Dear headteachers. As school budgets are squeezed even tighter, I’m going to ask you to earmark money for something that you, officially, don’t have to spend any money on – your school library.
I can anticipate your immediate response already. Schools are expected to do so much already with decreasing amounts of money. Believe me, I know – I used to be a school governor and I work in a primary school. And, since libraries aren’t a required facility in schools, it might make more sense to cross them off the list.
After all, often school libraries can hardly be called that – squashed into corridors or located in a dark corner behind a cloakroom, where battered books fight for space among coats, bags and muddy wellies.
If a library doesn’t look welcoming or attractive, the children won’t want to visit it, so what’s the point in having one, you might ask. Besides, if most primary classrooms have book corners and bookcases with age- and ability-appropriate titles, is there any need for a separate library at all?
The thing is, a successful library is so much more than a depository of books. It’s a place where the written world can come to life. Dedicated school librarians (and they don’t need a library qualification to be effective) try to engage families and carers and the wider community to instil a love of reading.
We help staff with reading materials to support classroom education and create interesting and entertaining challenges in reading and writing. We might work with children who are reluctant readers, or who struggle to achieve their age-appropriate reading levels.
We liaise with local bookshops and libraries and keep in touch with authors and illustrators to arrange school visits and send them photos, letters and tweets.
In my library, I’m fortunate to get to know each and every child in the school through weekly library sessions and ‘library lunchtimes’, where I run activities such as storytime and arts and crafts sessions based on the books and poetry we’re reading. The children see the space as a place of creativity and calm, with cushions, teddies and colourful displays alongside the books, magazines and newspapers.
This environment is vital at a time where, according to recent surveys, one in ten children and young adults suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and conduct disorders. Librarians aren’t necessarily trained psychotherapists or counsellors, but if they can at least offer a vulnerable child a refuge a few times a week, it can help ease the burden on teachers with 29 other children to care for.
Book lover, reading helper, agony aunt, researcher – perhaps the question you should be asking yourselves is this: can you afford not to have a librarian?
Samantha Pope is librarian at St Michael’s CE Primary in Oxford.