“The more that you read, the more you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you will go.” So said Dr. Seuss.
One in eight schools in the UK don’t have a library and this rises to one in four in deprived areas. Providing an even bleaker appendage to these figures is the finding that one in 11 children on free school meals don’t have access to a single book at home. For many, schools are the only place that the love of reading can take root ahead of a lifetime of wonder and joy.
Schools are not statutorily required to have a library on the premises which can often lead to them being the first place to be hit when budgets are cut. One in 10 schools have no budget at all when it comes to libraries.
As with so many aspects of school life, staff often rely on donations from parents, charities or indeed their own pockets to supply students with the books they need.
Financial restrictions aren’t the only obstacle that schools face in this area. As many parents will attest, the many distractions for children today mean that books can be, initially at least, a hard sell to the unconvinced. Add to this the lack of physical space in some schools and we begin to see a future for libraries in schools that would rival even the most gloomy of dystopian novels.
It is, it must be stressed, not all bad news. NLT and Penguin Random House UK have launched a Primary School Library Alliance pledging to ‘transform and equip’ 1,000 primary school libraries by 2025. Arts Council England has already awarded the Alliance £900,000 to support the work.
Siena Parker, social impact director at Penguin Random House UK, gave us insight into how the Primary School Library Alliance came about and how it will impact schools over the next four years.
“We identified a few years ago that we felt that there was a very real gap and need around primary school library provision in particular, so we launched a pilot programme called Puffin World of Stories,” she said.
“That programme aims to address the need that we found within primary schools; one being lack of budget to buy books and one being lack of time and resources of staff and knowledge and training to know how to bring a library to life. It offers training from the NLT and then we have a suite of new books from Puffin that each school receives.
“Earlier this year we launched Primary School Library Alliance and that was really based on the learnings that we took from that programme.
“It felt like such an urgent challenge especially in light of post-COVID recovery. I think people assume that schools have libraries and they have funding for libraries and that’s just not the case.”
“We have this goal to transform 1000 libraries by 2025 and with the expansion of our World of Stories programme with the Arts Council we will reach 500 in the next three years.”
“For the schools that are going to be involved in the World of Stories expansion, each school would get 300 free books from us and also another 100 books from independent publishers.”
It would seem that the alliance has come at an opportune time. A recent survey has shown that children are spending 34.5% more time reading now than before the pandemic and that perceived enjoyment of reading has increased by 8%. The desire therefore is there for schools and parents to tap into.
Jonathan Douglas, chief executive of National Literacy Trust, believes that access to school libraries for children is crucial now more than ever post-COVID.
He told us: “The maintenance of children’s reading activities is an absolute priority and we saw during COVID how damaging it was for children who didn’t have access.”
“Maintaining that reading habit is virtually impossible when you don’t have those resources, so access to free resources, access to books in public libraries and school libraries is absolutely vitally important.”
Delving deeper into NLT’s partnership with Penguin Random House UK, Jonathan told us just how they plan to help schools over the coming years.
“Ultimately we want every primary school child to have access to a school library. Every child should have the right to this. At the moment we need to bite that challenge off in chunks,” he said.
“What we’ve got is first of all a model of what a library is, which understands that its effectiveness is first of all about the resources; so great books on the shelves, absolutely fantastic electronic resources.
“The second thing that is really important is the environment of the library needs to be attractive. We need to make sure that the space within the school stacks up. It’s not a stuffy corner with a few books in. It’s an area that celebrates reading as a wonderful experience where you feel esteemed and where active reading is esteemed.
“The third thing is that there is somebody within the school that is equipped and enthusiastic to be an advocate for reading in the school and for the role of the library as a fantastic resource to support teaching and learning. We are training people in each of those schools to be that advocate.
One school that is already demonstrating these qualities is Parish Church of England Primary in St Helens where, according to headteacher Jennifer Young, reading is ‘the beating of heart’. Like Jonathan, Jennifer considers reading spaces in schools to be a place for children to flourish.
“We ensure that our budgetary plans each year include the purchasing of books as a priority,” Jennifer said, whose school has won the Innovative & Creative Literacy Award at the Educate Awards three years running.
“In addition to class libraries we have a school library which includes a large fiction and non-fiction selection, book nooks for children to enjoy their selected books and a range of comfy seating options,” says Jennifer.
Elsewhere, some schools who didn’t have a library space have come up with original ideas to provide reading hubs for their students.
Kirstin O’Kane, headteacher at Bickerstaffe CE Primary School told us about how they thought on their feet.
“At Bickerstaffe reading is at the core of all that we do,” Kirstin said. “As a small school we did not have a designated area that we could call a library which we really wanted to change. Therefore we upcycled a shed and made this into our reading retreat.
“We really wanted to offer the children a special space where they could go, look through books, find their favourite and have a chance to read in peace.”
As much as schools like Parish CE Primary School and Bickerstaffe C.E. School have found that passion, hard-work and innovation can bypass some of the obstacles that are put in front of them, new challenges will always arise that keep teachers and parents on their toes.
Research by Penguin and The Runnymede Trust this year found that fewer than 1% of children answer an English Literature question on a book by an author of colour at GCSE. This compares to 34.4% of children in England who identify as Black, Asian or minority ethnic. As well as this, just 7% of children studied books by women.
As findings such as these come to light, schools rightly feel obliged to provide a diverse and inclusive range of literature. Of course, the obvious caveat being that funding and space remains an issue leaving schools between a rock and a hard place.
Park View Academy in Huyton know the importance of providing a wide array of books and are careful to fit them into their budget.
