Cowell's call for Life-Changing Libraries looks to lessons from data-driven GSL campaign

Cowell's call for Life-Changing Libraries looks to lessons from data-driven GSL campaign

As schools across the nation shifted to online learning in different stages of the past year—coinciding with cuts to the school and public library provision—uncertainty has become the new normal for school librarians.

But school librarians are getting help in the form of How to Train Your Dragons creator Cressida Cowell, whose flagship project as the Waterstones Children’s Laureate is called Life-Changing Libraries. She upped the ante last month with an open letter to the Prime Minister, with Cowell pointing out the long-term effects of underfunding primary school libraries, adding that millions of children, particularly those from poorer communities, are missing out on opportunities to read for pleasure. She also called on Boris Johnson’s government to ring-fence £100m a year of funding for school libraries.

Whether the Prime Minister will stump up the money remains to be seen, but if his government needs some data-driven reasons to back Cowell’s call, it should look no further than the Great School Libraries (GSL) campaign. GSL, which recognises school libraries as “contributors to building lifelong readers” and something that “supports whole-school initiatives promoting reading for pleasure”, is a three-year, evidence-based campaign created in 2018. It is to conclude this summer, with its aim to bring back libraries and access to libraries in every school in the UK. GSL is organised by the School Libraries Group, the library association CILIP and the School Library Association (SLA).

The first phase of the campaign, which surveyed schools about existing library provision, found that one in eight schools has no designated library space. Of those that do, only around half have a designated member of staff to run the library, of which 30% have no specialist library qualification. 

The SLA view 

The SLA's chief executive, Alison Tarrant, says that this underscores that "there sometimes is a gap between having a school library and knowing what to expect from it or what to do with it." 

Tarrant adds that "information literacy and reading is the bread and butter for school libraries, and it's a role which is overlooked in a lot of schools". Tarrant notes that being overlooked starts at a fundamental level: in some schools, teachers will get the first dip of the delegated budget (funds given by local authorities directly to schools) and support staff—including school librarians—get what is left over. “That can be challenging for many [librarians] because the end result can be that they are prevented in fully taking part in their professional activity,” Tarrant says.

A lot of the activity around Great School Libraries in 2021 has been on resources for librarians on the ground, from practical in-school assets (such as posters and free online content) to more strategic things, such as access to fundraising schemes.

There is also a renewed push because the research has investigated the impact of Covid on school librarians and students, with a particular emphasis on how a lack of access has affected pupils’ mental health.

Tarrant has been the SLA chief executive for three-and-a-half years (and was on The Bookseller’s 2018 Rising Star list) and before her current role she was at the coal face herself, working at Cambourne Village College in Cambridgeshire, where she set up the library in a brand new school and oversaw its expansion for seven years. In her current role, Tarrant’s responsibilities range from the day-to-day operational side of things, “making sure SLA is remaining true to its purpose and making sure every pupil gets the best that they can from the school library they have”.

Even with these efforts, it is an uphill struggle, one exacerbated by the pandemic. The SLA’s 2020 School Library Survey UK found 7% of participants reporting that their school libraries were closed completely, and 18% reported that the school library was repurposed as a staffroom, classroom or intervention room.

Reflecting on the past year, Tarrant says: “It’s been a varied, often difficult time for lots of school libraries, but the one thing that has never changed for school librarians is their passion to do what they can to help the people they work with on a day-to-day basis.”