Whatever happened to the staffroom library?

28th April 2000 at 01:00
Teachers used to read Piaget, Dewey and Bernstein. Notany more, writes John Eggleston

Libraries are under threat, but the most rapidly disappearing of them all is the staffroom library. Ten years ago you could walk into almost any staffroom and there would be a few shelves of well-used books on such topics as children's backgrounds, development and special needs - even the odd volume on moral issues or alternative schools.

Now, in all but a few, the same shelves are overloaded with ring-binders and files of prescription from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Teacher Training Agency and other government bodies. Many of these are already obsolescent as yet further revisions pour into schools. If the school budget stretches to finding resources for the staffroom it is now far more likely to be devoted to laptops.

The changes are part of a trend that is narrowing the input of background information for teachers. From initial training course through to training programmes for heads, an increasing proportion of prescribed texts tell them what they are required to teach and how it will be assessed. Training programmes have followed suit, emphasising how best to deliver what is required.

Some of this is necessary to ensure coherent standards. But teachers have lost much of the power that full and open access to knowledge gives to a profession. The opportunity to devise new curricular strategies, the ability to recognise and respond to special needs, the strategies to involve parents - all these and more have been sustained by knowledge that is now in such short supply.

While some of these topics are still incorprated into senior management courses, they are commonly presented in a way that ensures predetermined ends, rather than encourage course participants to explore new perspectives on professional practice.

The virtual disappearance of the old Dip Ed programmes and the diminishing use of masters degrees as a means to promotion have led to a situation in which names such as Dewey, Isaacs, Piaget, Bernstein and Warnock have little credibility - and there is little opportunity for their successors to develop new ideas on childhood and schooling unless they find themselves in a pivotal consultancy role in a government quango.

Much the same is beginning to happen in schools. In England, many of the broad-based school texts are disappearing, giving way to "focused" books for specific examinations. Examining boards are themselves generating "set books" - some compiled by the chief examiners.

Schools and teachers must urgently re-establish the decision-making role that is the mark of true professionals. They must open up the information channels in which the written word is still dominant - in electronic or print form. Where they still have the capability, local education authorities must restore the crumbling resource bases of teachers' centres and update their libraries.

Schools must safeguard the staffroom as not just a retreat, but as a centre of information and enlightenment where the library shelves are a central source of professional development rather than an ancient relic. Could this be an early target for the General Teaching Council?

John Eggleston is visiting professor at the University of Central England

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