'The first thing I invested in was the school library'

Written by: Richard Gerver | Published:
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Such an interesting article, and suggests lots of further research on both provision and impact. ...

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The library must sit at the heart of our teaching and learning environments. Former headteacher, Richard Gerver – the new president of the School Library Association – explains why school libraries have never been more important and looks at some tenets of good practice


Back in 2019, the #GreatSchoolLibraries campaign, an initiative spearheaded by CILIP’s School Libraries Group and the School Library Association (SLA), released the findings of its survey of 1,750 schools across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The good news was that 87 per cent of schools have access to a designated library space. The implication of this, however, is that around one in eight schools (13 per cent) do not.

What these figures do not reveal is how effectively our school libraries quietly serve the wider school community, as the study also showed that many libraries are often used as classrooms or meeting rooms.

At this point you may be questioning why I am so passionate about school libraries. You may be one of those people who feel that the days of rows and rows of outdated books are gone and not representative of today’s learning environments. If you see them in this way, then I understand your argument – but from my experience, I would respectfully disagree.

When I was tasked with turning a failing school around, the first thing I invested in was building a state-of-the-art purpose-built library with staff receiving full school library CPD training. The result proved my belief in the transformative power of libraries.

Great libraries make an impact. In just two years I had transformed the school – Grange Primary School in Long Eaton – into one of the most acclaimed learning environments in the world.

We all recognise the importance of encouraging pupils to develop the habit of reading widely and often, for both pleasure and information. Our study showed that access to books is known to have plenty of benefits for students, including improved reading and writing skills.

When school libraries are effectively staffed, they have been proven time and time again to improve academic attainment.


A love of reading

One of the most important functions of a library is of course to develop children’s love of reading. Whether this has evolved from hard copy to eBooks, libraries will always be the place for children to access the wonder of stories.

Multiple studies have proven the learning potential of developing a love of reading. Indeed, children who have fun with reading are three times more likely to have stronger mental wellbeing compared with children who don’t enjoy reading (Clark & Teravainen-Goff, 2018). This is where librarians play an essential role in our schools, but it takes fully trained librarians to do this.

This is particularly important in schools in lower socio-economic areas as story-telling and literature can unite children from different backgrounds into one shared narrative.

Sadly, the recent Great School Libraries survey revealed that on average, poorer children are less likely to have access to a designated school library space compared to those from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds, and yet they are possibly the children who are less likely to have access to books at home (Great School Libraries Campaign, 2019).


Not just reading

When a school library is managed effectively, librarians will work with classroom teachers to understand each student’s individual needs and reading levels, so that they can help them to find books that are aligned to their reading level and, in turn, ensure they develop a love of reading.

However, believing that libraries are just about reading books is one misconception of the role of today’s school libraries; they are comprised of so much more than books and story time.


Digital literacy

We all recognise that the internet is a powerful source of information. In theory it should be an ideal repository of learning content. When we go to the internet, either to look for new information on a topic we are studying in class or to verify information we already have, we are presented with relevant websites by the search engines – that is, sources that are on the topic we are researching.

However, while they may be relevant, it is not always clear that the information they contain is reliable; and increasingly often it is not. Today’s students will inevitably click on one of the first few results rather than taking the time to consider their integrity. Research from 2012 cited by the Search Engine Watch website, suggests that 53 per cent of organic search clicks go to the first link. For school leaders with a duty of care to their staff and students this is a particularly troubling statistic.

A question increasingly being asked is whether or not the responsibility lies with schools to teach children about digital literacy.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, is one of the growing number of advocates for digital literacy being taught in schools. He said recently: "Children and young people need to learn ... to stay safe in a digital world. This includes being able to evaluate what they find online and make decisions about whether it is reliable and accurate or if it is ‘fake news’.”

Teaching children to be able to source trusted information and differentiate between fact, opinion and misinformation is not only of importance to their learning but it is also vital for safeguarding. It is something that today’s children will need for the rest of their lives in today’s increasingly online world. It is also something that is ideally suited to the school librarian to teach.


Teaching support

Another role for highly trained school librarians in today’s busy schools is offering teachers valuable support. Many proactive members of the SLA bring the school librarian into each class’s daily activities.

The teachers brief them on the topic or skill that they are working on so the librarian can take the children away from the class teacher for an hour and works with them to help source related, trusted information in books or online. This approach has the added advantage of freeing up teacher time for planning, preparation or marking.

The ability to engage with all kinds of mediums is vital to boost children’s critical thinking skills, in addition to ensuring their knowledge is well-rounded and balanced.


Training

When all school staff, especially the leadership team, appreciate the value of their libraries they invest in their librarians, and training is key. To realise the potential of school librarians they have to be fully trained; most are.

When I arrived at Grange Primary School, I ensured that its school library staff received full updated CPD training, so our library achieved my vision of being the incredibly effective central hub of the school.

The SLA offers a broad range of online learning content that schools around the world can sign up for to transform their libraries.

Libraries should be at the centre of all schools’ infrastructure. I invite any school to make contact with us at the SLA to discuss how we can help you to make this vital transformation. I look forward to working with you.

  • In December 2020, Richard Gerver became the new president of the School Library Association (SLA). He is a former primary school leader, most well-known for his work turning around Grange Primary School in Birmingham in 2001. He has won the Headteacher of the Year at the Teaching Awards and is an author and speaker.


Further information & resources


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Comments
Such an interesting article, and suggests lots of further research on both provision and impact.
Positive to see the number of schools with a library, but I suspect that many of these are still full of outdated books and not subject to active maintenance and management.
The number of librarians at primary level would be interesting to know. In my experience, the responsibility for the library is often added to the duties of another member of staff - teacher or teaching assistant- or to a parent volunteer with an interest/desire to help but no specific knowledge. And their reading experience may be very out of date.
Having listened to the outgoing Children’s Commissioner today, improving (investing in) school libraries would be an excellent way to support all children in the catch up, level up etc post COVID world!

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