To class teachers and TAs – simple strategies so library lessons work for you.

Yesterday I had less than 10 minutes to deal with a class of 7 year old children. Some of them hadn’t got into the library for a while (because I work over multiple schools I’m not there every day) and were confused about whether they had returned their books. To compound the problem, the library is in an open reception area where, despite the presence of an expensive piece of furniture marked BOOK RETURNS, they sneak their overdue books back on to shelves rather than face the imagined wrath of the librarian – unwittingly doing precisely what infuriates me.

So it was that we had a keen reader visibly upset because he was “accused” of not bringing back a book. In fact he had, but it took me 15 minutes to figure that out and by then he was back in class, miserable, disappointed and probably not really very focussed on the work he’d been rushed away to get on with. It happens a lot, and the underlying reason is the constant pressure teachers feel under, and their lack of control over the curriculum and the structure of the day. So my issue is with the system, not the teachers who are like me, struggling to do a challenging job with limited resources.

But I don’t think teachers always realise how anxious children can feel in a library. How sensitive and vulnerable they can feel in case they appear “thick” or “babyish” in front of their peers. The perception that libraries are only for really clever people, ie, not them. I often get children wanting to change their book multiple times within one session, as they grab a 400 page Jacqueline Wilson, then read the first two pages and panic. Teachers, thinking they will make my life easier and probably also mindful of the time-consuming task of chasing overdue books (which many children either deny borrowing, don’t remember borrowing, or lie about having returned), often impose rather draconian rules. Only one book at a time, zero tolerance of overdue loans, threats to send a letter home and demand payment (do they stop and think about how this might affect a child with a chaotic home life or even a violent parent?) Probably not, because most teachers don’t have nearly enough time to stop and think these days; even the best of them become systems-driven under stress.

Finding a book that is appropriate to a child’s age and reading ability is one of the most challenging jobs for a librarian, and we sometimes go into it with scant information about the child involved. Children put up numerous defensive strategies when they feel anxious. They lie, they bluff, they pretend they don’t care by saying books are babyish and boring, when in fact they simply feel out of control in an unfamiliar environment. And many of these problems intensify as they move through primary school if they aren’t nipped in the bud by a librarian or a teacher who knows them well.

So my plea to teachers is, please try to give your children time. I know how hard this can be. Consider sending them to the library in smaller groups, rather than worrying about tying up a TA because thirty of them are coming in at the same time. Work with your librarian, if you are fortunate enough to have them, on systems to make the process of returning overdue loans clear and straightforward. It is amazing how much difference it makes to how a library session goes if you don’t have to spend the first ten minutes of it sorting out who has brought books back and arguing about it. Collect the children’s returned books in a clearly labelled box on the morning of library day, and get it to the librarian in advance. Then library time will be an enjoyable and confidence-building experience for the children, rather than a frustrating exercise in either queuing up or running riot while the librarian works through a series of “did-I-bring-my-book-back-Miss?” exchanges.

Ultimately we’re on the same side, so let’s help one another. And if you’re in Y5 and you want to borrow a picture book, good on you. You don’t even have to tell me it’s for your little brother.


School Libraries- do we need a network for the volunteers?

What is the difference between a room full of books and a school library? The answer is, of course, a librarian. I’ve been working through that answer for almost twenty years.

I am not a qualified librarian. For the majority of primary schools, in the state system at least, that simply isn’t an option. For almost ten years I wasn’t even paid and even now my salary hardly reflects the hours I put in or the responsibilities I shoulder. Which presents a dilemma that is becoming more familiar throughout the sector. Put crudely, are volunteers robbing professional librarians of their jobs?

There are really no straightforward answers to that. In the case of public libraries, some unions have protested against the increasing substitution of well-meaning volunteers for trained staff. They are not simply covering their members’ backs; they have a valid point. Volunteers, no matter how well-intentioned or dedicated, may well lack the skills and training to carry out this vital role.

Volunteers also struggle with other constraints. They see what needs doing but do not have access to the networks, the official back-up and the resources to get it done. Faced with the yawning and widening gulf between the necessary and the possible, they are at risk of burnout and despair. This is no secret to others who might be willing to take their place, were they not so painfully aware that they might not be able to control the job’s tendency to take over their lives and sour their relationships.

Managing volunteers, something I’ve occasionally found myself doing, is an underrated skill demanding sensitivity and empathy as well as a clear vision and the ability to communicate it. I have worked in schools where people gave enormous amounts of time and dedication to their library roles, only to be treated atrociously by managers who came in and undermined all their hard work and commitment without even listening to their point of view. In fact, much of my time last year was devoted to rescuing a library where that had happened, and a very important part of the job was regaining the trust of those volunteer helpers.

Nevertheless, the reality is that in many schools, the only staff libraries can expect are either completely unpaid volunteers or teaching assistants who already have a full workload and are somehow expected, in their very limited spare time, to turn the chaotic and tattered few boxes of books parked at the end of a dusty corridor into a library.

