I first saw the magic that can happen in a school library early on in my 20-year teaching career.
I was working in a North London primary and I had a boy in my class, Jonathan, who suffered with selective mutism. This is a severe anxiety disorder where a child is unable to speak in certain social situations, such as with classmates or teachers at school, or to relatives they don't see very often. A child with selective mutism doesn't refuse or choose not to speak, they're literally unable to speak.
Jonathan had been in the school for four years when he joined my class in Year 3. No one in school had ever heard him talk. He occasionally whispered behind his hand to one friend who would speak for him, but even that was rare. Now, we were very lucky at the time to have a trained librarian on the staff; Sue was a lovely, passionate woman who knew what every child was reading, what sort of books they enjoyed and who their favourite author was. She created a library with a warm, welcoming atmosphere where everyone felt valued.
One day she said to me "Something extraordinary happened today. Jonathan spoke to me."
She described what happened. Jonathan was sitting on a beanbag in the corner of the library, his face hidden behind his favourite book. Sue was sitting on the beanbag next to him, commenting on the book – not directly asking him anything, just sharing her thoughts. And then suddenly, from behind the book, she heard Jonathan’s voice for the first time. He said, "I like this book, Sue, because it makes me laugh on the inside."
From then on, Sue became the one adult at school that Jonathan would speak to. But only in the library, and only sitting on that particular beanbag. He felt safe in the library. He felt safe with Sue. He had something to say about the book he was reading, and it was something that he wanted to share.
It was with this in mind that I responded to a plea this summer by the headteacher of my son’s secondary school, the Archer Academy – a free school in North London that opened in 2013 and which the Department for Education called "the gold standard for free schools".
Passionate national debate
She wanted help to raise money for the school’s £250,000 campaign to build a new library and resource centre. The school sits on two sites, and while the lower school for Years 7, 8 and 9 has a lovely well-stocked library and brilliant librarian, the upper school, for Years 10 and 11, situated a good 10-minute walk away, has no available space for a library to be housed.
As a children’s author, primary school teacher, parent and reader, the headteacher’s plea for help fell on fertile ears. Of course, I wanted to get involved: I couldn’t think of a more worthwhile cause. Children need libraries, schools need libraries, communities need libraries. I had just finished editing my seventh novel, Unicorn Girl, a story for 9- to 12-year-olds about a troubled girl and the friendship she develops with a lost unicorn. With odd synchronicity, the pair’s friendship is helped by a book she finds in a library. I decided more or less on the spot that I’d give profits from the first 5,000 copies sold to the campaign.
We think that the initiative is the first of its kind in a state school – a very local campaign in many ways, but one that comes just as the issue of school libraries is being debated nationally – not for the first time, but perhaps with more passion than ever.
This September, the three-year national Great School Libraries campaign was launched by the School Library Association and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. Even against a background of "little extras", it’s hard to argue with their call for better funding, inclusion of school libraries in the Ofsted framework and a national plan for future school library development.
And if a school doesn’t have a vibrant library, the chances of a child finding one outside are getting slimmer: 449 libraries closed in England, Scotland and Wales between 2012 and 2017, according to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. And nearly 15 per cent of public libraries in England – more than 569 – are now run by volunteers rather than the council, according to the authoritative Public Libraries News.
School libraries matter in more ways than I could fit into this article. A vibrant school library is "the beating heart of the school", as the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group described them in its eponymous 2014 report. A place where students feel supported and valued. A place where they are free to discover new books, fictional worlds that may, on some level, chime with their own, helping them through difficult times. A place for them to browse and learn and think and enquire. To feel inspired and to feel safe.
But the sad truth is that – with so many local libraries closing or having their services cut – there are fewer trained librarians like Sue helping children like Jonathan. In fact, schools lost 280 librarians in two years, according to the Department for Education’s school-workforce data for England between 2012 and 2014. The figures may be much higher, but data collection in the sector is too piecemeal for us to know for sure.
So while I’m crossing my fingers that Unicorn Girl helps build a library at my son’s school, I also hope that it plays its own small part in stimulating the wider narrative. Because, as the 19th century social reformer Henry Ward Beecher said: ‘‘A library is not a luxury, but one of the necessities of life."
Anne-Marie Conway is an author and primary school teacher. Visit her website here
Unicorn Girl by Anne-Marie Conway can be ordered through Peters, high street bookshops and on Amazon and Kindle. You can donate to the Archer Academy’s "Make Beaumont Brilliant" library and resource fund here