Did you know that it is a statutory requirement for every prison to have a library service, but that there is not a similar requirement for schools?
This statement is all the more astounding when you consider the huge swathes of evidence that demonstrate just what a difference a school library can make to children’s engagement with education and, ultimately, their future prospects.
In October 2013, the Scottish Library and Information Council published a report by Professor Dorothy Williams of Robert Gordon University, Impact of School Libraries on Learning (bit.ly/ImpactLibrary). It cites international evidence showing that attainment and engagement can be increased across the curriculum with a qualified librarian and resource-rich library in every school.
The decision to fund school libraries lies with individual local authorities – and they are increasingly choosing to cut back on that investment. As highlighted in the Scottish government’s Standing Literacy Commission report, the latest Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy shows that children in more deprived circumstances are less likely to achieve the expected levels of reading and writing (bit.ly/StandLitReport). With that in mind, what can be done to convince decision-makers that investment in adequately staffed and resourced school libraries could be the key to reducing Scotland’s attainment gap by increasing attainment for all?
Independent schools continue to recognise the business case for investment in school libraries. Leading the campaign in Scotland to save school libraries is Duncan Wright, librarian at Stewart’s Melville College in Edinburgh. Duncan lodged a petition with Holyrood at the end of last year, on behalf of the School Library Advocacy Group, asking for a national school libraries strategy in Scotland. The campaign was backed by high-profile authors such as Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Alan Bissett and Christopher Brookmyre.
It is widely recognised that, particularly for the most deprived children, access to a library within their school and – critically – to a qualified librarian, can have a substantial impact on their learning experience, engagement and academic results. Of course, investment is needed in the library service and in librarians’ skills. The most effective services have funds for new books and resources, training and CPD for staff, as well as close links with teachers and school management.
‘Much more than books’
Libraries are much more than books, and librarians often have a pastoral role; increased health, wellbeing and capacity for empathy are key outcomes of reading for pleasure, as highlighted by some recent research from the Reading Agency (bit.ly/ReadingBenefits).
There is an often unspoken role of the school library in offering children shelter and peace from the playground – particularly those who suffer from low self-esteem and/or bullying. High-quality libraries with trained librarians provide support and guidance in all sorts of ways: they are vital resources in enabling young people to achieve their fullest potential, both within and outside formal education.
Librarians coordinate programmes and author visits that excite children, make links with public libraries and increasingly offer digital and information literacy skills – all so essential to successful learning. Online safety and empowered use of technology is becoming increasingly important, as outlined in the iRights Campaign championed by Baroness Kidron. Never has the phrase “information is power” been more apparent than in today’s digital world, and school librarians have a critical role in supporting its informed use.
Children have the right to an education that brings out their personality and talents – it is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The organisation Libraries Without Borders supports this right on a global scale through “idea boxes”: mobile libraries that can be taken to refugee camps to ensure that families in some of the most deprived areas of all can find books and information.
Its chairman, Patrick Weil, says: “I’ve often noted the role that books and libraries play in the success of students coming from the poorest environments. So many women, men and children would see their futures transformed if they could access books. A book does more than convey knowledge and provide an opening to something new; it’s also an essential instrument in exercising the critical mind and in the education for democracy. Finally, a book is also – and must increasingly become – an essential driver of sustainable development. Placed in a library, it moves from hand to hand and from generation to generation.”
Libraries Without Borders recognises that supporting literacy and access to libraries, information and culture not only supports academic attainment but also helps to develop critical-thinking skills, independent learning, resilience, empathy and tolerance: all essential to the future of a democratic society.
The recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report on improving schools in Scotland called for boldness in pursuing excellence and equity. Is a national strategy on school libraries bold enough? It would certainly be the start of a conversation, in which this must be the key question: is it really too much to ask that we offer equality of access to books, information literacy and support for reading and digital skills for all secondary pupils across Scotland, regardless of their postcode?
In a country where one in five children lives in poverty, and given demonstrable links between educational outcomes and a love of books and reading, how can we build our ambition towards a creative and cultural economy without investment in the building blocks of independent learning and creativity within our schools? This is what school libraries offer – without them, we have so much to lose.
Amina Shah is director of programme at the Scottish Book Trust