Friday, 8 April 2016

An Inspector Calls? by Keren David

It is 2016. We live in the United Kingdom, birthplace of the English language, home of so many leading authors of children's literature. Birthplace of Shakespeare, Milton, Austen. Books are our shared heritage. If you're trying to puzzle out what British values might be, the best place to start is in a library.

Yes, you do detect a note of sarcasm. 

What's happening in our schools? 

  • Books are piled into skips and destroyed

  • Budgets for school libraries are slashed.

  • Libraries are dismantled and converted into classrooms.

  • Librarians have been sacked or demoted.

This week the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) published a survey of school libraries at their annual conference in Liverpool. It told a devastating story of decay and destruction. 

Sometimes it was budget cuts, sometimes the lure of new toys.  'The new head has decided a library is no longer needed so is planning to get rid of it as all reading can be done on iPads,' said one teacher at a primary school in the West Midlands. A PRIMARY school, a place where children learn to read, but will now be unable to browse books and discover the ones they might enjoy. ' Our library has become a wall of shelves in a corridor with two chairs -  we used to have a designated room where children could sit or read or research, We needed the space for another classroom,' said a teacher in a primary school in Cornwall. 

It's not just school libraries that are being  eviscerated.  School library services are disappearing too. This year I was lucky enough to be shortlisted for the Red Book Awards in Falkirk, run by the School Library Service there. The dedication that had gone into making this event fun, meaningful and a positive learning experience for the students involved was obvious. And yet Falkirk Council is cutting the entire SLS budget -  saving less than £400,000 -  in an appalling act of cultural vandalism. 

The ATL's  modest suggestion to stop the rot was that Ofsted should be charged with reporting into schools' library provision. I like this idea. The judgment of Ofsted inspectors is something that school leaders genuinely care about. If they could fail an inspection for not employing a librarian, not restocking a library or replacing books with tablets, then we might see a change in policies and priorities.  

I'd go further and suggest that academy chains taking over a school should be required to ring-fence a percentage of  its budget to maintain a physical library, employ a librarian or library service and replenish the book stock. 

We also need to champion the schools that are bucking the trend. 
Last month author Jonny Zucker opened a brand new library at Kenilworth Primary School in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. The school choir sang. The Jolly Postman delivered book recommendations to every child. The Hungry Caterpillar provided snacks.

Head teacher Samantha Jayasuriya said: “We are determined at Kenilworth to keep our library open and thriving helping our children develop a love of lifelong reading.
“Libraries are amazing community spaces and Borehamwood is very lucky to have a beautiful and well stocked town library.
In Shropshire, in January, author Nicola Davies opened a new library at Highley Primary school.  English teacher Vicki Kelly said:  “We converted one of our spare rooms into a library space and the PTA gave us £1,000 to buy books for it. The children love having a library and it also has soft chairs, so is a good place for them to work in, research and read for pleasure.”
Hurray for schools which value libraries and invest in them!  Unleash the Jolly Postman and his recommendations to every community in the UK! And send Ofsted's inspectors along with him, just in case. 


Sue Bursztynski said...

I thought school libraries were only disappearing here! And yes, those skips. My own school, which has four campuses, got rid of the teacher-librarian, closed the seniòr campus library and threw out the books(though before that some were taken by the maths department to produce a "book igloo" for Numeracy Week. The teacher involved actually had the nerve to say it was her contribution to Literacy Week!). Then someone realised they still needed someone to keep the class set of laptops charged and lend out book boxes for the literacy program, so they employed a maths teacher who could help with homework when students were brought into the empty room that had once been a library. And the principal boasted to parents on an information night at another campus that the senior library had a maths/science teacher running it. For some time he referred to the empty room as "the learning centre"(learning what?From whom?). Now, this empty room is once again called the library.

In the end, it's about money. Private schools - the kind that can afford author visits - keep their libraries open. With qualified staff. If you have money you can still have the good things. If you haven't, you get a book room and are told that "it's all on the Internet now, isn't I think?"

Susan Price said...

Everything you say, Sue B. The only schools that have invited me for visits recently (me, working class, comprehensive educated, council-house reared, with a Black Country accent) have been fee-paying private schools, which all had beautiful libraries, full of books, with librarians.
But though I agree with the post above, there is a part of me that keeps whispering: make something rare and hard to obtain and you make it valuable. Make the ability to read and enjoy literature rare, and it will become admired and pursued for its own sake. Make literacy and a good education difficult to come by, and people will travel miles for it in their own time...
Sorry. It's the contrarian in me.

Lesley said...

There is a new academy opening near where I live. I was pleased to note pictures of a library in their online prospectus (although they haven't finished building the school yet). However I was disappointed when they advertised for a librarian - 25 hours a week during term time at a pro rata salary of around £15,250. This is despite a job description that clearly called for a full time qualified librarian.

So we need more than just requiring a library, we need those libraries to be adequately staffed and funded.

Penny Dolan said...

Pleasing to hear the increasingly rare good library news stories.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Susan, you needn't feel guilty about visiting the private schools - this is your living, after all. You might, however, consider different ways of collecting the payment. For example, I know of a writer here who charges a very small fee per child on condition that there are a minimum number of students. That, of course, means you have to leave your workshops for the schools that can afford them, but you can still get up and talk to kids who can manage a small fee each. Up to the school how they handle it. Some might subsidise or pay for those kids who can't afford even that. Or there are virtual visits, which can be cheaper and you don't have to travel. I did one of those once, from my library office. It was a lot of fun. The teacher arranging it got all the kids into one big room with a large screen and let them sit in front of the computer to ask questions. He prepared them and made sure the school had some copies of my books. At one point in my talk, some of my students came in from class to ask for something and I introduced them to the audience! I didn't charge for that, as it was a test run, but the teacher sent me a book voucher by way of thanks.

Um, not sure what you mean by the value of rarity. If schools like mine close their libraries, who will benefit from it? Who will be left to value it? Just asking...