Neil Griffiths is a children’s author, former primary school Head Teacher, inspirational trainer and creator of the Storysack along with many other award-winning resources for children. To celebrate Libraries Week, he tells us why he believes primary school libraries are so important.
“The library is the heartbeat of a school”. Martyn Coles 2009
“The library is the beating heart of the school”. All Party Parliamentary Group Report 2014
The use of the heart as an image to portray the importance of the school’s library is compelling. No heart, no life. One would therefore imagine that its healthy, vibrant existence would be a top priority for all primary schools. It is therefore hard to believe that a school library is not a statutory requirement in England. As an educationalist who trains throughout the UK I can reinforce the findings of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (2014) who state:
“School libraries and school library provisions are at a critical juncture”.
Many schools have replaced their library with additional I.T. suites and many others have allowed them to decline into a dingy, infrequently visited dumping ground with outdated reading material, ugly shelving and dirty moth-eaten matting on the floor.
When easy regular access to reference material remains important, some schools have made the ludicrous decision to share the library non-fiction material throughout every classroom. This makes referencing information virtually impossible.
From my initial comments, you may get a sense of my deep disappointment at the demise of so many primary school libraries. I am a passionate fan of libraries and whilst I have made every effort to embrace the digital revolution and do recognise the need for innovative areas for I.T., I will fight to the end of my days to protect these ‘special places’ that are rightly described as the ‘heart’ of a school.
But what is the evidence to support the need for a school library?
The National Literacy Trust in 2017 stated that:
“School libraries have been found to impact pupils’ general academic attainment reading and writing skills, plus wider learning skills”.
They go on to say:
“School libraries have an impact on reading enjoyment, reading behaviour and attitudes towards learning”.
Reading for pleasure has consistently hit the reading headlines for decades, regularly being pitted against the need for a robust programme of systematic synthetic phonics. Of course, the two are not opposing enemies but complimentary to each other. I like to say, “Teach the skills, catch the interest”. Teachers have embraced the need for quality phonic teaching, but undoubtedly have spent less time helping pupils develop a love of reading that becomes life-long. The school library could and should be the centre of reading for pleasure.
“All reading makes a difference, but evidence suggests that reading for pleasure makes the most”. C.Clark and S. De Zoysa 2011.
We know that if reading is to become this life-long habit then children must see themselves as part of a community that views reading as enjoyable. We also have strong evidence showing that when the amount a child reads increases; their reading ability improves which in turn encourages them to read more.
“Young people who used the library were nearly twice as likely to be reading outside the classroom every day”. C. Clark and L. Hawkins 2011.
“Reading and discussing what you have read are cornerstones of education”. Dept. of Education-Reading the next steps 2015.
So, in my opinion, libraries are not just optional; they are vital.
“But what should they look like?” is a question I have been asked so many times on my visits to primary schools. I always tell them that this is an impossible question to answer as there are endless possibilities. What I do say is that they must be identifiably very different to any other place in the school. I often get rather carried away at this point as I am so desperate to encourage the school to make them the most special place imaginable. I use phrases such as ‘A place to dip your toe’, ‘a sweet store of books’, ‘the most tempting place in the school to be’ ‘A place to be tempted, entertained and inspired’, ‘A place of surprises’, ‘Somewhere to find answers to your questions’, ‘A non-exclusive club where all members can dream!’ Sorry, I have indeed got carried away!
But what does make a good school library? Before we answer this question, it is important to recognise the obvious that any library is affected by space, personnel and budgets. These however should not be seen as obstacles but rather as challenges to your imagination, ingenuity and determination. Some of the smallest school libraries I have visited have been the finest. What made them wonderful were the staff’s attitude to their use, the amazing creativity shown in making them a magical place to visit and the commitment shown in their ever-changing environments and use of space. So yes, I have seen breath-taking castles, rainforests, rockets and woodlands but ‘big is not always beautiful!’ For me personally it should be “A place that every child wants to be!”
So, the starting point has to be the head teacher who must be passionate about the need to have a great school library and be as generous as possible in providing an adequate budget to develop it. And yes, times are hard financially but often it is about priorities and surely developing a love of reading should be at the top of the spending tree? (But I am realistic and realise money is in short supply). Hopefully the enthusiasm from the head teacher will be infectious and all staff will develop a similar desire to create and use the best library possible.
Next in the decision-making process is identifying an appropriate space. The only advice I can realistically offer here is “You must work with what you have available”. You may have a spare classroom to convert, or at the other end of the scale, part of a corridor. But any space can be made magical. Some schools I have visited have developed several ‘pods’ around the school. I have visited ‘comic corners’ and ‘non-fiction nooks’ on my travels.
The third decision is the staffing.
“The librarian is vital in ensuring that a reading habit is nurtured from early on in a child’s reading journey.” National Literacy Trust 2017.
“The enthusiasm and responsiveness of the librarian generally had a direct impact on the attitudes of the students towards the library and reading” OFSTED 2011.
I can hear the cry of “How does he think we can afford a librarian?” Again, I know this is difficult, but all I can say is of the best school libraries I have visited almost all had enthusiastic, skilled, passionate and child friendly librarians either part or full-time. The benefit of such a staff member is huge!
In summary, a good school library provision has:
This however is only the beginning. A library without books and other reading material is not a library. This material must be well chosen, age appropriate, wide-ranging and meet the needs of all children. Schools should also consider non-traditional reading material including collections of comics, magazines, maps, menus, catalogues, leaflets, brochures, recipes etc. Then this reading material must be stored and displayed for easy access and retrieval.
“Children who love reading will read more and over time choose literature which is more demanding and suitably stretching” C.Clark and S. De Zoysa 2011.
Shelving and furniture should be colourful, attractive and allow children to see the fronts of books as often as possible. They should be well catalogued and have an easy to use reference system – Dewey or other – for quick access. The library layout should not be set in stone and places should be created to snuggle up in cosy corners, cubby holes and cushion nests for comfy reading.
Displays should be added to walls and on shelves to encourage an inquisitive attitude towards books and spark new interest and enthusiasm. These might include books on a theme e.g. history, horror, nature, science or an author focus. The seasons of the year or topical events such as autumn, The Olympics etc. should be reflected too. Regular activities should be on offer including book clubs, rhyme times, library club, before school and after school library times etc.
A timetable of library use should be drawn up to ensure all classes visit every week and the biggest sign on the library door should say if possible:
“Always open!” Just because you can read does not mean that you will choose to do so, and the school library should be at the heart of giving every child the desire to read for the rest of their lives.
In summary a school library should be:
‘A place every child wants to be and a space that helps instil a passion for reading in all its forms.’ Neil Griffiths
“A Primary School Library should be exciting and welcoming, a place for children to delight in stories and a sign that the school is making its environment fit for learning”. Tim Brighouse.
To find out more about Neil Griffiths, visit Corner to Learn.