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Passion and commitment are key to successful primary school libraries

Updated: Aug 20, 2019

As a literacy and literature adviser and university lecturer I have visited many primary schools and worked with many hundreds of teachers, English subject leaders and senior managers. I have found that although most primary schools have libraries there is no uniformity in provision or access.

What are the Issues?

Class libraries or school libraries?

Due in large part to budget limitations many schools prioritise either classroom book corners or a central library. Both are of value – children need instant access to a well-stocked class library but also the opportunity for regular access to a wider and richer resource to select books to read for pleasure and information.

Who is responsible?

The responsibility for libraries in primary schools varies, most frequently it is the English subject lead who has the responsibility  and she/he may line manage a teaching assistant. The time TAs have available to support the library may vary, they frequently have other commitments in the school. In some cases, parent volunteers help manage school libraries. School librarians are a rarity in primary schools.

What about funding?

The amount of money varies for book stock and furnishings. If tied in with building works core funding can sometimes be found for furniture. Often funding is minimal and part of the English budget. School parent associations sometimes support with fund raising

How well is the space used?

Making good use of the library space needs planning. Timetabling regular slots for class visits to the library for browsing, research and story times are important. In addition, thought needs to be given to creative and appropriate use of the resource, for example for book groups, ‘buddy’ reading and parent and child story times.  It is easy for sought after spaces to be monopolised by intervention groups or at the other extreme be empty for the majority of the day if staff are not encouraged to use them.

Is the value of the library recognised?

The degree to which the school library is considered central to the quality of education provided varies enormously in terms of promoting reading for pleasure, supporting the curriculum and children’s development as critical users of information. This is pivotal in terms of ensuring a well-used, managed and funded primary library.

As a former English subject leader myself I understand these tensions. A key factor in the successful development of a primary school library is the passionate commitment of individual members of staff supported by a senior leadership team who value the library and see it as central to the quality of education rather than an add-on.

I recently had the opportunity to visit two successful primary school libraries in Lewisham, South East London and speak to the individuals responsible for them. Here is what I found out:

Firstly, I met Karen Robertson, Assistant Head and English and Curriculum Lead at Holbeach Primary School. Karen described the background to their very attractive school library.

‘We have always had a library since I’ve been here, but it was a lot smaller and the books were very old. It was extended four/five years ago. Lewisham had wanted us to use the space for new classrooms, but we fought for the space, the head teacher was passionate about books and reading so instead of losing a library we extended it taking over what had been a computer room. ’

The school had very clear aims in what they wanted to achieve:

‘The school is in quite an area of deprivation with quite a few children who don’t have any books at home. What we want to do is to make a difference to their lives because reading is key for their futures. We wanted it to be a space that was inviting for all of the children in the school and encourage them to read and enjoy reading.’

She told me how the children were involved:

‘Children helped design the shape and layout, they wanted it to be exciting.  Then it was designed and built by an outside company. It creates a really nice space.’ The school are very lucky to have a creative and skilled premises officer who built a lovely poetry tree.

Maintenance & organisation

Karen described a team approach to managing the library. She has overall responsibility; a Teaching Assistant has responsibility for tidying for half an hour a day with Y6 junior librarians helping at lunchtime. Another TA is responsible for display. Class teachers choose a timetabled slot to bring their classes and children can borrow books to take back to class or take home.

The library is also used for reading buddies in Y1 and Y6. Children find a comfortable space and read with their buddy. Karen commented on the benefits of this for the year sixes as well as their year one partners.

Karen made sure that an introduction to the library was a priority for the reception children and great fun too:

‘I Introduced the library to reception during world book day with a bear hunt. I told them my teddy bear has lost his friends and I think they are hiding in the library. I brought them here and read ‘Where’s My Teddy.’

The response from the children and visitors has been very good:

‘A group of visiting heads and deputies were stunned by the library. They interviewed some of the children who talked about how much they love the library and want to come in more.’

Karen is continuing to work on developing the library, the book stock, in particular fiction and opportunities for children to access the wonderful space.

