Authors, librarians and trade bodies have spoken out in support of the campaign to make school libraries statutory, after a recent open letter from the Society of Authors (SoA) urging Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman to back the change. The SoA letter, from chief executive Nicola Solomon, was said to have been "well received" by politicians.
Unlike public and prison libraries, there is no legal requirement for schools to provide any sort of library facility, a situation branded “crazy” by Barbara Band, president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).
While hard data on school libraries is scarce, Band described the general picture as one of closures and decline, in parallel to the public library service. “It all comes down to individual headteachers and where they want to spend their budget,” she said. “I know one school librarian who was made redundant, who later found out the school uses lunch supervisors to keep the shelves tidy.”
School Library Services, more easily recorded, show a steady rate of closure.
Earlier this month the SoA asked Harman to consider making school libraries a priority, backed by law and inspected by Ofsted. Chief executive Nicola Solomon told The Bookseller the SoA was keen to work with “all interested” groups on the issue.
Band, who is also head of library and resources at the Emmbrook School in Berkshire, said CILIP was “working with all parties” on the statutory requirement, calling its absence “crazy when you consider the importance of literacy levels”. She added: “For many children who don’t have a reading background, school libraries are the only place they have access to books. Many children don’t grow up with books at home, and it is more difficult than ever for them to visit public libraries given the time pressures on parents and the fact public libraries are having opening hours slashed.”
Gillian Harris, head of Tower Hamlets’ school library service, emphasised that the role of school librarian should be included in any legislation. ”It is not a library unless you have someone who is qualified,” she said. “It is the person who makes a difference, not the collection of books.”
Sally Duncan, assistant director of the School Library Association, agreed: “We would love libraries and librarians to be statutory, but we would prefer the librarian to be statutory.” Saying the SLA was promoting the cause “at every opportunity”, Duncan emphasised the need for Ofsted involvement: “Even if a school says they have a library, it could be anything from a big, fully staffed operation to a couple of bookshelves.”
Authors have also added their voices to the cause. Marcus Sedgwick said: “If libraries are compulsory in prisons, why on earth are they not in schools? School libraries are absolutely central to child literacy, and therefore literacy in general.” Geek Girl author Holly Smale agreed: “School libraries aren’t just statistically proven to improve the grades of the schools they belong to—which they do—but, more importantly, they provide a refuge and a safe haven for children that is irreplaceable.”
Library campaigner Desmond Clarke said there was a growing feeling that school libraries should be better regulated. He said: “The SoA’s letter to Harriet Harman was very well received by politicians. There is an understanding that school libraries have fallen down a gap—public libraries and prison libraries are both looked out for but school libraries are overlooked.”
Asked if Ofsted already took the contribution of school libraries broadly into account during its inspection process, a spokesman for the body said: “When they go into schools, inspectors consider how well libraries and other resources are used by teachers to improve pupils’ reading skills. Of course, we expect school leaders and teachers to focus on high literacy standards.”
But school librarian Caroline Roche, who runs the Heart of the School website, which showcases the work of school librarians and libraries, said every time Ofsted visited, school librarians had to work hard to be noticed. “You have to jump up and down saying: ‘Look at me, look at me,’ [but] they’re not obliged to,” she noted.
Schools look to local indies for book advice
The demise of school library services across the country is having one positive side-effect for the trade, as more and more schools turn to independent bookshops for advice on what to buy.
Kate Agnew, who runs The Children’s Bookshop in London’s Muswell Hill, said business with school libraries had certainly increased in recent years with the emphasis being on choosing the right books for the school rather than just selling them.
“We have very good relationships with local schools and they trust us to sort it out for them, because we are specialists who know the books so well,” Agnew said. “It’s a lovely part of the job.” She added that the loss of school library services, as well as a drop in the number of council-hired literacy consultants, may have had an impact on who school librarians can turn to for advice.
Marilyn Brocklehurst of the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre, who advises schools on library design and stock, said more schools want books that children read for pleasure. “I have been aware of more schools looking at their libraries and their classroom stock, recognising that for some children the school is the only access point for leisure reading material,” she said.
Brocklehurst reported school librarians had asked her for “more good fiction and information books [whereas] they had previously spent their book budgets on big books, reading schemes, and group and guided readers, many of which they sourced directly from publishers.”
Jacqueline Johnson of the Jacqson Diego Story Emporium in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, said schools usually ask which books will engage certain age groups or reading abilities, adding: “They often want to know which books are best for reluctant readers.”
Behind the times
Sheila O’Reilly, owner of Dulwich Books in London, said bookshops can really help when advising on “well-written and contemporary books, rather than the classic novels”, while Sonia Benster of the Children’s Bookshop in Lindley, West Yorkshire, said schools are often interested in bestsellers and award winners.
However, Brocklehurst warned that school libraries have some way to go in terms of their books offering, with shelves still mainly stocked with books by Michael Morpurgo, Anne Fine, Dick King Smith and Roald Dahl. They are also guilty, she claimed, of having “mountains of dire series bought in bulk, but rarely a well-considered, rich collection of excellent current fiction”, combined with “vast quantities of awful donations from well-meaning grannies”.
O’Reilly agreed that there were some “horrendous” school libraries, but argued that in general they were improving. Librarians appreciate booksellers’ expertise and are loyal to their local bookshop, she said. “Libraries know they can get cheaper deals on Amazon but they choose us instead,” she added.