Star struck

11th June 2004 at 01:00
Diana Hinds is on hand as author Philip Pullman opens a new school library on Oxford's Blackbird Leys estate as part of a scheme to help primaries that don't have one

It is the day of the big opening and everyone at Windale Community Primary School in Blackbird Leys, Oxford, is talking excitedly about books. After five years of waiting, this school, which serves one of the most disadvantaged housing estates in the country, finally has its own library.

"I like reading, and our library will be a good place for people to be chilling out," says Jessica, aged 10.

"I like different kinds of books - history books, adventure books, action books," says Lee, aged nine. "The library will make sure we have got a lot more books in school."

"People think the internet replaces books," says Yasmin Smith, a parent governor at Windale. "But you can't replace sitting down with a book."

"The thing about books is they are the best invention there ever was," Philip Pullman tells the whole school. Pullman, prize-winning author of the trilogy His Dark Materials, began his own teaching career at a middle school on the Blackbird Leys estate 30 years ago, and had been invited to open the new Windale library.

"Books are your own secret world," he says. "Each book can open up a new world for you. They are quiet and they are private, and when you are reading, it's just you and the book; no one can get in the way."

It is a sad fact, as Pullman points out to these children, that not every primary school has its own library. Windale School, a pleasant building opened in 1996, was designed without one - an omission commented on in an Office for Standards in Education inspection report in 1998. Until now, the school has had to get by with piles of books in each classroom.

Many other small primaries find themselves in a similar plight. DfES specifications for small schools do not include libraries, and getting funding can be very difficult, says Keith Bartley, director for learning and culture for Oxfordshire.

"I strongly disagree with the DfES on this. Libraries are needed in primary schools - and particularly in more challenging areas, where children may not be getting books in their home environment," he says.

Windale is contending with a community where there is 38 per cent adult illiteracy. Some children go to the public library on another part of the estate, but as Year 6 girls report that this is a place where older boys taunt them and swear at them. "Our school library will be much happier and safer," says Jasmine, aged 10.

Headteacher Mary Whitlock says a third of her pupils have minimal support, if any, with their reading at home. "Those that do learn to read may go home and find reading isn't valued when they outstrip their parents."

Fortunately for Windale, in October 1998 it was one of five primary schools chosen by Sir Christopher Ball, director of the Achievement Trust, to be part of the STAR (Shall They All Read?) project.

Three of the schools are in areas of urban disadvantage (Derby, Oxford, Kent), and two are in rurally isolated areas (Cumbria and North Yorkshire).

All have outstanding headteachers, and none - until the STAR project and a generous grant from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation - had a library.

Windale School's STAR library has been converted from an existing room at the centre of the school, originally designated for community use.

It is bright, light and airy, comfortably carpeted, and has attractive wooden chairs and tables. The walls are decorated with children's artwork and writing, and there are big soft toys to make young children feel at home.

A computerised system enables children and their parents to borrow books simply by logging on with their thumb print. Best of all are the books themselves: in all shapes and sizes, for all ages and tastes, displayed so invitingly that, on this day of the library's opening, no one - from toddlers to adults - can resist touching, leafing through, reading.

Involving the community in each new library is crucial to the Star project.

Windale's library opens directly on to the playground, encouraging parents to drop in and out at the end of the school day.

"My dream is that, in the evenings and at weekends, the library becomes a centre for adult education," says Sir Christopher. "This is not yet happening to the extent we would like."

Another critical ingredient is that each library should have a resident librarian, ideally with some training - a "warm, demanding adult" as the project puts it - not only to manage the books but to enthuse the children.

At Windale, Jo Collier, the school's administrative officer, will take on this role.

The STAR project now plans to extend its ideas to more schools; evaluation of its work so far, by Derby University, has been very positive, according to Sir Christopher.

"The STAR libraries are helping children learn to read, and they are raising the morale of their schools, their staff and their communities.

These schools are holding their heads up and saying, 'We are Star Schools'," he says.

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