At SLA conferences I have come across quite a few such people. Often they are determined but daunted, and I am sure that for every one I come across there are a dozen out there who either are unaware that the SLA exists or, even if they have heard of it, would feel guilty expecting what little money a school can spare for library books (often the proceeds of PTA fundraising) being spent on sending them to a conference. Sometimes we get talking, I keep in touch and try to help them avoid making a few of the mistakes I have made.

But I am beginning to think we need something more. The SLA, as its name suggests, is a professional body. Whilst they are, I am sure, in sympathy with the aims of volunteers, their first responsibility is to their chartered and qualified members. I would add, by the way, that they are a superb source of knowledge, inspiration and contacts to school libraries anywhere. But it is unrealistic and probably undesirable to expect them to change their particular focus. They are quite right to maintain that there is no substitute for a qualified library professional, and that is what every child in every school deserves.

So I am beginning to wonder if it is worth setting up a network to advise and assist voluntary library workers, or whatever we should call them. And if anybody out there thinks this is worth exploring, or supporting in any way, or they are just thinking they would like to be involved, please let me know your thoughts. Maybe follow me, and we shall see what we can come up with together.

UPDATE: The SLA have been in touch since I shared this to emphasise that they see the support of voluntary librarians in schools as very much part of their role. It’s great to be starting a dialogue with them on this and I’m sure good things will come of it. Thank you SLA!

The 100 books “every child should read”

Here is a list, recently published by the TES, of the 100 fiction books that every child should read before leaving primary school:–

The first interesting thing about this list is that it’s in an educational journal rather than a parenting magazine. That in itself speaks volumes about what we expect of teachers today. When I was a child, if a child never read a decent book it wasn’t automatically considered to be a failure on the part of the teaching profession. But let’s pass over the causal link between impoverished reading choices and the wholesale closure of local authority libraries for the moment. That’s a whole separate post.

I’ve been running a primary school library for over 15 years. It’s an affluent area, the school is continually oversubscribed and the local population statistically one of the most highly educated in the country. So we are not talking about cultural deserts here.

Nevertheless, I read this list with slack-jawed astonishment. I have dealt with many very able kids who read voraciously, but never encountered one who willingly made their way through the entirety of Black Beauty or Treasure Island. I didn’t even get around to Treasure Island myself until my late 40s.

Culturally, the list is contradictory enough to give you vertigo. Treasure Island and Kipling sit cheek by jowl with a token contribution from Benjamin Zephaniah. Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, set in a 1940s independent girls’ boarding school, rubs shoulders with the admirable gender-neutrality of Tyke Tyler. Unbelievably, there isn’t a single mention of Harry Potter, yet the entire Skulduggery Pleasant and Artemis Fowl series are in there.

I’ve had parents complain that Skulduggery Pleasant really isn’t suitable for primary school age children (It’s about a dead detective, by the way. A skeleton, since you ask). I’ve also had teachers politely turn down Mr Men anthologies (the entire Roger Hargreaves canon makes the cut), on the grounds that they are stereotypical and reductive. Now all these decisions are to some extent controversial. Nevertheless, the fact that the list bristles with books that could be deemed offensive for all kinds of reasons, by different people, illustrates the difficulty of ever producing a definitive list of this kind.

Does it really matter? After all, everyone is entitled to their opinion. And that’s all this list is – the opinion of the unspecified teachers consulted. We aren’t told anything about the way that the question was phrased – were exhausted teachers at the end of another long day put on the spot and asked to remember a book they adored as children? Were they working in the independent or the state sector, were they retired, were they gay, straight, Muslim, evangelical Christian, etc? Before we take pronouncements like this seriously, we should bear that in mind.

So I repeat, does it matter? Yes, I would argue. It matters because anxious parents and educational professionals will take it seriously. Some will use it as yet another stick to beat teachers over the head with, demanding to know why children haven’t yet encountered the complete range of unmissable classics (or protesting strongly about the casual racism and cultural appropriation of some of its most cherished inclusions). There are a lot of worried parents out there, and they share their worries very readily with teachers, a profession where morale is already pretty much at rock bottom.

And meanwhile, the kids most in need of a varied, accessible range of books, and quality reading time with carers, will muddle through as best they can, increasingly under-resourced because the public libraries and Sure Start centres that provided such a valuable starting point for a love of learning are closing left, right and centre.

I’m not even sure that teachers are the best people to ask about the books children ought to be reading. Shouldn’t that be librarians? I know some brilliant teachers but they value my role because they freely admit that they haven’t time to keep up with children’s literature. They’re too busy ticking boxes.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 15-plus years as a librarian, it’s that there is no point whatsoever in trying to force Kidnapped down the neck of a kid who’d rather be reading Beast Quest, or The Railway Children on a seven-year-old devoted to Tom Gates. How many adults would read widely and happily if they were continually being berated for not tackling War and Peace?