Book smart: Why every primary pupil needs a library

Children who read do better in school yet, amazingly, many primaries have closed their libraries and replaced them with ICT suites

Many primary school pupils don't have the use of a library in Britain, which is why the School Library Association is on the warpath. It has just published the Primary School Library Charter to show headteachers and governors how they can afford a proper school library – an attractive space set aside for books with a designated member of staff in charge – and why they should have one.

The association wants to create a climate of reading; they want children to be taught how to sift information and to use their judgement about it, and they want libraries to have links with families.

Tim Brighouse, associate professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, always checks out the library when he visits a school. "A primary school library should be exciting and welcoming, a place for children to delight in stories and a sign that the school is making its environment fit for learning," he says.

School libraries are not compulsory and there are no official figures on the number of primary schools that have libraries compared with secondaries, but the association has anecdotal evidence of libraries closing, dwindling budgets for resources and staff who are not connected with the school's teaching team.

Schools that replace their libraries with ICT suites feature in librarians' horror stories. But Hill West Primary School in Sutton Coldfield did the opposite last year when it found new homes in classrooms for most of the computers. Its librarian Lucy Bakewell, the current School Librarian of the Year, turned it into the place every child in the school wants to be.

"Where do children feel most comfortable and relaxed?" she asks. "It's their bedrooms. The library has to be their space, like an extension of their bedrooms. I couldn't spend a lot on furniture, so I went mad in IKEA." She found a frog-shaped hanging rack for magazines, a pot-bellied pelican for a suggestion box and – in the pet department – a bright, blue-covered cat bed for returned books.

One sign on the door says: "Come and read a book". Another sign says, "Look in a book", reminding children that print reference works can be quicker and more reliable than a search engine when trying to find out what whales eat, for example, although the library has kept five PCs.

"We are teaching the value of new technology alongside old," says Bakewell. "Of course, we need both, but children need to know what questions to ask about the information put in front of them."

Bakewell works at Hill West for three-and-a-half days a week, half in the library and half as a Year 5 classroom assistant. Her classroom role means that she is well-placed to put together resources for the school's creative curriculum topics (this term it's Sound and Space for Year 5). "There are great benefits to her also being in class and understanding what is being taught," says headteacher Beth Clarke, who appointed Bakewell as librarian when she arrived at the school in 2004.

"I had been in an inner-city school in Birmingham with low family literacy and a lot of children who didn't speak English at home. I arrived at Hill West with the philosophy that it is really worth investing in books and a good library space. I knew Lucy would make a fantastic librarian because she is so excited about books and reading.

"We decided to use reading to improve children's writing, and we have had results. Five years ago we had 70 children getting to level 4 or above in English; now that figure is in the high 90s."

Although Bakewell spends at least one unpaid extra afternoon a week in the library, she is unable to open out of lesson times. The library is clearly at the heart of school life, yet children can usually only visit in groups with their teachers. "We haven't got the budget to have someone there before or after school and at lunch time, though we would love to," says Clarke. "We make it a priority to open it as much as we can for parents' events."

Bakewell wants to make the most of the close relationship with parents that sets primaries apart from secondaries. "If you can make the most of the school's connection with families, you are encouraging reading at home as well, and your job is nearly done," she says.

"I am passionate about getting children excited about books when they're as young as possible, at a time when books and stories seem magical to them and their imaginations are expanding and they are forming language skills. I am staggered when people don't see how important that is."

She is planning an evening workshop with reception children's parents to create storysacks (bags containing toys and activities related to a book) on a nursery rhyme theme related to the Rhyming Challenge set up by Bookstart, the national early years reading programme.

Further up the school, Lucy is dedicated to finding the right book for every child. She runs two Boys into Books groups for nine and 10-year-olds who need extra encouragement to read. A reluctant reader herself at primary school, Lucy understands the despair of children confronted with adults' well-meaning book choices.

"I was a tomboy and into Dr Who and The Beano, and the girls' books at the time didn't grab me. They were all about boarding schools and fairies. My sister was a big reader and my mum was determined to find me a book that I liked. When I was 10 she gave me Rebecca's World by Terry Nation, who wrote for Dr Who: I was so thrilled that a book had Daleks in it. To turn a child on to reading for life, you need to know about all the books that are available and also take that level of personal interest, which teachers don't always have time to do. That's the most important part of the job."

The School Library Association is preparing to give evidence to the School Libraries Commission which will report in June. Expect a mighty roar from the primary corner.

Download the Primary School Library Charter from www.sla.org.uk/primary-charter or order single print copies from publications@sla.org.uk

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