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Letter to a Head Teacher

10th Nov 19

ReadingZone is sharing a letter sent by a parent to their child's new secondary school, asking why it doesn't have a professional school librarian - and explaining what the children are missing out by not having one.

(The names in the letter have been withheld)

Dear Head Teacher,

My child has recently joined X School in Year 7 and has settled in happily, been well supported by the school and every member of staff and in short, has had a wonderful transition into Year 7. For this, I will always be incredibly grateful to the school.

However, since my child joined your school, I have become increasingly concerned by the apparent lack of attention given to one important area which is students' reading - not just their reading abilities but to reading beyond the curriculum and for pleasure. A school's interest, in and support for, this area will come straight from the head teacher, which is why my letter is directed to you.

My child's reading outside the classroom - and other Year 7 parents have said the same - has fallen off a cliff since she started at X School, and yet Years 7 and 8 are generally regarded as the 'last chance' years to turn children into readers. It is hugely disappointing to have seen this happen, especially after reading for pleasure was given such a priority in our children's primary schools. Being supported in their reading is, I believe, a fundamental right that every school should extend to every student and I can't see it happening at X School. For this to happen, certain things have to be in place and at the top of the list is having a professional school librarian to run the school library.

I am passionate about children having every opportunity to develop as readers because, as the research demonstrates again and again, it is so fundamental to their academic skills but also general life skills, their mental well being, ability to empathise etc etc.

These were my initial concerns over the Year 7's reading and reading for pleasure, through my own child's experiences:

- The school library is called the 'Study Centre' - which completely removes any sense of the area being available for any form of pleasure or reading for pleasure, only for completing homework

- When we first visited the school, there were no displays or any encouragement to read in the Study Centre which, although it had been newly redecorated, was a somewhat sterile and unwelcoming environment. I saw no change to the room during my recent visit for parents' evening.

- The apparent lack of interest from the school in what students are reading beyond the classroom, or what they were reading before they joined the school. We weren't given a suggested reading list for the summer before they started at the school and, as far as I am aware, they have never been asked which authors they like or what / if they are reading outside the classroom

- You must also be aware that at this age, many of the children will have smart phones for the first time and, in addition to the new pressures of homework, growing up and making new friends, there are many more distractions - so it needs double the amount of effort to encourage them to read. However, I saw no initial signs that the children were being encouraged to read

This is what I am aware of, seven weeks on:

- That my child, along with many (most?) other Year 7 students, has never stepped inside the Study Centre / Library, or been encouraged to visit it, and has yet to be shown how it works or how to borrow a book (actually I want to write that in capitals, I'm so frustrated about it - children don't have the confidence to discover something like this on their own and in a new environment).

- That my child has not - and nor have any of her friends - borrowed a single book from the school library! Is anyone aware of what your borrowing rate is? At other schools it's a litmus test of students' reading and library usage.

- We have been told that students 'might' start to have regular library lessons next term and that the school might introduce DEAR sessions, which are basic (free!) activities that should have started in week one if the school had any interest in supporting students' reading.

- That a reading list we were (eventually) given for our children in Year 7 excludes virtually every fantastic contemporary book / author that should be on there if you want children to actually read the books - in fact there were books on there I didn't even recognise. You have to have someone who is actively engaged in YA (young adult) and children's books to produce an effective, compelling reading list.

- And finally discovering why all of the above is so - when I found out that X School does not have a professional school librarian. Supporting a child's reading at this significant time in their development can't be done by teaching staff alone whose focus is, naturally, academic skills; the librarian is there to do everything else. And, indeed, to support the teachers in reading across the curriculum. Without a professional librarian, what you have in the Study Centre is a room full of books and computers, not a library.

I really want to understand why X School isn't investing in its library, and particularly why you don't have a professional librarian to help engage students in reading and to support teaching across the curriculum? I do know that school budgets are problematic, but every other secondary school in the area has a thriving school library lead by professional, enthused and engaging school librarians. Can I suggest one of your staff visits some of these libraries and feeds back their findings?

