Great School Libraries campaign

The School Library Association (SLA) is backing a new campaign to secure government funding for school libraries and to make them statutory. We spoke with Alison Tarrant, the SLA's new head, to find out more about the campaign and the SLA's work.

The three-year Great School Libraries campaign is also supported by libraries' body CILIP and CILIP SLG and launches officially in June. In the meantime, there is a website - see link, below - where school librarians can sign up for updates.

The campaign's main aims are:
- Recognition of School Libraries/Librarians in Ofsted Inspection Framework
- Creation of a School Library Strategy for England
- Specific investment into School Library development

The campaigners also have the difficult task of trying to establish just how many schools have a library; information that is surprisingly hard to gather but essential in understanding how libraries are faring in the current squeeze on budgets.

Alison Tarrant, who heads up the SLA following Tricia Adam's retirement, is realistic about what the Great School Libraries campaign might achieve - but she is also hopeful that it will lead to a better understanding of what a good library can contribute to a school and to students' achievements.

With budgets in mind, Tarrant is anxious that schools don't feel threatened by the campaign's work. "Our concern is that if we make school libraries statutory, that will be a kick in the teeth for schools that are already struggling in terms of resources," Tarrant explains, "so we are going for this trinity whereby the statutory element and Ofsted inspection has to come with ring-fenced funding from government to develop school libraries."

She adds, "The campaign needs a strategy, funding and renewed buy-in from senior leaders. This is not about forcing libraries on schools whether or not they want it, but about trying to make school leaders aware of the benefits that having a school library can bring."

This is where the campaign's planned research can make a vital difference. "We know there are fantastic practices going on in school libraries but librarians are not always the greatest advocates of their work," she admits. "We need to find new ways to share their achievements."

The campaign is, therefore, asking school librarians to contribute case studies about the work they are doing, using a standardised form, to help build up a picture - year by year - of the work that is going on in libraries and the outcomes they are achieving.

Tarrant adds, "We are trying to take a wide-angled lens to this; library practice is one thing, outcomes are another, but there are also other areas where school librarians can have an impact, for example on children's mental health and wellbeing. The outcomes for a school library will depend on what the library is allowed to do."

Once the campaign has launched, the next step will be in developing resources for head teachers and line managers to help promote the concept of a school library at the heart of learning and development. "At the moment school heads either get it or they don't," says Tarrant. "What we need to do is to open doors and pathways for the reasons to keep or establish a school library."

Tarrant is also aware that a library will mean different things to different people. "For me, a library is only going to play an active role and make a difference if there is someone there to get the children to the books. There needs at least to be a named member of staff to support the children, especially those children where they can make the biggest difference."

This is where she sees a growing role for the SLA and inclusiveness will be one of the organisation's key words under her watch. "It's not hard to see that school libraries are in trouble. We see many examples of best practice and school librarians doing phenomenal work in difficult places. But there has also been a de-professionalising of the sector; professional librarians - those who are trained or who have librarian qualifications - are being replaced by teaching assistants or student librarians, or simply having all funding withdrawn."

The SLA will, therefore, be developing a raft of new courses in addition to those it already offers, to 'upscale' the skills of those responsible for the school library - whatever their background. "We want every school library to be run in the best way it can be and it doesn't matter who we are supporting to achieve that - a teacher, parent helpful, head teacher or a fully qualified librarian." While the SLA believes a library will always achieve its best result with a full time, qualified librarian, everyone "will have a home at the SLA", Tarrant says.

The SLA already runs modular, online courses for people who have been appointed as the school librarian but who aren't sure where to start, particularly in primary settings. For secondary settings, there are face-to-face one-day courses.

A range of other training programmes are run by the SLA each year, depending on demand; for example, a new day of training in supporting wellbeing has just been announced. Other courses will develop teaching skills or behaviour management.

As well as learning new skills, the SLA provides important networking opportunities says Tarrant. "Isolation is an issue for everyone working in school libraries, who often don't get the budget to cover their absence for meetings and training outside of school because the school doesn't understand why it's important."

For that reason, the SLA is building on its network of local branches and is also looking at creating Facebook pages for local areas. It also offers a mentoring scheme, where those librarians who are feeling isolated or who want to develop their practices are paired with another SLA member with whom they can have those conversations. The SLA is currently seeking more school librarians who are willing to act as mentors.

There is also a helpline - free to members - which provides expertise either from the SLA's head office or from other members, depending on the skills needed. "If you want help and advice about setting up a new library system, or starting a debating club, or you've been asked to run a lesson in information literacy, those are the kinds of questions we can help with," says Tarrant.

The SLA's website is also being redesigned to support both primary and secondary librarians and members receive the quarterly The School Librarian journal as part of their membership.

But it's the bigger picture for school libraries that will be the focus for the SLA going forward, says Tarrant, who has worked in libraries for nearly a decade. "We want to change the state of school libraries. It is widely accepted that there is a lack of expectation about what a school library can achieve. Sometimes the head teacher doesn't know what a school library is there for or what to do with them. They are also underfunded and unsupported."

Tarrant wants to initiate this conversation with head teachers and to highlight that school librarianship is a modern profession - and that school libraries have a vital role to play within the school and in students' achievements. "In the case studies we are asking for from school librarians, we hope to develop a proof of outcome, to prove as far as we can that having a school librarian can impact positively on academic achievement."

She adds, "We also want to encourage everyone in the school to support their librarian in doing their job well." As well as backing the Great School Libraries campaign, Tarrant is ready to personally visit schools to help deliver this message.

Naturally getting schools onside would help to boost the SLA's membership which has dipped against a background of school library closures and cutbacks. But alongside the many schools that continue to support SLA membership, many individuals also see enough value in the £89 annual fee (or £47.50 for students) to pay it themselves.

A successful outcome for the SLA's advocacy role in the Great School Libraries' campaign could make that membership fee look even better value for money. But for that to happen, school librarians themselves also need to develop a new habit; shouting about their achievements - and sharing their successes.

20/05/2018Great School Libraries campaign
  • I would be happy to offer my experience at Upton Meadows Primary School as a case study, or simply input into your research in a less visible way. I began here as full-time librarian in 2017 and have continued with the full backing of an enthusiastic supportive Head and colleagues. I still have much to learn and much to improve upon, but mine at least is an encouraging example.
    Jane Rew 23/05/2018
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