No Plan B: The Closure of a Schools Library Service

The following guest post is from Elizabeth Roberts, former staff member of the Walsall Schools Library Support Service, which sadly closed in March this year due to funding cuts.

The irony, like many closures affecting school and public libraries, is such reductions happen while the Government announces plans to improve literacy, early reading, and language skills through the establishment of a Centre of Excellence for Literacy Teaching.

But sadly School Library Services, like school libraries, have no statutory standing and are susceptible to local decision making and  dwindling school budgets.

I wish the ex-SLSS staff the very best of luck in their endeavour to form a new company to continue delivering library services to schools. However, the  fact they need to do so is a damning indictment on government policy despite the lip service paid to improving literacy and an illustration of the real life impact of starving public services of desperately needed funding at a local level.

Walsall Schools Library Support Services

On 29 March 2018, after 50 years of service to children in Walsall, Walsall Schools Library Support Service (SLSS) closed its doors for the last time. Even on our final morning, staff were still out in schools delivering literacy support. Demand for our services was still extremely high. The questionnaires completed annually by schools showed a 100% satisfaction rate. So how could such a vibrant, thriving service close?

SLSS offered a wide range of library and literacy support to schools. Its offer was vast. Its loan collections encompassed reading for pleasure termly loans, class readers and topic boxes. In addition hundreds of artefact boxes were on offer to schools covering every aspect of the curriculum. Our service was flexible and proactive – you want Harry Potter, the World Cup, carnivals…..? No problem!

Alongside the loan collections, experienced SLSS staff worked in schools to deliver activities designed to inspire and enthuse. We revitalised school libraries, ran book clubs, told stories, gave information literacy sessions, performed poetry, ran quizzes, provided booklists and advised on purchases. Our staff were experts on children’s books. The list was endless. Where a school had a literacy need then we would do our utmost to fulfil it.

Our downfall, as it had been for our colleagues in Walsall public libraries the year before, was finance. For some years we had been funded by a dedelegated budget – money that headteachers had agreed could be top-sliced and invested in our service. We knew that this would have to end by 2019 and were planning for the transition to a fully traded service. However, in October 2017 the Heads Forum voted to end dedelegation a year early. Instead of the money being top-sliced, it would be returned to schools and they could choose how to spend it. For us, this meant that our money would run out in March 2018, at which point we would either have to trade or close.

At this point a variety of things happened which affected our ability to get a business plan together. The approval by senior managers that we could trade with schools was not given until November 2017, by which point schools were in the throes of Christmas preparations. In addition, appalling bad weather saw schools closed across the borough. Add to this the need to keep our service running and the time actually available to us to plan and negotiate with schools was tiny.

We were set a target of £120K that we would need to make through trading with schools. We were given until February 2018 to get schools to commit to this or else we would have to close. As soon as we came back after Christmas, staff on 12 weeks’ notice were issued with their redundancy notices. We all knew we were living on borrowed time.

Schools began to reply to us. Some said that they would rather buy their own resources than pay for SLSS. However, a sizeable number agreed to pay for some or all the elements of our new service. We were overwhelmed with messages of support from these schools, some of whom could not envisage how they would manage without us. What broke our hearts were the schools who said they would love to buy our services, that they valued us but that they could not afford us as they were having to make their own staff redundant.

One teacher said to us “For us the resources and books you provide help to take the child on a journey. The resources show them visually and the books take them on an emotional rollercoaster allowing them to escape, they are then able to develop their own ideas and personalities. Pupil premium kids certainly need the provisions you provide.”

Despite all our efforts, we didn’t make the target we had been set by the Council and were given formal notice at the end of February that we would have to close. We were around £40K short of our target. We tried to negotiate in order to keep SLSS running. Would the Council accept a slimmed-down service with fewer staff we asked? Could they lend us £40K contingency money to support us for 12 months to allow us to build a stronger business case? Could we be absorbed into public libraries to minimise the central running costs that other Council departments required from us? The answer was a firm “no”. We were told that there was “no plan B” for SLSS – it was all or nothing.

Ironically, in February 2018 it was announced that the planned refurbishment of Walsall Central Library would cost £250K more than originally budgeted for, because of problems with the roof. Councillor Mike Bird was quoted as saying “It seems they have started a project and haven’t done the due diligence and have found a lot more needs doing than first anticipated.” A fraction of this money would have kept SLSS going.

In the last 12 months 9 of the 16 public libraries in Walsall have closed. Those that remain have been chosen on a geographical basis – distance from the library as the crow flies. Unfortunately people don’t travel as the crow flies! We have spoken to schools who have been forced to end class visits to the library. Since the closure of SLSS, Walsall public libraries no longer have staff that specialise in supporting children’s literacy. The biggest losers in all these library closures have been the children of Walsall. In 2015 Walsall schools were in the bottom 10 authorities in the country for literacy. Shouldn’t the Council be investing more in supporting them, rather than cutting the services they rely on?

Looking to the future, some of the SLSS staff have begun working together to form a company Read For Your Life which aims to offer literacy support into schools  We are currently talking to schools about their requirements. From this we hope to carry on the best of Walsall SLSS, supporting our children to grow as readers.

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