A cost-cutting pilot scheme in the Scottish Borders in which pupil volunteers are replacing qualified school librarians has been branded “folly” and a false economy.
Scottish Borders council is implementing a trial in three schools in the Galashiels, Hawick and Peebles areas that will see secondary school pupils and other volunteers running school libraries. The initiative, attacked by parents, literacy experts, trade unions, teachers and librarians has already seen the loss of several librarian jobs.
A degree-qualified school librarian, ANNETTE WOOLFSON, recently resigned her post at Kelso High School. Here she spells out her deep unhappiness with a plan which, if it saves enough money, might well be copied across the United Kingdom.
AS A LONG-TIME SCHOOL LIBRARIAN I naturally believe school libraries staffed by qualified librarians to be essential elements in all secondary schools. But that age-old educational resource is suddenly under threat, a hot topic both north and south of the border.
I was employed from September 2016 as School Librarian at Kelso High School. The library had been closed to students since Easter that year following the retirement of the previous librarian. Scottish Borders Council (SBC) — who were in the process of conducting a school library review at the time — were only prepared to fund 15 hours per week (term-time only) instead of the full-time position worked by my predecessor.
The council’s review ended in May 2018 with a decision to remove even the part-time librarian positions at Galashiels Academy, Kelso High School and Peebles High School and to replace them with senior students, staff and parent volunteers, helped by self-issue systems for books. If ‘successful’, this pilot system will be extended to the authority’s six other high schools with the loss of six more qualified librarian posts.
A school librarian does not merely stamp out books and re-shelve them whilst peering over old-maid spectacles ‘shushing’ everyone to silence. A school librarian is a professionally trained expert in books and reading and in teaching information literacy skills. In an age of ‘fake news’ and plagiarism it is vital that these skills are learned; librarians are the ideal professionals to deliver these lessons.
Librarians also provide a safe domain for students at break and lunchtime in what are often huge and daunting high schools; they support staff by providing resources relevant to the curriculum — sometimes they can even help raise money for the school!
During Kelso High School’s move to its new site I ran a very successful ‘Be Part Of It’ campaign by placing a ‘wish list’ of books on Amazon: as a result, local people donated more than £2,000 worth of books that were great additions to the school library, I also managed to badger a retired national newspaper editor into funding the school’s annual subscription to The Day, an excellent online resource .
Imagine this: whilst secondary school librarians are an invaluable teaching resource, the provision of school libraries — unlike prison libraries — is NOT a statutory requirement. That is why school librarians are one of the first posts to go when cuts loom. This is incredibly short-sighted. We live in an age of information overload; students are easily lost in the vast amounts of information available.
A school librarian will teach information literacy skills to all, enabling students to find the relevant information they need and, just as importantly, to list sources correctly and avoid falling into accusations of plagiarism.
Studies have shown that students who read for pleasure will achieve better exam results than non-readers.1. Who better to encourage students to find their next literary hero than a school librarian, experts as familiar with classic books as they are with newly-published titles? A self-issue machine isn’t going to be able to help that student find something to read when he or she comes to the end of the Harry Potter series. Librarians, who know their students and the subjects taught in their schools, will use their usually-tiny budgets wisely to provide titles attractive to all ages, abilities and interests.
I have been a librarian for more than 35 years, fifteen of them as a school librarian; I came to realise, with sadness, that attempting to do the job properly within the fifteen-hour week which the authority’s economies permitted was not possible. I also found the proposal to replace librarians with machines distressing and insulting. Which brings me to the overall issue of architect-led modern school design and its effect on school libraries. . .
Kelso’s school library was designed as a ‘flexible learning space’, a modish development which might work in a public library but NOT in schools. Teaching information literacy skills requires a classroom set-up and this is impossible at Kelso, whose library is completely open to a busy corridor on one side and to an echoing atrium housing the canteen and other flexible learning spaces on the other. Noise plus the distraction of people continually walking past are huge issues.
The other major problem with lack of walls and a door is that the library and stock are completely accessible, especially when no librarian is present. A student I met recently told me that the library can no longer be used by students at break and lunchtime as no self-issue system has been installed and (as far as I am aware) no student/staff/parent volunteers are manning it.
Having senior students and outside volunteers acting as librarians creates a problem with data protection, meaning they would not be allowed to use the library management system to issue books. And is it fair to make them to be responsible for the health and safety of upwards of 40 students who regularly frequented the library in my time? Self-issue systems only really work if a member of staff is on hand to assist and ensure that items are being issued and returned properly. I dread to think how many books have ‘walked’ from the library so far.
Nothing yet has been put in place at Kelso to provide solutions. Not the school’s fault, they totally opposed this idea. SBC made this decision purely as a cost-cutting exercise, but by saving themselves the cost of my 15 hours-a-week salary they have lost access to library stock worth over £90,000, an insane decision and one that doesn’t even take into account the added value a qualified school librarian can provide.
Scottish Borders’ decision is short-sighted, made without a complete understanding of the the school librarians’ role and the added value they bring to a school.
There is time for them this authority to rethink a policy that would turn a well-staffed library into just a roomful of books.
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