​Three great reasons to ensure the library is the cultural hub of your school

Posted on 1st May 2020 in School News, Prep Schools Guide

Sarah Morris, Headmistress of Birchfield Preparatory School, Shropshire, believes the school library is ‘a window to the world’...

It remains a universally accepted truth that confidence with early reading skills forms the cornerstone of future academic success and thus we encourage our children to read and enjoy sharing stories from the very first moment they are ready. The real game-changer in academic development, however, is the art of inspiring a passion for the written word outside school too and encouraging our young learners to curl up with a book in their own time, eschewing digital entertainment for the more traditional pastime of entering a magical world of adventure through books. That inspiration starts at the school library; an often under-utilised resource in this modern world of screens and digital attractions.

It is tempting, in a growing school to take over the traditional library space, perhaps with computer screens or a smaller non-fiction section. After all, we are repeatedly told that children’s interest in the paper book is waning. Yet, put simply, looking at pictures in a book teamed with the tactile experience of handling the book are both key sensory experiences. As adults we often wax lyrical about the touch and feel of a new book. The particular aroma of the untouched and freshly printed page is a thing of joy. The design of the cover and the promise of an engaging story that it suggests kick start the reader’s imagination. The anticipation of opening the first page and losing ourselves can calm the most fractious mind.

It is our great responsibility as educators to pass on this sensory experience to our young charges. Libraries have a duty to be the cultural hub of the school. In this environment children are exposed to art, culture and the nature of different perspectives and perceptions through the pages of a humble book. I like to think of the library as a window to the world, right on our doorstep, where the blinds are never down to withhold that opportunity for a new and inspiring view.

Here are three great reasons for ramping up your library provision:

1. Creating ‘Casual Discovery’

In the book shop, browsing can be fun, but sometimes leads to costly mistakes, with a child feeling pressure to complete a book that was purchased for them, making for potential demotivation. Allowing children to browse in the school library and pick up a title that takes their fancy gives control to the child and allows them to ‘test drive’ a suitable book with no risk. Children often choose based on the attractiveness of the book cover and the library provides them with a low risk ‘change of mind’ opportunity. Allowing safe casual discovery within a structured framework is the key to success and highly motivated young readers. There is a great feeling of satisfaction when I hear a pupil recommending a book they have ‘discovered’ to another child, or giving a short verbal review.

2. Building personal growth and responsibility

Children may be used to their parents and guardians doing most things on their behalf, but give them a little responsibility and they will fly. The school library is the perfect breeding ground for positive personal growth and responsibility. In our school library we run a dual responsibility system, in which our pupils not only run the library at break and lunchtimes, but support our youngest pupils in book selection. The supervising teacher stands back and allows them to make decisions about library layout and displays, signing out books and chasing and administering returns. When the inevitable mistake occurs, children are asked to work out a solution themselves. For book borrowers, there is undoubted satisfaction in being seen as trustworthy enough to sign for their own book and ensure its safe and timely return.

3. Creating a sanctuary for well-being

The school library should be a place of life. That is to say that it should act as a hub for children who wish to indulge in their curiosity for the world. Wherever there’s a crowd, others gravitate towards it. However, this crowd should be quiet and purposeful, respecting first and foremost the book and the other readers. A calm and ordered environment creates the perfect ambience for young readers to learn, explore identity and look through that metaphorical window on the world. Classrooms and playgrounds can be noisy and intimidating places where the competition to have a voice can be fierce. The library is neutral ground, a sanctuary, and is hugely important as a space where children can feel relaxed and able to be quiet and reflective. The effect this has on well-being cannot be underestimated.

I believe passionately that the gift of reading is a gift for life, not only enhancing academic development, but supporting personal well-being and growth throughout life. Building this inspiration and focus naturally starts in the classroom and with a strong library provision, with Birchfield boasting a traditional and colourful library hosting over 6,500 titles for young and curious minds. Our wonderful facility is the hub of reading at Birchfield and today forms the basis of an exciting new reading initiative.

A brand new bespoke reading scheme has just been launched at Birchfield which is already filling up the library with keen pupils from our Pre-Prep Department to Year 8. Each pupil is firstly assessed on their understanding of a text, and titles offered to match their personal requirements, whether by age or content, gaining points and prizes and moving into more challenging sections as they go. Targeted reading reduces the chances of children selecting books which are too challenging and demotivating and this approach is already paying dividends with Birchfield pupils. I am delighted with the positive impact of the new scheme upon the pupils and know how much their improved comprehension will add value to their overall future academic success.

If you would like to find out more about our passion for reading development, please call us to arrange a personal visit. Telephone 01902 372534 or email www.birchfieldschool.co.uk

This article first appeared in John Catt's Preparatory Schools 2020, which you can read here: