School libraries refuse to be shelved

17th September 2010 at 01:00
Campaign to protect children's access to books is gaining pace

"Non-fiction can be horrific," says Marilyn Brocklehurst, founder of the Norfolk Children's Book Centre and a consultant schools librarian. "I've been in schools with books about Ceylon, books which say: 'One day, man may manage to reach the moon'."

Her job is to go into the schools and throw away the old, ragged books - those which have lost pages, the books covered in gunk, the outdated volumes - and create an exciting collection.

She says: "Teachers - I love them dearly - but they do hoard. That's why they need librarians. The black bin bags of old books have to be kept out of their sight, otherwise they come and say: 'You can't throw that one away, there's a picture of a possum on page 14 that I need'."

But she sometimes wishes the calls didn't come. "When a school rings, I say: 'Have you tried your school library service?' That's the best place they could go to because, like computers, books go out of date."

The local school library service (SLS) can prevent outdated material lingering in school cupboards. For an annual charge of, typically, pound;2,000 to pound;3,000, books are taken out on long-term loan, allowing them to be kept up-to-date. But not every school can call on a SLS, and those that do are coming under increasing pressure as schools cut their budgets.

This year has seen a number of local authorities cutting their library services. Last week, it emerged that England's largest, Kent, had axed its SLS this summer.

Mrs Brocklehurst describes this as heartbreaking. She realised just how far down the agenda libraries had slipped when she found herself taking down the coat pegs from the corridor of a new school.

"The head had rung because they'd built the school with no space for a library. We had to put shelves up in the hall and that was the second time that happened in the past few months."

No two SLSs are the same, but the vast majority loan books, resources and artefacts, and provide advice, mostly to primary schools but also to secondaries. Some services also run competitions, awards and bookshops and provide training.

Since 2000, local authorities' library funding has had to be passed on to schools. In some cases, it is still earmarked to be spent on library services, but elsewhere this is not the case.

Last year, the London borough of Southwark closed its SLS, saying not enough schools subscribed. So far this year, three SLSs have closed - in Cambridgeshire, Solihull and Kent.

The TES surveyed local authorities to find out what was happening to library services. Of the 152 authorities that took part, 133 replied. Of these, just 79 had an SLS while 27 had services supplied by a local authority other than their own.

As cuts start to bite, there is widespread concern about the future. The survey revealed that the London borough of Sutton will close its service next year.

And Cheshire Education Service - which covers four authorities - said: "As our income comes from schools, we could be affected by cuts imposed on educationschools nationally and the government public sector cuts could impact on the service as a whole."

And in the London borough of Redbridge, the situation is even starker: "In the current climate, I imagine the local authority will reduce funding."

But the fight back is beginning. Alan Gibbons, children's author and former primary teacher, is leading a high-profile campaign to save SLSs.

In January, the National Literacy Trust and the soon-to-be-axed Museum and Libraries Archive set up a School Libraries Commission - headed by former education secretary Baroness Morris - to "provide an informed and proactive vision for the future of school libraries". It was due to report on September 15.

David Streatfield is the principal associate of research group Information Management Associates. He said: "There is a stronger case for SLSs to be made statutory than for public libraries. A good school library will set a lot of children on a path towards habitual reading and reading for pleasure.

"There is quite convincing evidence from the US that the right kind of school library makes a measurable difference to school exam results."

This, then, is the key point - SLSs are vulnerable because there is currently no statutory obligation to provide them.

Mr Streatfield dates the beginning of their decline to 2000, when the cash for the service was given to the schools to do with as they wanted rather than to the SLSs themselves.

"The only trajectory I can see is downwards," he said. "Funding is based on a quasi market, but not a true market. The SLSs have to regain the funds which were hitherto available to them. But they are not able to develop different services - to focus on a different market or extend much into neighbouring areas. Over the past 10 years there has been a gradual attrition."

David Fann, head of Sherwood Primary in Preston, Lancashire, has earmarked funding for his SLS and is happy to buy back the service from his local authority.

He said: "It's invaluable. The library loans service does topic boxes on things such as the Romans - you get 30 books, posters, DVDs, maps, and we get something like 20 of those boxes every year.

"We can ring up and ask for one done on the Normans, say. It means we can be flexible. If we bought the resources in for a topic, then once we'd spent the money we'd (have to) be doing that topic for the next few years."

But next year, Lancashire will be delegating funds - giving schools the choice not to buy library services. Will Mr Fann still buy in?

"When budgets are tight - and it will become tight - the spending I do on the library will be one of the first areas I will look to cut. I would like to see the service carry on. But what if the choice is between a full-time teacher, rather than one for four days a week?

"We have got out of having to ask those questions quite as brutally as we will have to do in future."

But many in education believe that such brutal decisions should not have to be made.

Wiltshire amp; Swindon, Gloucestershire, Bristol, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall SLSs have made a joint submission to the School Library Commission asking the Government to take a stance.

"We favour the creation of a statutory duty to ensure provision of a school library service in all areas (the detail need not be set in stone) coupled with ring-fenced per capita (per pupils in service area) central government contribution directly to the SLSs themselves."

There is more to this argument than just books - school library services often offer a great deal more.

"If a school needs a long-term loan of a skeleton or a Greek vase, school library services can provide those," said Tricia Adams, director of the School Library Association.

"School library services have collections which have been built up over years; if that collection is split up, it is lost. One or two schools have the benefit of that artefact when it could be shared by everybody."

The TES survey discovered that, in total, the services have approximately 12.5 million items available to 3.4 million pupils in 106 authorities. Next year this will not include the 59,000 items in Sutton, where just 12 of the 41 eligible schools bought in the service last year.

Councillor Sean Brennan, leader of Sutton Council, said: "We have seen a gradual reduction in the number of schools using the school library service and it is no longer economically viable.

"The existing books and resources will be divided among the schools so that they can continue to use them, but they will need to purchase their own stock in the future. Many schools already run their own library."

The decline is happening, but it is happening slowly and to a service, which is - on a national scale - used by 70 per cent of schools.

In some areas - Tower Hamlets, Portsmouth - funding is delegated, but almost all schools opt in - possibly because tight geography leads to good relationships. But this is not the story across the board.

"There are SLSs which are doing well and surviving," Mrs Brocklehurst says.

"There is no great fuss about SLSs which aren't (surviving) because they are dying slowly. The service is just slipping away. It's such a dreadful shame."

Michael Morpurgo: 'A shame on the country of Dickens'

Michael Morpurgo, children's author and patron of the School Library Association, said: 'The heart and soul of any school is its library. Libraries are browsing places, dreaming places, finding out places. So much education takes place when children are making choices of their own.

It is not so much about the Government as about some people making decisions within schools.

Libraries are always one of the first things people look at cutting. In New Zealand, libraries are given a priority and that culture builds up. We have a culture where people would rather have a computer or sports equipment, things that are seen to be cool.

The whole point of education is not to provide workers for factories, the whole point is to enrich lives, to give people more fulfilled lives.

We have an opportunity with a new government to set a new awareness of how important it is. We have to impress on the Government, heads and teachers that if we don't get it right now for children, they aren't going to get a second chance. If we don't give them books and the enthusiastic people to put them across then we will miss another generation. This country is not bad at creating universities and catering to those who go to them, but what about those who are left behind? The millions of children who grow into adults who don't read?

It's a shame on our country, the country of Shakespeare and Dickens, that we are denying those children their heritage.

  • Original headline: Unfinished chapter as school libraries refuse to be shelved

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