The School Librarian - Closing the Poverty-Driven Literacy Gap

According to National Literacy Trust figures released in 2011, of the 3.8 million children in the UK, one in three does not own a book. This is a significant increase from the figure of one in ten, estimated seven years ago. The recent Henley report notes a decline in provision of libraries and trained librarians, highlighting the important role that these valuable resources have to play in promoting literacy for children. The majority of schools that I have been invited to on author visits demonstrate a strong reading and creative writing culture throughout. Not only on world book day but on-going during term, schools with a reading ethos prioritize investment in a well-stocked library, library staff and where possible, support for author visits. Unfortunately, it is those schools where the literacy level of entering students is lowest that often have the most pressure on resources, and as a result prioritize funding away from literacy activities and resources that are perceived as being a luxury. This can include library resources and non-curriculum literary activities such as author visits or workshops. Alas, these schools least able to appropriate resources for extra literacy activities due to competing pressures for funds are those schools that would most benefit from such activities.

Reading not only teaches language skills but more importantly, social skills. There is a definite correlation between better reading and more tolerance and understanding between different cultures and religions. Children attending resource-pressured schools do not have the same exposure to external creative input; offering alternative viewpoints and values. Those in education in higher income areas often benefit from extra financial input from parents and additional support from community governors or the community more generally. This can give schools more flexibility in the use of financial resources, allowing them to engage creative, external influences to open discussion and encourage students to debate and question topics from different viewpoints. In poorer catchments where schools may have more pressure on financial resources, children already grow up facing greater financial and social hardship and yet have less access to these additional educational resources that may be considered ‘discretionary’.

Also, often if children in struggling areas are not enjoying the benefits of reading for pleasure at school then there is little chance of them obtaining books at home.

What is apparent and of concern to me is the lack of understanding right across the board of the impact of books on children’s social development. I have always been aware of the vital role creative writing plays in allowing children expression through their work to develop self-awareness and compassion for others. But books are frequently seen purely as data instruments, where chunks are bitten off and digested as required to fit in with the national curriculum; or are perhaps viewed as superfluous or even frivolous, and unimportant to development. Literature is not viewed as an experience in its own right, a potential means of mutual discussion and support for mental and social health. Books are a window to the world; they challenge and teach, guide and can help children understand what is happening around them, often easing isolation during times of personal crisis.

Teachers barely have time to sit and read with the class, let alone work on a full week’s project, pulling out every aspect of a story in fun activities that encourage insight and discussion.

Teachers are hard pushed to take on the task of school librarian, reviewer, reader and creative tutor with all the other subjects they have to deal with. But if each school had one dedicated librarian, that professional could recommend books for teachers underpinning the variety of subjects taught and broadening the scope for imaginative use of texts available. A dedicated school librarian could spend one hour, once a week in the library to read to each year group which would bring the wonders of a story to all children from all denominations in a relaxed, informal format. A librarian could instil a love of books outside of the rigours of the classroom.

My experience of a good school librarian is of one who connects the writer to the children, encourages their questions; helps children to be good communicators and aspiring writers/ illustrators.

It also goes without saying that by familiarizing children in school with a library, librarian and the systems used, those children leave school confident in using the public library service which is at the heart of a community and enhances their adult learning.

Surely, the presence of one extra member of staff in school, one dedicated librarian, would bring such social and educational benefits to pupils and ultimately ease the strain on teaching staff that the investment would reap significant human reward. Yet the perceived lowly children’s librarian is not only undervalued but now being cut out of our public library services for good. A school librarian would not only help to improve general literacy standards but more relevantly raise social awareness encouraging tolerance, freedom of imagination and speech through a broad range of books. I also believe that a school librarian should be specially trained, and paid in line with that qualification, ensuring that all schools employ top quality staff. I am appalled that good reading practice should still at this time, exist primarily in well-funded, wealthy areas and those schools most in need have the least access to valuable cultural resources required to develop this practice.

At the heart of every healthy community stands a public library and I believe that the first step to a potentially thriving, diverse school should be a well-stocked library overseen by a committed, experienced and enthusiastic librarian. That is where the seed of a successful multi-cultural society begins and tolerance and integrity are encouraged in future generations.

Kathryn White