Building the Reader of Tomorrow Today

The penultimate post in the current series on the importance of school libraries is by Matt Imrie, from Farringtons School in Kent. Matt quite rightly points out that school librarians help make tomorrows reader today by encouraging and developing a love of reading in pupils.

Literacy is the single most essential life skill and the importance of a good education in enabling social mobility cannot be over-emphasised. One of the ways the government can encourage this is to fund school libraries.

The Importance of School Libraries

Often overlooked by campaigners and just about everybody not actively involved in schools and education, it is easy to underestimate the importance of School Libraries and their contribution to learning, literacy and reading for pleasure.

In recent years (since the advent of austerity) many former Public Librarians unwilling to leave the work they love have found alternate employment as School Librarians. The irony that a non-statutory service is marginally safer for employment than a statutory service is not lost on many. It is akin to jumping out of a collapsing building and landing on a field composed largely of quicksand, but even with uncertain futures School Librarians do press forward with their duties.

Building the Reader of Tomorrow Today

School Libraries often work in intangibles, ‘reading for pleasure’ is one such example – impossible to measure but easy to identify. I do not think there is a school librarian alive that has not seen the look in a reader’s face when they find the book/magazine/comic/fan-fic that makes their love for reading come alive. Nurturing this tender and fragile love can be done at home and in public libraries but for children with parents that do not read or take them to the local library and in areas where the local library has closed, it is usually their School Library that first opens their eyes to reading as a pleasurable activity.

Once children get too old for the Summer Reading Challenge and they enter their teens, their library use often tapers off and for many it stops entirely. For these students it is often the School Library that remains their only regular access to books, information and professional assistance in using them.
School Libraries have a captive audience, and unlike public and university libraries, many of the students that come in for reading and library lessons do not want to be there. Integrating a class consisting of students that want to be there, others that may be ambivalent and some that indulge in active disruption is a skill that School Librarians learn fairly quickly. Turning the latter two groups into the former is an activity that takes time and individual attention; this is something that School Librarians are well-equipped to do as they see the same students regularly and can work on breaking down the barriers that troubled students have towards reading and learning.

Once the School Librarian gets to know their students they are able to recommend books that cater to their individual tastes and for those that struggle with reading many school libraries use programmes such as Accelerated Reader to help them improve their reading levels.

Returning to the Summer Reading Scheme briefly, in the run up to the end of the summer term, Children’s Librarians often visit schools to promote the SRC. These visits are usually organised with the School Librarian as the initial point of contact. If the library service is unable to provide a librarian to visit a school then usually posters and joining forms are sent to the School Librarian to distribute to the classes old (or young) enough to participate.

Transferable Skills

Most School Librarians offer regular Library Lessons to equip students with information literacy skills that work on a cross-curricular level. From introducing research skills (finding and using information as well as citing sources) to identifying fake news, making use of reliable online resources, becoming aware of and avoiding plagiarism and enabling students to use the library catalogue and Dewey Decimal System to find the books they are looking for and locating the information required within the book in as short a space of time as possible. Included with these skills are critical thinking, improved social skills from teamwork to taking responsibility for completing ones work and more.

It is best to embed these skills early and this is where School Librarians that work with primary school students can get involved with making sure that their students do not fall into the trap of seeing the internet in general and Wikipedia in particular as the be-all and end-all of research.

These skills not only enable them to do homework for school but also prepares them for college or university where they will often not have a librarian on hand to help them locate everything they need. These skills are also usable in public libraries, as school librarians and teachers often recommend that their students broaden their access to resources by making use of their local library where possible.

Where does it go from here?

Well, despite the best of intentions to write more widely about politics I have actually found, after numerous aborted attempts, that the only area I really enjoy blogging about is libraries. So with that in mind Leon’s Library Blog is once again up and running.

I still firmly believe that the fight for public services is the fight the libraries. The genuine despondency felt by many staff struggling to deliver public services is summed up in a heart-felt letter by Corinna Edwards-Colledge, a Brighton and Hove Council Officer. In it she accuses David Cameron of deliberate contempt for council workers, outlines the devastating cuts to public services, and the negative impact on local communities.

Libraries are part and parcel of the struggle to deliver meaningful services to some of the most vulnerable members of our communities: from the housebound, to the job seeker who cannot afford internet access, and the families who are unable to buy books to effect the many positive benefits that reading for pleasure brings.

