The following post is written by Barbara Band, School Library, Reading and Literacy Consultant, Features Editor of The School Librarian, and Ex-President of Cilip.
This is the first of a series of guest posts around the importance of School Libraries and in support of the recent letter from Dawn Finch to the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening to highlight ‘the shocking decline of library provision and the numbers of qualified librarians in state-funded schools and colleges in England.’ The letter has over 150 co-signatories including authors, illustrators, presenters, the Bookseller Association, National Literacy Trust, and Society of Authors.
All publically funded libraries; public, school, FE etc, are facing a sharp decline in funding, staffing, and resources. That’s why it’s important we work together to highlight the essential and valuable work done by libraries across all sectors.
The Oft-Hidden Role of the School Library
The figures concerning mental health and young people are rather alarming. Sixteen million people in the UK experience a mental illness with 75% of these starting before a child reaches their 18th birthday. Figures also show that 75% of young people with a mental illness are not receiving treatment causing many of them to self-harm, become suicidal, violent and aggressive, or drop out of school. The mental health and well-being of students needs to be addressed so they can develop – socially, emotionally and academically – a young person who is dealing with mental illness is unlikely to reach their full potential with consequences both on a personal level and for their future within society.
At a time when a young person is transitioning from child to adult, when they have a need to be accepted and find their place within the world, the school environment can feel very hostile. Busy days are measured out in short periods of time, punctuated by bells ringing and people rushing about – the pressure is on to achieve, meet targets and deadlines with the resulting increase in stress and anxiety.
The school library is a unique space. It is often described as “the heart of a school” yet I also feel that it is frequently an “oasis”, an area of calm within a frantic milieu. A place that supports the whole child – their reading and literacy needs, their study and curriculum needs, and their well-being. This latter pastoral role is too often overlooked and undervalued.
The school library with a librarian provides a safe environment with a member of staff who is not a teacher and does not have to rush off to deliver a lesson to a class somewhere. We have very different relationships with the students; when I was nominated by two students for the SLA School Librarian of the Year Award, one of their comments about me was “It’s a formal relationship but we think of her as a big friend”.
During break and lunchtimes, students are able to step back from what they have been doing in the classroom and “just be”. Many of them hang around the desk, chatting, and it’s at times like these that an often seemingly innocent remark can ring alarm bells – all school librarians will have received safeguarding training. In my previous school, students who were dealing with stress, anxiety, panic attacks and depression, and were unable to cope for the whole of the school day, were often sent to the library. Some people may see this as “babysitting” and yet I recognised that I was providing a distinctive service they could not get elsewhere.
How much worse would these students have been if there hadn’t been a library for them to use? What would have been the impact on their long-term mental health and academic achievements? Over the years I have supported so many students in so many ways.
– School librarians are able to provide authoritative and trustworthy resources to those who, perhaps, have just heard a family member has cancer, have been told they have dyslexia, are being bullied, want information on managing exam nerves, coming out or improving their self-confidence. Alongside this comes the time to just listen or answer questions.
– Bereaved students can often feel overwhelmed in the school environment. As an adult, I know how grief can suddenly overtake you and yet I am able to step away from my desk to collect myself. Students aren’t able to do this – they have no other option and they don’t want to cry in front of their peers. Many times such students were sent to the library – I would give them the box of tissues and space, or stop what I was doing and let them talk, depending on their needs.
– Students with Asperger’s Syndrome can find school a confusing and sensory overloaded environment. Being able to spend “downtime” in the library at breaks enables them to reset and cope with the rest of the day. Many of my Asperger’s students would have their “own” chair and table where they would sit and read, ignoring everyone else, and I made sure that nobody disturbed them.
– I had a very active pupil library assistant team, many of which had SEN (Special Educational Needs). I nurtured their strengths so they could become active and useful members of the team, gaining valuable workplace skills and increasing their self-confidence. The then Headteacher remarked that “it was no surprise that all of them found the transition to University life straight forward”.
– Break-times can be tough on those who have not yet found their “place” at school. This is especially true for younger students who have come from smaller schools and find the larger older groups of students a bit intimidating, as well as those who are not sporty, arty, musically inclined or part of the “popular clique” – the school library gives all of these a place they can escape to until they find their feet.
– The school library is an ideal place for projects and activities which bring diverse groups of students together engendering a sense of community and belonging. In the past I have seen miscellaneous students connect over a chess board or Warhammer game; in fact, it is rather wonderful to see those slightly lonely souls being drawn into the group by a common interest, and to see them laughing and interacting with the others.
The school library has a huge role to play in the well-being of students which should not be underestimated. If we are serious about improving the mental health of young people then we need to recognise that school libraries and librarians are part of that agenda.