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Can the solution to Australia’s literacy woes be found in the school library?

There has been plenty of hand wringing since Australian students this year achieving their lowest writing results since NAPLAN tests began. The news isn’t much better when comparing Australian students’ performance with their international counterparts, with international testing such as PISA reporting a decline in the performance of Australian students. At the same time, employers are lamenting the poor literacy skills of their young workers.

However, a group of school library associations from across the country has banded together to create the Students Need School Libraries campaign in the belief that literacy gains will be among a range of benefits that would come from reinvigorating school libraries.

While the campaign aims to convince parents and other members of the school and wider community of the role that libraries can play in improving educational standards, as a parent and a former student, I am in no doubt of the value of school libraries, not just in promoting literacy, but also as beacons for students more comfortable with a book than on the footy field. School libraries can offer the opportunity to escape from social pressures, or spend time with like-minded students. At a time when the mental health and anxiety of students is under the spotlight and the number of young suicides is the highest it has been in a decade, this sense of escape and security can be a godsend.

And then, of course, there are the books. It would be remiss not to mention the school library’s role in introducing students to the world of literature. In a library, this collection is ideally curated with care and expertise by a school librarian, appealing to a diverse group of students and igniting in them a lifelong love of reading.

I remember that, as a secondary school student, it was the librarian that introduced me to some of the books that have stayed with me, from SE Hinton’s The Outsiders to The Catcher in the Rye. Earlier, it had been the creepy tales of Paul Jennings that I looked forward to borrowing each week. In my primary school library, I remember the popularity of the Asterix comics, by some classmates who swore they didn’t like to read. Yet, they would devour these books every week, racing to the shelf where they were held.

However, my memories of school libraries, in the early years of computers and the internet, are in many ways outdated. Now, libraries offer students the chance to improve their digital literacy skills, alongside their traditional literacy skills. In addition, those were the days before Harry Potter, and I can imagine the buzz that would surround the library when JK Rowling’s latest is expected.

A high quality library can signify the culture of a school, as a place that is inclusive and prioritises learning, for now and the future.

Overseas, the mission to protect school libraries is also in full swing. In the UK, it took a word-famous author to boost school libraries when James Patterson donated £50,000 (A$91,400) to school libraries in the UK, in partnership with Scholastic UK Book Clubs, according to a report in The Bookseller. He has also supported school libraries in the US in a similar way for years.

Patterson said: ‘Libraries are at the heart of every school, and I’m thrilled to be partnering with Scholastic to continue to underscore both the need to sustain them, and the vital role that school libraries, librarians and teachers play in transforming lives and fostering a love for learning.

In Scotland, this month a national strategy for school libraries was announced, aiming to ensuring every child in Scotland had access to a high quality school library. Twenty action points were introduced to improve literacy and numeracy and enable opportunities for family learning.

In a press release about the strategy, Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, said:

“School libraries have a vital part to play, throughout the learner journey from 3-18. They support literacy, numeracy, and health and wellbeing, improving attainment across the Curriculum.

“This strategy seeks to make libraries the vibrant hub and epicentre of our schools, promoting an appreciation of literature, an understanding of information literacy and a place of contact, friendship, dialogue and reassurance.”

However, ideally, in Australia, an affluent country that apparently prizes education, it should not be up to an individual or a publisher to improve school libraries.

This time last year, bestselling author and Australian Children’s Laureate Leigh Hobbs spoke out about his concern about the loss of school libraries, urging the same policymakers who aimed to lift literacy levels to recognise the role that libraries could play.

He told ABC News “I’ve got a real view about bureaucrats and politicians talking about literacy all the time, and at the same time libraries and librarians are disappearing, sort of seemingly one after another,” he said.

“The problem with that is that parents don’t know about it, because teachers aren’t allowed to write letters to the paper.”

In an article titled School Libraries Matter, teacher librarians Holly Godfree and Olivia Neilson wrote that it was naïve to expect digital literacy skills to come naturally to students.

“School library services provide tailored resources and skills-based lessons for each particular community, saving time, filling ‘gaps’ and reducing workload for classroom teachers who are then able to spend that extra time and energy planning better lessons.”

However, while these skills are increasingly important in a modern workplace, Australian school libraries’ staffing and resources, have been in decline for years, with drops in school library staffing of 17 per cent in 2013, 19 per cent in 2014, and 12 per cent in 2015. A small increase of 6 per cent was recorded in 2016, but the numbers still fall far short of the staffing of five years ago.

Hopefully, the campaign, set to kick off later this month, will encourage parents, teachers and principals to take a closer look at the state of their school libraries, and if they are found to be lacking, to campaign for better. After all, school libraries matter, and we need to do everything we can to protect them.

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