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Guest Blog - The School Library Is a Litmus Paper

You can tell a lot about a school from its library. I am now retired, but when I was a local authority school improvement adviser and occasional Ofsted inspector, a visit to the school library was high on my list of priorities. Not all primary schools have a library, so in those cases, I would look for some alternative provision. I know things have changed in relation to Ofsted requirements, but in my opinion, those advising schools and/or reviewing them should still pay close attention to the school library. It gives an indication of what is happening in the rest of the school. A bit like a litmus paper.

If a school had a school librarian, I felt confident I would see some good practice, as long as that person had sufficient time and capacity to fulfil the role. I recall one particular Monday when I headed for the library in a primary school in a deprived area of the North East, to observe a lunchtime book club run by the librarian. As I entered the room, two upper Key Stage 2 children were reading aloud to a group of Key Stage 1 children and not one of them looked up. They were too interested in the story. The librarian, looked proudly on, as the children took turns to read aloud. I was struck by the eloquence, confidence and expression of the readers and soon realised that I had stumbled across a little piece of school library magic. This was a regular event where Years 5 and 6 read to younger children, but the magic was due to the fact that they were trained by the librarian. It was seen as an honour to be a reader and time was allowed for the children to develop their skills. Both readers and listeners benefitted from this experience. The librarian had helped create a culture where reading was valued and children made good progress in literacy. This is just one example of the positive contribution a good school librarian can make to children’s progress and it was a privilege to see it in action.

A designated library space, lovingly decorated with new furniture and up to date technology is a great asset, but some of the most effective school libraries I saw were the ones where staff made the best of whatever they had. Despite a lack of resources, they managed to create a comfortable, well organised, stimulating place where children used and enjoyed books. As one child once said to me when I asked how often they used their library, ‘What’s the point of a library if no-one uses it?’ I would expect a good library to have regular designated times for pupils to browse as well as study and, space permitting, I would expect to see clearly designated areas for different activities.

I was often impressed by the knowledge of pupil librarians, who knew exactly where to locate particular kinds of books and how to make the best use of any technology available. Involving the pupils in library displays and events was another winner in terms of pupil engagement, fostering a sense of shared ownership of the school library. I have seen school libraries like book shops, with reviews from pupils and staff regularly posted on the ends of bookcases and others where books recommended by pupils were displayed in a prominent place and given high status. School councils often had a role to play in organising pupil surveys about library use, resulting in some valuable feedback for staff.

Some children rarely have an opportunity to browse in a bookshop or a public library, which denies them the joy of coming across a book they might never have chosen before. Browsing isn’t always easy online but a good school library can compensate for this by allowing children to touch and experience an array of attractive books. Good class libraries are an effective substitute and sometimes for very good reasons, that is all a school can offer, but a whole room full of books is a different experience. I have seen some inventive ways to provide a school library – from buses in the playground, to walk-in cupboards and self -service libraries for parents and children. I have also seen some fantastic décor and displays, but the treatment and quality of the library books themselves is probably the best indication of the value a school places on reading. With limited budgets, it is now even more difficult to ensure an up to date stock but if the books are treated with respect and displayed well and children are given time to browse in a stimulating environment, they will want to read them. For some disadvantaged children, a school library is a haven of calm and without it they would struggle to access the books and technology to complete their homework.

It’s been a privilege to see such good practice and now in my new role as a children’s author, I really appreciate links with school libraries, who do so much to foster reading for pleasure.

Larraine Harrison

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