School Librarians At Their Best!

The last post in the current series on school libraries is by Caroline Roche, Chair of Cilip’s School Library Group. Caroline explains about the work of the group, the work they do with 2000 school librarians, and the importance of collecting reliable data for the sector to help encourage informed decision making.

A peek into the world of SLG – school librarians at their best!

The SLG Committee is composed of around 17 members, and we serve a large group of school librarians – currently about 2000. Our main focus is to support school librarians with resources and professional advice. Our committee is a busy one – we are currently organising our biannual Conference being held in April 2018; collecting book reviews ready to go into our fifth Book Pack to be launched in April; we have just published our School Libraries in View annual magazine which showcases scholarship and research in the profession; and we have numerous other projects.

This year, however, we have been working closely with Nick Poole, CEO of CILIP, on a School Library Data Project. This project has arisen from the work the committee did previously to inform the APPG on School Libraries. The APPG published a report entitled ‘The Beating Heart of the School’ but were unable to proceed any further, both because parliament was dissolved and re-elected, but also because we were unable to provide any meaningful data.

This last point is the crux of the matter for school librarians. Although SLG knows that many school libraries are either closing, or downgrading from having a skilled professional in place to have someone just minding the books (or nobody), we are unable to provide any figures for this. This is because unlike public – and indeed prison – libraries, school libraries are not statutory. Which means, in effect, that every single Head makes their own decision on whether to have a library or not. Neither do Ofsted include the presence (or lack of) a library in their reports, meaning that schools can be rated excellent for literacy and learning without having a library, which is a nonsense in our opinion. Heads therefore feel that cutting the library as a cost saving is consequence free, and in these hard financial times, many close them. As every school is individually run, and school librarians in those schools are often muzzled if they wish to have a good reference from the school, finding out the true scale of the devastation is very difficult.

Nick Poole therefore set up the School Library Data Group to see if we can devise a way of ascertaining what library provision is available in schools, ensuring this information is detailed enough to exclude books in classrooms, or a room with books in that is occasionally open some lunchtimes. We are negotiating with both the Government and Ofsted to see if the questionnaire we are working on can be endorsed officially. We are due to have the questionnaire ready for some time in 2018 – we only get one shot at getting this right! SLG are working in partnership with the School Librarians Association, The National Literacy Trust, Booktrust and other partners on this project.

As part of this campaign to find out better information and statistics so that we could feed back to the APPG, Dawn Finch, past president of CILIP and previous school librarian, composed a letter to the Education Secretary Justine Greening asking her to halt the closure of school libraries. This was signed by over 200 authors and notable educators, and was reported on by the BBC, the TES, the Guardian, the Independent and the Bookseller. That campaign is ongoing and we are looking to build on that success. In addition, we are also working with Ofsted to see how they can include school libraries in their inspections. This in itself is controversial amongst school librarians.

Most don’t want to be inspected by Ofsted directly because what a school librarian does in a school is determined by the Head. Some act as teacher librarians teaching many periods of library lessons, some administer reading programmes, some (like my assistant) run the Extended Project Qualification and some, like me, have their main focus on books, eBooks and wider resources, as well as library strategies and projects. Coming up with a common standard to judge us all by would be a nightmare – but that doesn’t mean we should be ignored during an inspection either which is usually the case.

Raising the status of school librarians and ensuring that we are all treated as professionals is one of our key objectives in SLG. Schools will often appoint people with no qualifications so that they can pay them less. However, even qualified school librarians find that they are often lumped in with the secretaries and maintenance crew, and are paid and treated accordingly. One of the keys to a school librarian being able to work successfully in a school is being considered a member of the academic staff and working on a par with other heads of department. We continue to fight against the deprofessionalisation of school librarians, which seems to be wholly driven by economic reasons, and for us to be recognised as academic Heads of Department and paid accordingly.

SLG is also striving within CILIP to ensure that school librarians are visible. Some appear to believe that because we work in an academic setting, that we are more or less the same as university or college librarians, but that is not the case. The role of a school librarian is much wider and all encompassing. We do everything from buying the books, cataloguing, covering, mending, issuing, stocktaking and weeding resources. We answer queries from staff, students and parents, set up online databases, buy furniture, advise teachers on resources and create reading lists, arrange author visits – and those are only the ‘library’ jobs we do, let alone the teaching side. University and academic librarians tend to specialise in one or two of those areas. No other librarian job I believe covers everything from stock purchase to disposal, and everything in between! So we have been advocating to get our voice heard at Conference, at Careers events, and other special CILIP events where we generally have to ask to be included. But we’re a determined bunch – we have to be to work in schools! – and we are slowly getting there.

Please continue to support us by tweeting and retweeting @CILIPSLG, by following #schoollibrariesmatter and if you are a parent going round a school, checking to see if the school has a library, and asking why not! And if you would like to add SLG as one of your groups, we would be very happy to have you.

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