School libraries need to be protected from budget cuts because they play an essential role in improving academic outcomes and student well-being, according to a new report.
Impact of School Libraries on Learning, commissioned by the Scottish Library and Information Council (SLIC), comes alongside signs that school libraries are increasingly vulnerable to cuts; a fear that prompted the Scottish Book Trust's director to warn that any reduction in this "absolutely essential" service would penalise some of Scotland's poorest children.
The Robert Gordon University research, which examines 64 studies from several countries, suggests that school libraries boost standardised test scores in reading, language, arts, history and maths, and may prove particularly useful in improving vulnerable students' results. It also finds that school libraries play a "significant role" in implementing Curriculum for Excellence, with other benefits including improved motivation and self-esteem.
SLIC interim chief executive Moira Methven said: "Our report.provides some solid evidence for increasing investment to make improvements to school library provision. School budgets are under increasing pressure and it's vital that resources are spent in areas that will impact positively on learning, well-being and achievement."
The findings have been backed by minister for learning Alasdair Allan, who said: "School and public library services remain vital partners in supporting literacy in Scotland and it's fantastic that almost all the secondary schools in Scotland have a library and professional librarian."
But in their report the researchers raise concerns about the paucity of studies specific to Scotland, finding that without "systematic collection of evidence, it is likely that schools and their libraries will be missing opportunities to raise the standard of secondary students' learning in Scotland". They propose a large-scale national study teasing out the effect of school libraries on Standard and Higher results.
Recent plans by Edinburgh to share librarians between schools generated enormous controversy, with figures such as authors Ian Rankin and Neil Gaiman speaking out against the move. The council has subsequently scaled back its strategy. Moray Council also bowed to public pressure last year when it decided to shut only four out of seven rural libraries originally earmarked for closure.
However, Dumfries and Galloway Council has plans to cut the budget for clerical, technical, general assistants and librarians in schools by pound;438,000 over two years, which a budget report concedes could result in "reduced levels of support for.the library function in schools".
Scottish Book Trust director Marc Lambert said: "We are strongly against cuts to school library services. Research makes it abundantly clear that a full school library service, provided by qualified school librarians, is absolutely essential to delivering on policies and aspirations for Scottish education, the economy and society. Cutting school library services disproportionately penalises children from deprived backgrounds; statistics around differences in attainment in relation to deprivation are shocking and shameful."
Mr Lambert, who chaired a Scottish government group that produced a national report on English teaching, said there was "a clear educational and democratic case" for school libraries to address such problems.
"Enjoyment of reading declines through school, as does pupils' confidence and performance in reading, writing, talking and listening. National literacy statistics are truly shocking evidence of educational failure. Investing in school library services and librarians is therefore the only sensible policy," he said.
Novelist James Robertson, meanwhile, said that libraries were "as essential a part of school as a classroom". He added: "You can't just fill an empty room with books and call it a library - you need somebody to encourage children and show them how to use it."