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At the heart of the school: celebrate National Libraries Day

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 5 February 2016

Sally Perry.
Question: What do you have in school that can:
                                    Improve literacy
                                    Foster reading for pleasure
                                    Raise academic achievement
                                    Develop positive attitudes towards learning
                                    Deliver information literacy skills
                                    Create a community
                                    And more…
Answer: A School Library
National Libraries Day will be celebrated on Saturday (6 February) and it seems fitting that here at the UCL Institute of Education Library we use the occasion to consider the role of the School Library.
So what can school libraries do? Professor Dorothy Williams and colleagues, in their 2013 review of research into school libraries, looked at the impact the library can have on learning. They summarize this impact as:

Improved test scores

Accomplishment of learning outcomes

Positive attitudinal learning.

In 2014, in the introduction to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Libraries report The Beating Heart of the School Lord Graham Tope said:

Every child growing up in the UK should have the chance to learn and develop through a good school library. Poor literacy skills stand in the way of children and young people achieving their potential. In an increasingly digital world, we need to teach young people how to evaluate and understand unprecedented amounts of information.

The ability of businesses to recruit people with the right skills and the success of our economy are underpinned by literate and knowledgeable people. Good school libraries build these skills.

Practising school librarians, who were asked to describe how their libraries contribute to their school, add further detail to the picture:

School libraries help show students how to question, search and reflect, becoming independent learners and thinkers. The school library provides a safe haven where students can retreat and recharge. TM

I… tell [the students] about a curated set of links which I have embedded into our Virtual Learning Environment… to enable them to go quickly to good quality digital information. I use World Book Day to promote reading and literature across the curriculum, using an overall theme to involve as many departments as possible. [Last year’s theme was ‘Gothic’] and included talks on the science behind vampires and Frankenstein’s monster… and the Goth subculture in Politics. TF

The library is at the heart of the school, pupils have an infectious enthusiasm for books and literacy. The library instils a real love of literature and knowledge and enhances the wider experiences of the pupils through learning. JS

It is clear these librarians see a role for the library in every aspect of the school, from pastoral to academic, from providing resources to inspiring students to use them, from achievement in exams to preparation for life-long learning. And this highlights one noteworthy feature of school libraries: their unique position in bridging age groups, subjects, abilities, even the staff/students divide.
It seems common sense that a school library should be a good thing, but that’s not enough to justify the allocation of precious school budgets. Evidence is required, and fortunately there seems to be a growing body of it. Impact of School Libraries on Learning: Critical review of published evidence to inform the Scottish education community, mentioned previously, produced in 2013 by Dorothy Williams, Caroline Wavell and Katie Morrison of Robert Gordon University, brings together world-wide evidence and examines it in the context of the Scottish education environment. School Libraries Work!: A compendium of research supporting the effectiveness of school libraries reports on and reviews recent evidence for the impact of school libraries in the US. The Beating Heart of the School makes recommendations about how evidence could gathered for the UK.
Some of the research covered in these publications draws attention to the role of specific aspects of library provision, in particular the librarian. Libraries Work! identifies two key trends from US research: ‘when school librarian staffing is reduced, achievement in ELA [English Language Arts Standards] suffers’ and ‘Librarians play an integral role in teaching and supporting 21st-century learners’. The IFLA School Library Guidelines (2015) state: ‘Research has shown that the most critical condition for an effective school library program is access to a qualified school library professional’ (IFLA, 2015, p. 18). Williams, Wavell and Morrison’s report presents this most effective sort of school librarian as ‘a qualified, full-time librarian, who is proactive and has managerial status’. In 2011 the School Library Group of CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) described this librarian as having, amongst other things:

… extensive knowledge, enthusiasm and experience to advise, encourage and inspire wider reading and reading for pleasure to ensure fair provision for all.

A skilled library practitioner with responsibility and time to help children and young people develop the skills needed to manage today’s information overload, to become lifelong learners and to meet the future job market’s need for problem solvers and independent thinkers.

‘To ensure fair provision for all’ introduces another important point about school libraries: the matter of social justice in consistent provision of good school libraries. One of Williams, Wavell and Morrison’s findings is: ‘There is also evidence that the school library is a powerful resource in lowering the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students’ and while not all children have home arrangements that will provide access to public libraries they could have access to school libraries. However in spite of these clear and proven advantages school libraries are not necessarily thriving. In England there is no statutory requirement for a school to have a library at all, and the report of the School Library Commission School Libraries: a plan for improvement found ‘in many schools the school library is a wasted resource, poorly embedded in the infrastructure of the school’. Scotland, where school library provision has traditionally been more supported, is now witnessing a petition in Parliament to save its school libraries in response to reports that several local authorities are cutting their provision.
So, in honour of National Libraries Day, if you are connected with a school in any capacity, why not find out about your school library and give it your support? The benefits will be mutual. As it prepares to celebrate its 80th birthday, here is what the School Library Association, in the words of Director Tricia Adams, has to say when asked to comment on the potential role of school libraries:

The School Library Association is 80 next year – and throughout those years we have campaigned and promoted, supported and advocated for the many benefits school libraries can provide; from supporting reading to finding information, being a safe space, a base for inspiration and creativity in the school, their impact is unique – school libraries are needed in every school!

With thanks to School Librarians Terri McCargar, Latymer Upper School; Tamsin Farthing, Royal Grammar School Guildford and Jane Spall, Aith Junior High School (SLA Honour List Librarian 2015) Photo courtesy of Aith School

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