How your school library can help pupils and staff

Written by: Elizabeth Hutchinson & Clare Brumpton | Published:
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Thanks for your kind comment Graeme, the next one is on its way ??

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An effective school library can support the whole school. Clare Brumpton and Elizabeth Hutchinson look at how libraries – and librarians – can play a key role in raising standards and improving outcomes

Schools that employ school librarians and understand their role in teaching and learning are, in our opinion, ahead of the game.

These schools recognise the expertise of their school librarian working within the curriculum and as part of the educational process.
School librarians that work this way raise literacy levels by developing a love of reading but also teach digital and information literacy which is known to improve academic attainment (Todd, 2021).

Those schools that enabled their librarian to continue working throughout the pandemic, in their role as a librarian, were able to access quality online resources while also benefiting from the support in media and information literacy skills and reading engagement and literacy.

This article is inspired by the launch of the Levelling Up Goals campaign, which offers us a framework for social mobility. Looking through the campaign’s 14 goals (see further information), it is clear that school librarians have a role to play. However, in this article we will focus on five goals where your librarians can make the biggest difference.

Goal 1: Strong foundation in early years
“Language and literacy skills – in particular a child’s word count and knowledge of vocabulary – especially matter to enable them to make the best out of their initial education, ... (when) forming friendships and relationships, and (for) emotional development.”

In his book Libraries Designed for Kids (Facet Publishing, 2008), Nolan Lushington reminds us: “Defining moments in the intellectual lives of children occur each time they select a book they want to read. Often these moments occur at a children’s library. They may result from a librarian taking an interest in nurturing the natural curiosity of a child. A child’s imagination may be captured by an intriguing display of the front cover of a picture book. The vital element of these moments is that the act of selecting the book involves the child.”

What can you do now?

If your school does not already have a central library collection – and National Literacy Trust (NLT) research tells us that one in eight primary schools do not have a library (Todd, 2021) – it is worthwhile investing the time, space and finances to create one. There is value in pupils paying regular visits to a library outside of their class reading corner. Having a librarian (or support from Schools Library Services UK) responsible for creating this space, filling it with suitable furniture and a curated collection of books will pay dividends in terms of reading development, creating a reading culture, and developing children’s imaginations. A teacher with library responsibility could be supported to run an early years library too.

Goal 2: Successful school years
“The so-called attainment gap between the most and least privileged remains stubbornly high.”

Schools that have access to a school library and librarian see an increase in attainment. The NLT’s 2017 review (Teravainen & Clark, 2017) concludes: “School libraries have been found to impact general academic attainment, reading and writing skills, plus wider learning skills, as well as their scores in history, mathematics and science.”

The school librarian ensures quality resources are put into pupils’ hands, via the curriculum, raising attainment across your school. Meanwhile, the phase one report of the Great School Libraries campaign (2019) showed that schools which are in areas of deprivation are less likely to have a school library and librarian. These are pupils who need more access to both physical and online resources with the support of a school librarian to close the attainment gap.

What can you do now?

Encourage your teachers to collaborate with your school librarian who can provide media and information literacy skills which include such things as reading for learning, note-taking and critical thinking skills. The school librarian has the expertise to co-teach such lessons bringing enhanced learning skills to the classroom.

Goal 8: Good health and wellbeing
“Health and wellbeing inequalities lie at the heart of driving levelling up and improving social mobility.”

The wellbeing of our pupils and teachers has never been more important. School libraries are emerging as a place to support pupils and teachers not only by providing a safe space but also as a place of teaching and learning about health literacy. Clark & Teravainen-Goff (2018) found that “children and young people who use the school library have on average, higher mental wellbeing scores”.

What can you do now?

Ensure that your school library has space for pupils to go to if feeling overwhelmed. Make sure your school library staff have time to support those pupils. Ensure the library has enough budget to create a mental health and wellbeing collection for both staff and pupils.

A school librarian’s media and information literacy skills are also a perfect link to support health literacy. Encourage your school librarians to work alongside PSHE teachers as well. And see Margaret Merga’s 2020 paper exploring how school libraries can support pupil wellbeing, including by operating as safe spaces for young people, promoting and resourcing wellbeing initiatives, and supporting “bibliotherapeutic practices” and reading for pleasure.

