Most people may know me as the former headteacher of the failing Grange Primary School, in Long Eaton. In just two years, I transformed the school into one of the most acclaimed learning environments in the world. I was lucky enough to be celebrated by UNESCO and win ‘School Head Teacher of the Year’ at the British National Teaching Awards.
Since then, I went on to serve as a Government adviser and now spend my time as a speaker and author of four best-selling books.
I am often asked by other headteachers about how Grange Primary School turned itself around so quickly and dramatically. Many assume that it involved installing a major new learning management system, re-training all the staff or having the school modernised.
However, one of the first things I did was to build a state-of-the-art purpose-built library with staff receiving full school library CPD training; the result proved my belief in the transformative power of libraries. Great libraries make an impact.
Now more than ever, in the age of the digital divide, ‘fake news’ and the growing attainment gaps, school libraries have never been more important, and yet one in eight schools don’t have one at all. It has always been my belief that the current perspective on school libraries is too narrow; they are not just about books.
There are several evolving purposes of the school library, many of which are not recognised.
A love of reading
Of course, libraries were always a place for children to access books; both for reference and stories. Reading allows us to be transported from our own world to another. Between the pages of a book, we can all immerse ourselves in the lives of fictional characters or learn about other cultures across the world. Younger children can learn new words and acquire essential skills and knowledge.
In the current context of the pandemic, where socialising, travelling and meeting new people and perspectives are sadly not options for many of us, reading is a necessary tool for young people to continue their development and learning about the world around them.
Multiple studies have proven the learning potential of developing a love of reading. Stories are a brilliant way to help children understand the complex socio-cultural context in which we live, while also developing other key skills such as communication and language, critical engagement and curiosity, all skills which will help children develop into well-rounded and successful thinkers.
Indeed, children who have fun with reading are three times more likely to have good mental wellbeing compared with children who don’t enjoy reading. This is where librarians play an essential role in our schools, but it takes fully trained librarians to do this.
When the library is managed effectively, librarians will work with the classroom teachers to understand each student’s individual needs and reading levels, so that they can help them to find books that are aligned to their reading level, and in turn, ensure they develop a love of reading.
However, believing that libraries are just about reading books is one misconception of the role of today’s school libraries; they are so much more than books and story time.
Accessing valid, trusted learning content
The internet should be the perfect source of valuable learning content but sadly the volume of information on the Internet is growing exponentially and its active misinformation is spreading faster than ever. Sadly search engines often present us with relevant websites that may or may not be reliable; and often aren’t. Most of the time we click on one of the first few results believing this content is factual and safe!
Outrageous information is usually easy to identify as ‘fake,’ but as the ‘misinformation’ epidemic grows, identifying fact from fiction is becoming increasingly difficult.
Young children, who aren’t yet highly discerning about the information they consume, need teachers and school librarians to play an active role in filtering sources and content, to present them with information that is known to be reliable and safe.
For older children who are developmentally able to start scrutinising information themselves, school librarians must now take responsibility to teach them to look critically at the information they find and differentiate fact, from opinion, and fiction. They need to understand that anyone can post or publish anything they want on the Internet and therefore their librarians need to show them how to look effectively review the information they find.
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.
In general, the media is trusted in the UK, but politicians have an incredible power to undermine the media. Therefore, children need to learn to evaluate information, research content and make their own valid interpretation of what is factual.
Democracy only works if you have informed citizens to make informed decisions.
It is vital that as children learn and prepare for their future careers, they know how to access trusted content. While in most cases wading through misinformation is purely an inconvenience, it can also be a danger to some children, and therefore teaching children these important critical thinking skills has to be part of every schools’ education provision and their duty of care.
There are several resources out there to help teachers to deliver this training. SLA members receive this support but there are also other tools, such as Britannica’s “Building Career and College Readiness Skills”, which helps to teach children to assess the credibility of a website and ‘evaluate online sources’. There are also several lesson activities such as ‘The five ‘W’s of website evaluation’, designed to give students the knowledge to identify legitimate, credible learning content.
Levelling Up Agenda
Continuing the SLA’s drive for education equity is at the heart of my vision for my time as president. As we focus on the ‘levelling up agenda’ I will be spending my time at the SLA bringing school libraries back to the heart of the debate around education.
Studies prior to the pandemic found that one in 11 disadvantaged children in the UK do not own a book of their own, yet children who do own books are six times more likely to read above the level expected for their age, highlighting the link between reading and academic outcomes. The disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on the most disadvantaged children has further transformed the gully between the less and more privileged into a deep canyon.
The gap in education outcomes between less and more privileged students had stopped, and possibly even gone into reverse. To address this, I believe that the Government should put library funding at the heart of the ‘levelling up agenda.’ In doing so, we can ensure all children, irrespective of where they live or their family’s income level, will have free and easy access to books and opportunities to raise their learning levels and aspirations.
It has been interesting to note that with the total funding for British public libraries falling by nearly £20m in the year to March, immediately before the lockdown, they actually faced a rapid increase in demand for their services, which were eventually deemed essential by the government.
Libraries, whether in a school or high street, are the great leveller to ensure everyone, whether or not they have a computer and internet access, has free access to reading and learning content.
So how do schools start this transformation?
Most school librarians are already highly trained and hugely skilled however, others aren’t and for some, they were trained several years ago when the school library was a very different part of each school’s infrastructure. When I arrived at Grange Primary School, I ensured that its school library staff received full updated CPD training, so our library achieved my vision of being the incredibly effective central hub of the school.
Our 23 branches across the UK and Ireland provide support and online, day or weekend training courses, including ‘Academic Honesty Training’, ‘Information Literacy’, ‘Managing a School Library’ and ‘Leading School Libraries: Library, School, Sector.’ Each provides schools with an update on the evolving role of the school librarian. It is therefore so important that schools start by getting their librarians trained to drive the transformation of their library.
Of course, it’s not as easy as simply investing in some training but it’s certainly an important first step. With increased funding to ensure the continuation of existing libraries, and the creation of more across the UK, as well as engaging young people with the joys of reading and training initiatives for classroom and library staff, we can harness the true power of libraries and help the next generation achieve their full potential.
The pandemic has added to the challenges that school librarians have faced over the past few years which is why it is my goal to help all schools by giving them the language to argue their case in terms of turning their library into the most important part of the school.
Together we will get libraries back, front and centre at the heart of the debate around education. I therefore invite all schools to work with their local MPs and us at the SLA to drive the school library agenda.
Richard Gerver is the new President of the School Library Association