Deputy head, Stuart Morland says: “Books based on diversity and culture are part of our curriculum and we make sure the children learn about the past so we can influence the future. Hidden Figures, Long Walk to Freedom, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind and Once are just some of the books that are part of our coverage so children have access to differences and experiences around the world.”
As ever, costs are the key component that underpin all access to books and the upkeep of libraries. Schools such as Park View rely on partnerships in order to keep their supply of books up-to-date and relevant.
“We are fortunate that our library is such an inclusive space. In order to maintain it, we work with a supplier called Usborne who sets up a sponsored read for us around World Book Day,” says Stuart. “If we raise over £600, the school receives 60% commission to use to keep books in the library relevant and up-to-date. Without this each year, I am not sure how we find the financial budget to do it each year.”
One unavoidable aspect of school libraries today is the introduction of electronic devices. As much as the digitalisation of children’s lives can act as a distraction surely it can also be our friend in educating? As ever, the answer is mixed.
Digital devices such as e-readers solve one issue – space. Most digital devices can hold vast amounts of text, far outweighing even the most well-stocked library.
They also come with plenty of bells and whistles that can add to the learning experience such as dictionaries, dynamic pop-ups and further reading. They may also play a key role in engaging children from the outset who aren’t all too convinced – research has shown that audiobooks are particularly popular with boys for instance. There are other clear benefits for children with special needs or who are visually impaired that physical books just don’t have.
A 2019 NLT study found that the interest in digital reading in children is on the rise and that those with low reading engagement are more likely than those with high reading engagement to consume reading materials on screen – potentially providing opportunities to better engage them with reading in the future.
Is it time then for schools to fully embrace the digitalisation of school libraries? Barry Mansfield, director of Halcyon London International School, (www.halcyonschool.com) believes so.
He says: “The emotional attachment to books is relative; a generation that consumes information digitally and online will have a different relationship with books to those who did not grow up with the internet.”
“There will always be a nostalgia for physical artefacts that feel central to our experience of the world, and the example of the ownership of music – from vinyl to digital – tells us that this kind of transition is not seamless. But it is also not binary: we should be able to listen to our communities, and the voice of young people, and provide appropriately for their learning.
“In other areas of learning, we’d usually intend to have different modalities for different learners. There is no right answer to the question of how we spend our budgets, but a digital library does not mean having to have a device for every child – even though this should be the goal.
“Hybrid libraries might have stocks of e-readers, loaned out in the room, or in the school, or even off site. If it’s OK to have enough computers in school to go around, surely we could manage that with cheaper e-reader devices, especially if some of the cost can be met through redirecting library funds?”
Stuart at Park View sees the advantages of e-books but feels that budgetary restraints just couldn’t handle the upkeep.
He says: “E-books do have a place but only to supplement. Apps like Audible are a great resource, but the cost would be too much for a school to maintain for consistency across a school with 14 classes and 375 children.”
Kirstin at Bickerstaffe sees the benefits of digital books for those with particular needs but that nothing beats seeing children get excited at holding a physical book.
She said: “I think that digital learning cannot be overlooked. We find it can be extremely helpful for children who are dyslexic as we can easily change the background colours for these children so they are able to read their own stories independently.”
“I also think that it is great for variety, when you find your favourite author or genre you can then explore this really quickly through digital learning. At Bickerstaffe we want children to fall in love with reading as we believe reading for pleasure is not only an aid for learning but also for your mental health and escaping.
“Therefore, we think that a physical library has so much more to offer than just a device. We love watching our children become excited over our new book purchases, seeing them flick through the first few pages and become captivated by the story. We also use reading as a way to switch off from electronics and have quiet reading time with a book every day in school.
“Nothing beats a book in your hands – turning the pages and revealing what will happen next.”
Despite the hope on the horizon thanks to partnerships such as NLT and Penguin Random House UK, staff at schools today will be wondering how best to equip their libraries and children.
Stuart believes one way is to hand some power to the children themselves.
“Give the leadership of the maintenance to pupils: you will be amazed what they can do,” he said.
“We appoint reading ambassadors in Year 6 who have many leadership jobs in school to support and run the school library and book fairs. One of their jobs is to go to reception classes every day and start reading activities with children. They receive training in order to do this and are supported by staff in reception and the English curriculum leader.”
Siena at Penguin knows how hard teachers are working on this front and wants them to know that they are not alone in this battle and that helpis out there.
“It’s all about how we can support teachers but it isn’t a lack of will on their part. It’s a lack of support and tools,” she said.
“It may be about looking for opportunities that are out there already so for example we have a parallel campaign called Lit in Colour which is all about diversifying the teaching of English in schools and we do an annual giveaway so that could be something that schools could apply for. That’s open to primary and secondary schools.”
“There is fantastic support from the likes of the NLT, Schools Library Association, your local public libraries.
“It’s about not feeling that you are on your own and looking for those pots of support and funding that are there including from publishers like us.”
Jonathan at NLT sees hope, not just in the injection of funding for schools, but also within those, like Stuart and Jennifer, who work at the forefront of this issue.
“I think the point is that the democratisation of access to reading sits so close to the heart of the vocation of every teacher that this is something that teachers do feel passionately about. They feel empowered when they can offer more access to books in their schools and they know from first-hand experience how many of their children do not have that.
“It’s a very practical thing linked to a vocation and linked to the very purpose of education itself which is to make society fairer.”
Amid all of the challenges schools and parents face today when it comes to maintaining libraries and providing children with the magical worlds books can provide, it is clear that there is room for optimism. Whether that hope lies in the determination of individuals, funding or campaigns. If books have taught us anything it is that, even amidst the bleakest of outlooks, all is not lost.