Turning a new page in the school library

14th July 2000 at 01:00
Demoralizing levels of pay and a lack of support must be ended if a vital resource is to be saved, says Jane Johnson.

WE are now closer to defining an acceptable level of schools library service, but in the wake of the Scottish Executive's rejection of proposals to make such libraries and services statutory, where do schools without effective services stand?

Two documents giving a framework to assess the quality of school libraries and drawing attention to the good work going on were published late last year. They are Taking a Closer Look at the School Library Resource Centre: Self evaluation Using Performance Indicators (Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum) and Standards for School Library Services in Scotland (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities). It now depends on the will of local authorities and headteachers, and the assertiveness of HMIs, to put the guidelines into practice.

Making school libraries and services statutory would not make them all good - just as injecting extra money to buy more books does not, in itself, transform school libraries. Specialist education librarians, in schools and school library services, have a vital contribution by supporting teachers in the hugely time-

consuming tasks of selection and management of resources, and the training of other professionals, support staff and volunteers.

Yet many schools are being denied access to the type of support they need. Not just school librarians but teachers, pupils and communities across Scotland are facing very unequal opportunities as the services available to them range from non-existent, through skeletal, partial and nominal, to fair, good and excellent.

Why is this area not a priority for some authorities and headteachers? Those of us who have been privileged to work in schools where we were enabled to bring the library to life have no doubt of its value. Ask Mike Baughan, chief executive of the curriculum council, and Paul Taylor, headteacher of Menzieshill High in Dundee, whose presentations at the recent training days on performance indicators demonstrated their conviction and commitment. School libraries can and do improve the quality of learning.

In Scotland, school librarians have equivalent academic and professional qualifications to teachers but rates of pay vary between authorities. Some areas offer the minimum and are finding it increasingly difficult to attract suitable candidates.

Often a newly qualified librarian will be the best candidate. With highly desirable ICT skills and a level of management training few teachers receive, they can find themselves in charge of their own department at a salary just over pound;12,000 a year. Once chartered, which may take longer than necessary if the authority does not provide support for their professional development, these librarians may advance to something in the region of pound;14,000, but no matter how long they stay in the job, the maximum achievable remains under pound;17,000.

Local authoritie offering the minimum wage, no supply cover and little or no support or professional development for librarians in their secondary schools have created a minefield, hazardous to school librarians' morale and ability to perform effectively, potentially devastating to the environment created to nurture self-

motivated, independent learning.

A growing number of authorities are demonstrating their commitment to securing a consistently high standard of service, by offering better rates of pay to attract and keep experienced librarians, giving them the status (although not the pay levels) of head of department within the school management structure, appointing library assistants and calling in supply librarians to maximise and maintain access to facilities and resources seen as essential to the learning process for pupils.

"Primary school libraries vary from the magical to the miserable," Hilary Wilce asserted (Friday, June 23). This is as true in Scotland as elsewhere in the UK. Some Scottish authorities have development plans; in others, library development is "not a priority" and the Cosla standards are regarded as "just too expensive". The argument is often presented as a choice between financing a central bureaucracy to provide the services in full, from the top down, or doing nothing.

In practice, bottom-up development in primaries can be more effective and more economic, if specialist help is provided at the point where it is most needed and when the particular school is ready for it. Progress is more likely to be sustained as the school community takes ownership and the library participates in meeting perceived aims and needs.

Unfortunately, some councils have redeployed the staff with the relevant experience and knowledge to posts where they are no longer available to work with primary schools. An intolerable burden is laid on already overburdened teaching staff. Elsewhere, progress is being made within existing budgets, using locally available expertise, but these pools of talent are now very unevenly distributed in Scotland.

Community libraries are neither an easy option nor a cost-

saving alternative. A library combining the roles of school and public library is required to perform to the standards of both, but there are profound differences in roles and expectations. Conflict of users' interests may undermine the quality of services and provoke division and a sense of exclusion instead of the inclusion that is intended. School and public librarians have, however, much to contribute by working together to create new types of lifelong learning centre.

Schools and authorities have a choice: pay a fair rate for specialist education librarians and enable them to function effectively, or incur a heavier price in wasted resources and lost opportunities.

Jane Johnstone is a library consultant for schools. Demoralising levels of pay and a lack of support must be ended if a vital resource is to be saved, says Jane Johnstone

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