Case Study: Tower Hamlets, by Laura Bennett
One of the bleakest principle findings of the latest Great School Libraries report is that schools with a higher percentage of children receiving free school meals are less likely to even have a school library to start with, and that if they do, it will probably have fewer books than a school library in a more affluent area.
Tower Hamlets in East London is the most deprived borough in London and is consistently one of the lowest socioeconomic areas in England. Here, 1 in 2 children live in poverty and schools routinely have over 40% of their children receiving free school meals, easily twice the national average.
Considering that though, a surprising number of primary schools in this East London borough buck the trend and not only have school libraries but also their own librarians. How?
The answer is the local School Library Service. Tower Hamlets School Library Service (TH SLS) has long recognised that school budgets are often why school libraries are low priority in schools already grappling with severe socioeconomic difficulties within their communities, so TH SLS offers professional Primary School Librarians (known as PLiPs) on an achievable budget. Schools can subscribe to a professional librarian for however many hours a week their budgets can afford, whether that’s a morning a week or several days. This subscription means the children have access to a well-stocked and curated library service within their own school run by a professional who can organise book clubs, work with individual children, run creative writing competitions and poetry slams, do storytimes for all ages - all the 'Reading for Pleasure' things the staff member who gets handed the library as a side project would love to do, but has not the time to.
On top of this,
PLiPS also support staff, helping to develop inclusive curricula, working with literacy coordinators to make engaging and interesting year group book lists, ensuring school library stock is diverse and inclusive, working with SLT on sourcing the resources the teachers need to do their job, finding and applying for funding – everything a librarian can do for a school, but on a budget and timescale that works.
The support of the TH SLS and its 'Librarians for Hire' PliPS is why Tower Hamlets primary schools buck the trend shown in the Great School Libraries report. Despite fighting against real inequalities, schools in this borough routinely have literacy results that are above the national average and over 90% of schools in the borough are rated ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ by OFSTED. The achievable and affordable support of a School Library Service and a professional librarian, even if it's only for an afternoon a week, must play some part in this levelling up of the playing field.