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Headteachers...What is education's best-kept secret?... Bah humbug!

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

I normally write a blog at this time of year looking back but I have been thinking about my business a lot this year and how to reach the people who need to know and understand the value of school libraries. Over the years I have worked with a lot of school librarians and it has become obvious that if the Headteacher and SLT (Senior Leadership Team) do not value the school library its ability to make a difference in literacy, working within the curriculum and student attainment can be hugely impacted.

There are many reports and research papers out there to show that a school library with a professional librarian can make a difference but I thought it was time to write something a little different and seeming as it is nearly Christmas I decided the best way to get to those busy Headteachers and especially the new Headteachers was to write the story below looking at my hero's journey.

The hero in my story is a Headteacher. If you are a new Headteacher, take heed and if any well-established Headteachers are reading this I wonder if you recognise yourself in this story? I hope it helps...

Library Past...

A new school plan is on the table in front of you. You are the new Headteacher of a brand new school and at its heart is an amazing school library. You want to make sure it is set up properly so you hire a full-time school librarian to make sure this vision becomes a reality. You recognise the value of a professional school librarian in not only their ability to set up a school library but also to work alongside teaching staff. Term-time only will not be enough. Once the school is built the school librarian sets about creating the best school library you can imagine ensuring that your teachers, students, parents and governors are involved in making the space and resources exactly what everyone needs. Along with the shelving and seating comes the books and the online resources.

Everyone is very excited about this new space which is going to be available and accessible to all. The IFLA School Library guidelines are digested and a library programme is put in place so the school understands the school librarians' role in teaching and supporting learning:-

  • Literacy and reading promotion

  • Media and information literacy instruction

  • Inquiry-based learning models

  • Technology integration

  • Professional development for teachers

Over the next few years, the school library is a very special place in your school. The school librarian works well with your teachers and students, making sure that literacy levels and research skills are high through inquiry related lessons linked to the curriculum and introducing an inquiry framework called FOSIL (Framework Of Skills for Inquiry Learning). Book awards, book clubs and events are prominent and promoted often. The school librarian is regularly helping teaching staff plan inquiry lessons and is always on hand to support. It soon becomes obvious that your school librarian needs help in the day to day running of the library in order to continue the amazing work within the curriculum. You employ a term-time library assistant so that your school librarian can continue to work alongside your teachers effectivly.

Students not only use the library for curriculum topics but to investigate other areas of interest too. With the support from the senior leadership team, every teacher has the school library on their planning. Either asking the librarian to come to their classrooms to co-teach or taking their students to the library. Resources are up to date, teachers are not having to buy their own books and everyone can see the amazing work that this valuable service does. The budget is healthy, the resources are well used, it is a vibrant, safe, community space and has a school librarian who is respected by the teachers as well as the students. A new opportunity arises for you as Headteacher, your school is in a great place... you are sure it will continue to thrive, or will it?

Library Present

A new Headteacher is appointed, one who does not understand the value of the school library and begins to put pressure on the budget and staff. As the budget is cut the school librarian is unable to sustain the healthy stock it once had. Teachers find that they can't expect the school library to provide what they need and begin to create collections within their departments. Teachers now have to find time to make sure books loaned from their own departments are returned themselves eating into their valuable teaching time. The new Headteacher does not expect everyone to use the library so encouragement from the senior leadership team diminishes. This leads to the school librarian having less interaction with teachers so seeing the school librarian in the school library more, the Headteacher decides to save money and lets the library assistant go. The school librarian now has less time to interact with teachers as their time is now taken by the day to day running of the library and doing admin tasks.

Teachers leave and new teachers arrive who also have no experience of working with the school library or librarian. They don't know what to expect and the school librarian, now on their own, struggles to engage these new teachers, due to time. The number of teachers using the school library drops even further and literacy levels begin to decrease alongside appropriate research skills.

