A troubling silence in the library

A well-stocked, professionally run library can greatly enhance learning. But many schools are hard-pressed to provide even the bare essentials . Elaine Williams reports
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The Independent Online
Until Websters High School was rebuilt four years ago, there was no school library. Intermittently, a box of books would arrive from the regional library service, but whether these met the needs of the school was largely dependent on chance.

Websters, in Kirriemuir, Tayside, is now a school in mint condition with a new head and a flagship library resource centre at the heart of the building, run by a professional librarian.

Two weeks ago Tayside Regional Council instituted a policy that all of the authority's secondary schools should be staffed by a qualified librarian.

But this rosy picture is far from the norm. A report to be released by the Library Association next week as part of Library Power Week will reveal serious disparities in the library services available to children.

The association has recommended for some time that secondary school libraries should replace at least 10 per cent of their stock every year, that schools should provide 13 items (books and other resources) per pupil, that professional librarians should be employed, that the library should have at least five computers for children's use and that the library should be open and staffed throughout the day.

But library provision in many schools falls far short of that. In his 1994 annual report, Chris Woodhead, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, said that 50 per cent of school libraries continued to be inadequately stocked and underused despite the fact that the good use of resources enhanced the quality of teaching and was "more strongly associated with standards of achievement than most other contributory factors".

A newly published HMSO review of inspection findings in English found that 10-15 per cent suffered from insufficient stocks of books in that subject, which was proving a handicap to able readers. "Conversely," it stated, "the presence of well-stocked libraries and professional librarians contributes to high standards."

Oakham School, an independent school in Leicestershire, has recently spent £1.8m on a new library that is run by an energetic and inventive professional librarian. Staff believe this investment will improve the work of pupils in some departments by a grade.

Members of HMI are currently undertaking a survey, based on visits to 100 schools, of the impact a school library can have on pupils' achievements. The report will be published in the autumn, but evidence so far indicates that libraries do have an impact on achievement if they are managed in a "focused" way to meet pupils' and teachers' needs.

Designed to be a review of good practice, the report will show that one of the most critical ingredients is the presence of an adult "sufficiently knowledgeable about books and the interests of children to match resources to individual needs". Mike Baughan, Webster's rector, believes no school can afford to be without a well-managed library at a time when investigative project work, information retrieval and the development of study skills play such a large part in the national curriculum. He spends £3,000 per year on the library, which serves 720 pupils.

But many schools feel hard-pressed to provide anywhere near the recommended levels of service. Earlsheaton High School in Dewsbury, with an enrolment of 760, slightly more than Webster's, is spending £900 on library materials this year, including basic items such as stationery, pens and photocopying. The library is run by Patricia Naylor, an English teacher, and staffed by two part-time assistants, though funding for one of these comes to an end next year. She is allotted one hour per week to liaise with her assistants and gives up every lunchtime to oversee the library.

A school inspection in January identified the library as an area in need of immediate funding. Mrs Naylor said her headteacher was supportive and wished to improve matters but that the budget was tight and teaching staff were being lost.

At Ridley County School, in Blyth, Northumberland, which has an enrolment of 850 pupils, £1,000 was spent on library materials last year, a sum that is expected to fall to £800 in the current year.

Ridley does employ a professional librarian, but her hours have been reduced to afternoons only and the library is closed in the morning. Heather Saul, the teacher/librarian, is only given two periods each week for managing the library, which has been moved out of its purpose-built accommodation to make way for two classrooms because of a shortage. The library was criticised in a recent school inspection.

Trevor Dickinson, who received an OBE for his work on libraries as an HMI, retired four years ago, but he remains passionate about library provision. He said schools that fail to equip and to use their libraries would turn out pupils whose "appetite for reading is poorly developed. In gastronomic terms, you are only going to be able to experience a range of food if you are confronted by it. In reading terms, many of our children are stuck on a fish and chip diet."

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