In fact the ‘reading for pleasure’ element of libraries has been poorly regarded and often disparaged by politicians. However, a recent report, The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, by the Reading Agency demonstrates the real, tangible benefits of reading for pleasure. As such, the loaning of books, in all formats, should remain a mainstay of library provision. An excellent blog by Dawn Finch outlines the main aspects of the report and why reading for pleasure is so important.

We are faced with 5 more years of ideologically driven austerity, the dismantling of public services, and the almost certain continuing reduction and fragmentation of public libraries. So the fight continues and I have decided to return to my musings mainly on the political and campaigning aspects of the ever changing library landscape (and yes, you can accuse me of doing a ‘Farage’ like u-turn!).

I cling to the hope that despite the changes to come we can continue to articulate a vision for public libraries, that while perhaps being a long way from the reality of current provision, nevertheless should be the ideal we aspire to, and which we will one day hopefully achieve.

Illiteracy and the Liberal Democrats

Nick Clegg recently pledged that the Liberal Democrats would eliminate child illiteracy by 2025, which while a worthy sentiment has to be taken with a pinch of salt from the Deputy Prime Minister.

During his time in office – and unequivocal support for overly stringent austerity measures – the gap between the rich and poor has become a chasm. Research by Poverty & Social Exclusion UK revealed:

  • Almost 18 million cannot afford adequate housing conditions.
  • 1.5 million children live in households that cannot afford to heat the home
  • 2.5 million kids live in properties that are damp
  • More than half a million children live in families who cannot afford to feed them properly
  • 12 million people are too poor to have a social life
  • 5.5 million adults go without essential clothing
  • One in every six adults in paid work is still poor

The link between poverty and low educational attainment has long been acknowledged so it seems almost absurd to boast of eliminating illiteracy on one hand while creating the conditions for illiteracy to flourish in the first place.

Even in the lead up to the general election when we expect the political rhetoric to flow thick and fast Nick Clegg’s statement appears crass in the face of increasing social inequality, driven in no small part by the government’s economic policies.

Equally, one of the historical cornerstones to challenging illiteracy – free access to books and reading via public libraries – has been consistently undermined by the coalition. Public libraries have long been concerned with raising literacy standards and the current Reading Offer is the latest in a long line of literacy based initiatives.

Despite incredible efforts by the profession to raise standards and instill the habit and pleasure of reading in children the Liberal Democrats have helped to create an environment in which there have been hundreds of branch closures, substantial job losses, and communities forced to take over libraries or face losing them.

John Leech, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Culture, stated that he supports the ‘…creation of volunteer managed libraries as a last resort in the event of the closure of a local authority funded library’ and ‘that a volunteer run library is better than no library at all, though I would not like to see this to become the norm.’ Unfortunately, under the coalition this has very much become the ‘norm’ with libraries being handed over to volunteers almost daily.

Even in his own constituency Nick Clegg was unable to convince fellow minister, Ed Vaizey, to intervene in Sheffield’s mass handover of libraries to volunteers. Despite initially questioning the Council’s plans Vaizey quickly back-tracked and would not order an inquiry into library provision in Sheffield.

As such, it is difficult to reconcile the avowed intent to end illiteracy from a man who has been an integral part of a government that has also overseen significant library closures and the replacement of expert staff with uninformed volunteers.

No wonder author Cathy Cassidy has stated:

“Does Britain really want to add the loss of libraries to an already shocking decimation of services? At a time when far too many British kids are subsisting on food bank handouts, will we take away their ladder to learning, imagination and opportunity as well?” 

So the question is, how exactly do you end illiteracy by closing libraries?

Why Reading Matters

It’s been well attested how libraries can change lives for the better by supporting educational and work aspirations. Even, provide an escape for a short time, from the reality of poverty and social deprivation.

Therefore, it saddened me greatly to see the OECD report that stated young adults in England have scored among the lowest results in the industrialised world in literacy and numeracy tests . Not only that but younger people are actually falling behind the older generation in such skills.

Now I know that in many ways this reflects failings within the education system, perhaps even poor parenting, but it also highlights the huge role public libraries still have to play in providing literacy opportunities for children and young people.

This is further reinforced by the recent IOE report that shows reading for pleasure in children increases both literacy and numeracy skills.

Such a pity then that public libraries are in such crisis with many community libraries closing in areas of social deprivation, precisely the areas that need them the most.

As I saw recently on a library protester’s placard  ‘cut libraries and see wot happens’.