Goal 10: Closing the digital divide
“The internet revolution is an opportunity for a level playing field but it also poses a growing inequality threat.”

School libraries can provide the space, resources and a framework to ensure equality for pupils who may not have online access at home. Librarians are information professionals who can support and teach research and inquiry skills ensuring all pupils can cope in an online world.

What can you do now?

Make sure your school library has the budget and staff it needs to provide the resources and support for all pupils. Check out FOSIL (Framework Of Skills for Inquiry Learning) – a free framework that can be used to teach and assess your pupil’s skills. This works best in collaboration with your teaching staff and school librarian. FOSIL can be used from reception to year 13 supporting a pupil’s learning journey.

For examples of how FOSIL is used within the curriculum, see the FOSIL forum (see further information) where lessons and ideas are discussed.

Goal 14: Achieve equality, through diversity/inclusion
“Diversity Matters.”

School librarians value diversity, creating collections and vital spaces for all pupils. In her recent article Going beyond school libraries as a safe haven (2020), Rachel Altobelli, the director of library services and instructional materials at Albuquerque Public Schools in America, said: “It’s clear students respond to this inclusion and respect. When they are seen, respected, and appreciated by their school librarians, they are engaged and excited learners.” There are many ways that librarians work on making their library diverse and representative.

What can you do now?

Make sure that the collection is representative of the users – audit the collection and compare it with demographics and interests/requests. You could follow a guide, such as that of the Association for Library Service to Children (Roos, 2020), or you could start with a less formal audit based on general observations. A librarian with prior knowledge of authors, contents of children’s literature, and who knows their pupils can conduct an observational audit very easily. Someone new to the role might need some support at first.

Celebrate events throughout the year which allow for a diversity of titles and types of books to be displayed without calling them “diverse books” – e.g. Pride Month, Black History Month, International Women’s Day, Chinese New Year, etc. Catalogue the library collection in an inclusive and equitable way, using correct and up-to-date terminology and search terms, adapting and correcting outdated search terms.

Keep up-to-date with research, such as the annual Reflecting realities report from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (the fourth report came out in November 2021), disseminating key findings to colleagues and acting on recommendations within the library setting.

Create an environment within the library that is considered a safe space for all, free of judgement, where pupils and staff can request quality and reliable information. Librarians adhere to robust ethical practices which enable this. Ensure that pupils have access to books and resources in the languages that they use, at the levels they require, while being age-appropriate.

Why does this matter?

Not only are your schools and teachers in a much poorer position without a school library and librarian but you are putting your pupils at a disadvantage. If you are a school without a school librarian maybe it is time to make a plan and employ a professional librarian. A qualified librarian will hold a degree or CILIP Chartership. You can find recruitment support via the School Library Association or CILIP’s School Libraries Group). And for those schools lucky enough to have a librarian, senior leaders might consider:

  • Having a meeting with your librarian to plan a way forward. What can you do to encourage teachers to seek support from the school library?
  • Reading your librarian’s latest annual report so you understand what they already do (or ask them to write one for you).
  • Finding out what CPD they require to support your curriculum.
  • Being the school librarians’ biggest advocate. If you, as part of your senior leadership team, are not supportive, why will your teachers work with them?

If you are still unsure, watch the short video Overdue, which has been produced by the Rhode Island Library Association in America and focuses on the amazing work of school librarians and libraries. There is so much evidence that school librarians make a difference. Is it not time to start taking your school librarian seriously? 

  • Elizabeth Hutchinson is a chartered librarian and fellow of CILIP. With 20 years in school libraries she is now a trainer and advisor and an advocate for FOSIL Inquiry based Learning. Visit
  • Clare Brumpton has worked in school libraries for 25 years. She is head of research centre at the International School of London, an IB school where she is responsible for three libraries and the Research Institute.

Headteacher Update Summer Edition 2022

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Summer Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via

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Thanks for your kind comment Graeme, the next one is on its way ??
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Fantastic article, well done Elizabeth and Clare. I especially agree with the notion that librarians should 'keep up to date' with research. Many don't. It's vital for our niche profession to network, keep abreast of new developments, be visible and author or contribute to peer-reviewed publications. Looking forward to your next article.
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