Libraries – The Beating Heart of the School

A few days ago, in a letter published in the Guardian, dozens of authors, illustrators, poets, librarians, teachers and others called on the DoE to act on the recommendations of The Beating Heart of the School, a report recently published by the libraries all-party parliamentary group. They requested the Department set up a working party to “draw up an action plan to realise the aim of a good library in every school”.

But what does a good school library look like? This one of the questions asked in the Beating Heart report, and while I’d agree with many of the points made in this chapter, the resulting recommendation makes my heart sink: “…embed the school library in the Ofsted inspection framework”. I do understand the reasoning behind this; the libraries in both schools I worked in undoubtedly benefited, financially and in terms of senior management interest, from critical inspection reports. But the idea that introducing an inspection regime will, in itself, lead to improvement seems hopelessly naive.

I’ve previously blogged about school libraries in Chile. Here, I wrote about the investment which has been made in Chilean school libraries over the course of twenty years: providing not only resources and equipment, but also training and other support nationally, online and regionally. Only after twenty years of this level of input, when most schools can reasonably be expected to have a good school library, is the government now looking to incorporate school libraries into legislation and inspection. Contrast that with the UK where schools library services which provide local support to schools have been in decline since the 1990s and closure is a possibility for at least a quarter of those which remain.

In my view, what makes a good school library is a good school librarian, not a (good or otherwise) Ofsted inspector. There are many fantastic school librarians in the UK doing amazing work, often with little recognition. And to some extent, the Beating Heart report calls for greater recognition for their efforts…but kind words are not enough.

To start at the beginning, pre-service training for school librarians in the UK is woeful. Doing an option module in children’s literature is not sufficient preparation to work in a school library. You also need to understand educational policy and structure; pedagogical theory and practice; classroom management techniques; educational technology etc, in addition to librarianship skills. Elsewhere it’s a different story (take a look at some of these courses accredited by the American Library Association – for example this). But it’s not the universities’ fault. School librarianship isn’t seen as a viable career option by most information studies graduates, understandably so when salaries can be around £15,000 and opportunities for progression limited.

So how can we make school libraries better? In much the same way as we can any organisation better, by attracting talented people into the profession; preparing them adequately to enable them to succeed; supporting them and allowing them to constantly develop and progress; and providing them with the resources they need to do their job. And looking what happens elsewhere in the world, that’s not impossible. But I think it requires more effort and investment than threatening schools with the Ofsted stick and hoping that will solve the problem.

Sarah McNicol

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