The UK General Election - 4th July 2024

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International School Library Month

This October was packed with awareness days and campaigns, marking Black History Month, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the International Day of the Girl. Also taking place is International School Library Month, a global annual celebration of school libraries worldwide, which provides a wonderful opportunity to encourage children of all ages to engage with their libraries, borrow books and develop a love of reading.

England’s new education secretary Nadhim Zahawi recently delivered a keynote speech at the Conservative Party conference in which he pledged to bring forward a schools White Paper in the new year outlining plans to “tackle illiteracy” – signalling that reading skills and literacy are both high on the domestic educational agenda. Yesterday’s Budget also reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to global literacy goals, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak announcing increased funding to get 20 million more girls around the world reading by the age of 10.

However, with one in eight UK schools lacking a library at all, what role are books and libraries set to play in an increasingly digitised curriculum, and how can teachers and students celebrate them?

 

Learning development

 

The most obvious function of a school library is its ability to inspire a love of learning and reading, allowing children to immerse themselves in the lives of fictional characters or delve into the nonfiction worlds of history, geography and natural sciences. UK Reads, a charity committed to delivering free books and interactive literacy support to children living in poverty, highlights multiple studies which show reading for enjoyment is the ‘single biggest indicator’ that children will succeed at school and later in life.

In addition to instilling a sense of curiosity amongst young learners, school libraries also offer a dedicated study space for individual or group work; providing a quiet, distraction-free zone often at the heart of the school. School libraries can kickstart key skills such as research and critical thinking, both of which form important parts of children’s learning and academic development.

 

Equitable access

 

Whilst there has been much discussion over the past 18 months regarding the digital divide and attainment gap, it’s also key to reflect on other areas of inequity highlighted by home learning and school closures. As observed by Richard Gerver, the new president of the School Library Association, “what’s been less talked about is access to books in homes – shelves of books and parents that model that.” In fact, school libraries can tackle both of these pressing issues by guaranteeing not just free, but readily available, access to electronic devices and books alike, to level the playing field and help bring children from less privileged backgrounds up to speed.

Well-known amongst the educational community for heading up the transformation of the previously failing Grange Primary School (for which he won ‘Headteacher of the year’ and an award at the UNESCO World Arts Education Conference), Gerver believes opening a new school library “had a profound impact” on driving positive change in an area of social deprivation. Gerver built a curriculum around the library, with a specialist librarian working alongside teachers to help them understand student’s individual needs and reading levels. He said this proved transformative, particularly on “kids from an area of social deprivation, whose limitation was they lived in a very insular community. They had a limitation on aspiration, on experiences. The library became a catalyst for us.”

With independent schools nearly twice as likely to have a dedicated budget for their library when compared with state primary and secondary schools, many believe the issue illustrates the social mobility inequities baked into the English school system.

As pupils around the country finally settle back into the rhythm of daily school life, it’s vital that we don’t overlook the potential of the humble school library to accelerate attainment, literacy skills and development. As Gerver says, libraries can be the “absolute heartbeat” of a school.

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