I also visited Stillness Junior School where Ruth Horsman is a teaching assistant with responsibility for the library.

I asked Ruth how she became involved

‘I became a parent volunteer 4 years ago and gradually got more involved. My first ever job was in a community library and I always loved it.  At that time there was one parent coming into the library to keep it tidy. Classes were coming in to choose books but there was no dedicated time to read the books here. I felt this was such a lovely space, but it was only open when teachers came with their classes. I put it to the Head Teacher that I could open the library one lunchtime a week as a space for kids to come in and read. That grew and grew. I started talking other parents into it as well. Gradually people started realising the benefits of a space [for the children] that isn’t the playground.

How is the library used now?

We now open every lunchtime – run by parent volunteers. We also open three afternoons after school for half an hour for parents to choose books and read with their children.

We are very lucky to have this and a leadership team who can see how important it [the library] is. There are lots of kids who think the library is the heart of the school. Every lunchtime they see it as their space – they own it! Children help choose the books. Pupil librarians help the parent volunteers tidy.

What is the value?

What we do here is completely separate from what goes on in the classroom; it’s reading for pleasure.

Ruth ensures she responds to children’s interests and extends them too

‘One child said to me my teacher says I’m not allowed to read any more ‘Wimpy Kids’ I’ve got to read something more challenging. I say take a Wimpy kid out but take something that’s more challenging as well.’

Ruth has expanded the range of reading material by adding comics and newspapers and a collection of graphic books. The Guinness Book of Records is proving very popular. The PTA have funded a subscription to the Beano. Ruth is also trying to ensure a good balance between responding to children’s interests and expanding them with encouragement to read more widely.

‘There’s a reading challenge too – if you read all 30 books in a year you get a gold certificate. I have had parents say I can’t tell you how great this is. They are trying to read new books, they are discovering new authors. It’s not compulsory though and doesn’t work for all.’

How else is the library used?

‘From September I have been paid for 6 hours a week to work with groups of children from year six during guided reading time. I choose the books pushing their reading ability. The parents are happy to buy books, and if they can’t buy it, I borrow from the community libraries. Children are talking about the book so much some groups say I already know what happens – so this term I’ve got three separate books.

We have a discussion at the beginning of each session, read a bit together then have another discussion at the end, I say read 3 chapters at home. I want it to be interesting and fun. We’ve been doing a bit of philosophy for children and exploring the wider themes in the books too.’

The library is also used for reading buddies from year 6 and 2 and a celebration of comic book making and was well used during the school’s book festival.

Future plans

Ruth told me that although the space for the current library will go in the next few months, a new library is planned at the front of the school to be funded by Lewisham council, with fund-raising from the school for an additional, mezzanine level. She is also making plans with the Infants school to run a boys’ books and brunch workshop and a reading for pleasure with your child session with parents.

Ruth is keen to work across the school including in other year groups and also to work more closely with the teaching staff:

‘It feels like what I am doing here is very separate to what the teachers are doing I would like there to be more of a connection’

Ruth plans to attend the OU/UKLA teachers’ reading for pleasure group in Lewisham next year hopefully with a member of the school teaching team to make more links in terms of a whole school drive to promote reading for pleasure. She is also keen to explore possibilities for training from the School Library Association as she is not a librarian.

Ruth is very proactive and keen to make a difference, not only in her school but across the borough, linking up with other schools.

‘I have started to set up a small network, it’s tiny at the moment, 4 or 5 schools all with a library or setting one up. We try to meet once a term and share practice for example managing fund raising.

She has also set up the Lewisham Primary book awards being piloted this year with 15 schools in conjunction with Moon Lane Bookshop. The emphasis is on inclusivity and books reflecting the diversity of borough.

These passionate and committed individuals are making a big difference within their own settings and through networking potentially more widely too. The first steps are for school leaders to recognize the impact a successful school library can have on the quality of education.

As Professor Teresa Cremin has stated: ‘A quality school library is every child’s right.’

By Sue McGonigle who has over twenty years’ experience as a teacher, English subject leader and Deputy Head in inner city primary schools.

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