The school librarian, feeling undervalued, decides to move on. The Headteacher sees another opportunity to save money and decides to employ a term time only library assistant. The school still has a library and a 'librarian'. The English department works with the new librarian and together they promote reading for pleasure. However, the school decides they need to do something more about their literacy levels so they buy a reading scheme and the new librarian's time is now completely taken up in the administration of this reading scheme. No time for book clubs or book awards and certainly no time to work with any teacher outside the library walls.

The Headteacher needs to save money again decides that the reading scheme is too expensive and notices that the school librarian now has very few teachers or students using the library. The stock is old, everyone uses the internet these days anyway so makes another funding decision and closes the school library. They will never need a school library again, they have saved money, they have gained space, all is good with the world.

However, not everything is as rosy as it seems. Literacy levels continue to plummet and research comes out to say that students who have access to books will see these levels improve. Many of the students in this school do not have access to books at home and now they don't have access at school either. Research skills are at their lowest level too, students are just regurgitating the information given to them and have stopped thinking for themselves. They have nowhere to feed their imagination. Many of the students don't have access to computers or the internet from home so are struggling to do their homework.

Covid and lockdowns strike and the reality of no school library hits. No access to any resources apart from the internet is not good enough... No access to anyone who can promote the importance of reading for pleasure and research highlight that students are struggling. It is not good enough... The government starts talking about 'levelling up'. You see the amazing work school librarians are doing in other schools... Something is missing that is desperately needed.... the school is failing and the Headteacher is asked to move on.

Library Future

You are now the new Headteacher of this school, brought in to help things improve. You notice that the school library is in a very sorry state. How can your school start to improve and give your students and teachers what they need? You begin to hatch a plan to create an outstanding library with the help of your school library community.

You are lucky enough that your library is still hanging on by a thread... you have a space and a library assistant. You put a stop to the plans for closing your school library. You know its value and worth and you begin to put together a team of enthusiastic teachers who really see and understand the value of access to a school library. You make one of your Senior Leaders responsible for the school library and ask them to make sure the school library becomes part of all teachers planning again.

You reach out to your library assistant to find out if they are willing and able to upskill/train and become a qualified librarian and offer them a promotion to full time. If they are happy as a library assistant it is time to create a new post and go and find that wonderful inspiring school librarian who will help shape the things to come. A small amount of money spent now is going to make huge differences in the future. If you want the best you recognise you will need to find the money for it.

With a school librarian in place and a committed team pushing this forward, you can see a bright future. Your library resources are up to date you can see your students and staff using the library again. You begin to recognise that a shared resource is actually a saving and the school librarian actually saves teachers time and can provide the training your teachers need too. You can see literacy levels increase, engagement in quality research improving and academic attainment of your students begins to rise. You have authors visiting your school, your students are beginning to win awards for research in the Teen tech awards, your EPQ programme is second to none and many students are enthusiastically volunteering their time to take part. With your new staff and library, the only limit is your imagination and enthusiasm of your teaching staff to embrace all that the school library can offer. Your levelling up journey has begun and all because you really understand the importance the school library and librarian can make in your students and teachers lives.

The final part of this story may sound unrealistic so please don't just take my word for it. Richard Gever, inspirational ex-headteacher and President of the School Library Association, wrote Why the school library was my first investment. in which he highlighted the importance of school libraries today. "Teaching all children, from all socio-economic backgrounds, how to access valid, trusted information from books and online and to interrogate what they are being told has never been more important".

We have an obligation to ensure all Headteachers know and understand this. We must push this knowledge out into the open and ensure that one of the best-kept secrets in education today, that your school library is a powerful tool, is shouted from the rooftops. School libraries should be available to all students and teachers and not just a select few.

The End...How do I start to change this?

We all have to start our journey somewhere and wherever you are that is ok. If you are at any stage in this story and want help I can support you. If you would like to know more please get in touch.

If you are a school librarian reading this please share it with your Headteacher. Thank you!

I wish you all a happy Christmas 2021... See you in the New Year!

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