says. "The Government doesn't fund schools properly so schools have to make the choice between repairing the toilet roof and having a school library service."

At the beginning of last year there were 92 school library services; 31 of them worked with schools beyond their local authority areas to generate more economies of scale. Such cross-border arrangements are likely to grow as services are forced to adapt to survive.

For example, when Bristol City Council decided it could no longer support its loss-making service, a deal was made with neighbouring authorities. The city's 153 state schools, including 106 primaries, can still borrow books and resources through an agreement with the neighbouring services in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire.

Meanwhile, a major reorganisation is under way in Berkshire Education Library Service, which supplies Bracknell Forest, Reading, Slough, Windsor and Maidenhead and West Berkshire. It also offers services in Wokingham in Surrey, and in the London boroughs of Ealing and Kensington and Chelsea.

Jeremy Saunders, head of Berkshire Education Library Service, said the reorganisation was prompted by schools downgrading their subscriptions, rather than opting out. In future, with better liaison, they are hoping to be able to predict what schools will ask for and provide recommendations, thereby boosting borrowing.

"Currently it's too much down to luck," says Mr Saunders. "Quite often we discover that a school has just had some building work and in doing that reorganised the library, but no-one thought to ask our advice."

He is also working with the other school library services in the South East to share costs. "We are not merging services, but we are talking about closer co-operation," he says. "Every year each school library service in the South East produces lists of recommended books. We could just set up a system where we share these lists rather than duplicating them."

A library service manager in a different area, who did not want to be identified, said: "We could, effectively, provide a service to anybody, as long as they pay.

"In the long run, all such services are going to become unviable within their own home areas. But what would be sensible is to operate over a wider area and to set them up as charitable trusts which would mean access to other sources of funding."

Despite this kind of action, concerns still persist that if too many schools look to make short-term savings by pulling out of library services, the damage could be irrevocable.

According to Gill Harris, chair of the Association of Senior Children's and Education Librarians, the difficulty is that some schools will plan to save money for a year and resubscribe next year. "But if they miss out a year, then the service may close down," she says.

The way schools pay for library services varies around the country, with different rates depending on what schools need. In Lincolnshire, for example, schools can either pay #163;7.50 per pupil per year and borrow as much as they want, or pay #163;44 for a box of 30 non-fiction books each term.

But, in some cases, the way library services are funded has hindered their long-term futures. Some authorities give schools ring-fenced budgets that have to be spent on libraries, while others have introduced fully devolved budgets that leave schools to choose where money is spent.

A devolved system was introduced in Lancashire this year and its library service immediately lost a quarter of its customers.

Despite the problems, a spokesman for the Department for Education said there was no intention to make library provision in schools statutory. There are also no plans for Ofsted to check up on the quality of library services.

"Ministers have been crystal clear about the centrality of literacy," a DfE spokesman says. "Teachers and heads need no reminding of the importance of school libraries - they know what's best for their pupils, so there are no plans to make it a statutory requirement.

"We are targeting as much funding as possible directly into heads' hands so they can make the right choices about school library provision and book resourcing."

However, with 600,000 children now without an up-to-date supply of books, many will question whether such government optimism is warranted.

Without library services, the "buzz" of events by authors such as Pete Johnson could become a thing of the past.

"People may not realise what library services contribute until they are not there," says Mr Johnson. "But once they're gone, they won't come back."



Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, is an outspoken critic of the damage being done to school library services, describing their demise as "an absolute disgrace".

Mr Pullman has criticised the Government for not funding schools properly, meaning they have to choose between books and vital repairs to buildings. But the bestselling writer says schools must also be prepared to take responsibility. "I don't exonerate schools from all the blame; some schools display a philistine lack of care for their own library," he says.

"I remember working with the Oxfordshire museums to hand out artefacts to schools; it is an immensely valuable service and to allow it to do away with itself and fail to support it is just barbaric."

Unlike public libraries, providing a school library service has never been a statutory requirement for local authorities.

"They should have been a statutory requirement, they never were and they should have been," Mr Pullman says. "So many closing at once shows that this Government can't be trusted.

"The idea that on one hand every child should read 50 books at school but close not just public libraries but school library services is monstrous, destructive.

"These things are too precious to entrust to a Government that doesn't fundamentally believe in public services. There will come a time when all we will have left of these things is memories and that's not good enough."

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