Moreover, investing in a professional school librarian - and therefore in students' reading - pays off in bucket loads in terms of academic achievement, students' well being and the general school environment - which I see again and again when I visit schools that do have school librarians.

To follow are the kinds of activities that my child and every student at X School is already missing out on by not having access to a thriving library and professional school librarian - things that they will continue to miss out on during their entire secondary school career, which leaves me feeling incredibly saddened, frustrated and let down by the school:

- No weekly library lesson led by a professional school librarian to help keep the students engaged as readers

- No one to introduce and run an Accelerated Reader programme for the reluctant / struggling readers who need extra support and encouragement to develop those essential reading / life skills

- No opportunities to join a school book group, or graphic novels group, or debating group, or whatever kind of lunch time group every other student with a school librarian is offered (you offer all kinds of club activity - but no reading groups?? Where else are 'readers' encouraged, developed, able to shine?)

- And therefore no opportunity to discover books that are recommended by peers (the best way to get a child to pick up a new book / try out a different genre)

- No chance of becoming a pupil assistant school librarian and supporting other students in their reading journeys, sharing their enthusiasm for books, or developing life skills in helping other students on a one-to-one basis to use the library

- No regular opportunities to engage with a variety of published authors and poets through events and workshops

- Missing out on new authors and books because the school doesn't have a professional librarian to curate the book selection, or to get the students excited enough to try them out, or to suggest new books to stock. What is the library budget like for new books?

- Nowhere to introduce the students to new magazines / newspapers / other kinds of texts that they might not have come across and which good libraries will display and which will be available for students to browse - together with a comfortable, welcoming area to sit and read them

- Fundamentally, no professional to guide the students towards books that will entice them to do their 'expected' 20 mins of reading every day, or to actively promote reading across the school.

Our children will, therefore, have less chance of becoming readers during their school career or indeed, readers for life. How much more will they miss out on?

We are all aware of how important regular reading is - your staff have told us that our children should be reading for 20 minutess every day - but without the school's active support, it has become increasingly difficult to persuade my child to pick up a book, even in our family where reading is seen as an important activity and where we have a house full of books. Every other parent I have spoken to says the same thing.

I have deliberately avoided naming my child, because all of this applies to every single student at X School - being supported in their reading is, again, a fundamental right that every school should provide to every student. In essence, you are handing the job of supporting children as readers - those essential academic, emotional and life skills that students develop as readers - back to the parents and carers. Teaching staff have neither the time, nor the professional skills, to do this work.

Of course the students who are good readers, or who have support at home like mine, will get by - but what about the reluctant readers, or the students with reading difficulties (where librarians become actively engaged in their support), or those students who don't have books at home and whose families aren't readers? School is their one opportunity to be introduced to good books and reading skills - and they are being failed here, again and again. Because without confidence in reading, they will lack confidence in every other area of learning.

What about the students who just need somewhere to go at lunch time that provides a quiet and supportive environment and an adult they can talk to who isn't a teacher; those students who are being bullied, who have problems at home or who just need to know someone is 'there' if they need them? Someone who can guide them to the right book about being LGBT, having friendship issues, dealing with bereavement. School librarians do so much pastoral work around the reading support they give children - they can build trusting relationships with students that it can hard to develop as a teacher.

As a parent I have been doubly disappointed by what I have seen so far because I thought that, at secondary school, at last, my child's reading would launch into a new area of professional support, peer discussion and her discovery - through this network - of fantastic authors and books. She would take off, on her own path, as a reader, with all the other benefits this would bring her. But none of this has happened, the opposite in fact, and the experience of other parents is exactly the same as ours. Our children - many of whom were avid readers at primary school - are no longer reading for pleasure, and I can't express how disappointing and worrying that is for their academic futures.

I do hope that, somehow, there is an opportunity to make a change here. If you want to discuss this, or if I can help in any way to start to make those changes, please do let me know.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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