Earlier this week, I received an email from a sixth year pupil at Oban High School. (Note, that’s Scottish sixth year – final year of secondary school, as opposed to English year six in primary school). It was a depressing cherry on top of what had already been a pretty bleak week. Here’s what it said:
Dear Barry Hutchison,
We are students at Oban High School and we are writing to you because we are concerned about a recent announcement which affects us and we hoped that you might be able to draw public attention to the situation.
Recently announced cuts to the council budget in Argyll and Bute mean that, along with other high schools in the region, our school librarian has lost her job and our school library is to be closed as a result.
Obviously this will have a massive impact on the amount of reading that pupils do as we will no longer have access to books or dedicated library periods. But our librarian does so much more. She promotes the library and reading for pleasure, running a book club and a poetry club. She organises library inductions for all pupils. She organised visiting authors as well as taking us on trips to the Edinburgh Book Festival, to Authors Live and to the finals of the Children’s Book Awards. We live in Oban, so these opportunities are not on our doorstep and we won’t get then without Miss Black.
We know that you are very busy, but we feel like something should be done. If you get the chance, please would you mention our situation to reinforce the importance of school librarians and school libraries and to try to stop this happening anywhere else. As school pupils we feel as if we don’t have a voice, but we were hoping you might speak on our behalf.
(on behalf of pupils at Oban High School)
I remember seeing the announcement earlier this year that Argyll & Bute council was planning cutting all their secondary school librarians. Like most people at the time, I grumbled about how awful and short-sighted it was, what a loss it was to the pupils, and then pretty much just went about my day.
It wasn’t until I received this email from Bridget that the full enormity of it really hit me. The librarian at Oban High School has now lost her job, and the school library – what I’d consider to be one of the most important resources of any school – is to be closed.
Let me simplify that: A place of learning has no access to books.
You know books, right? Those things designed to impart knowledge, information, wisdom and all that stuff? Those things which are essentially custom-made to help grow minds? Yeah, those aren’t freely available at Oban High School anymore.
There are countless studies which directly link achievement levels of school pupils to the availability of library access. Don’t believe me? Look here or here or here or here or… you get the picture. With all the critically-reviewed evidence available, there can be no doubt that pupils with access to a school library go on to achieve more than pupils without. That’s not opinion, that’s repeatedly proven statistical fact.
More than that, though, reading for pleasure is vitally important to people’s development at any age, but even more so during the formative teenage years. Reading fiction teaches us empathy by making us walk in someone else’s shoes, lets us gain insights into points of view we may never have considered, allows us to leave our worries behind for a while as we get pulled into new worlds. It is often said that we gain knowledge from non-fiction books, but only truly learn through fiction.
It is a legal requirement for prisons in Scotland to have access to a staffed library. And rightly so, for all those reasons mentioned above. Helping develop prisoners’ empathy for others can only be a good thing.
However, there is no legal requirement for schools in Scotland to have access to a library. None. And do you know what one of the biggest indicators of areas most likely to be high in crime is? Low literacy levels. The lower the literacy levels of an area or group, the more likely they are to be criminals. Look, here’s a report on that, too.
So, correct me if I’m wrong, but one of the best ways of helping to keep people out of prison in the first place, is to give them every possible chance of improving their literacy skills. That would just seem to be common sense, right?
But, again, there is no legal requirement for schools in Scotland to have access to a library.
Even if we take books out of the equation completely, a school librarian is a vital resource in any functioning school. Let’s look at this paragraph from Bridget’s email again:
But our librarian does so much more. She promotes the library and reading for pleasure, running a book club and a poetry club. She organises library inductions for all pupils. She organised visiting authors as well as taking us on trips to the Edinburgh Book Festival, to Authors Live and to the finals of the Children’s Book Awards. We live in Oban, so these opportunities are not on our doorstep and we won’t get then without Miss Black.
I’m one of the visiting authors Miss Black arranged to come in to Oban High School – the picture at the top of the page is me doing my first talk of the day. I’ve seen first-hand the effect an author visit, or going to see an author at a festival can have on pupils of all ages. I’ve seen how motivated they can become to read, write, and start to take more enjoyment from books. I’ve seen how hearing an author talk about striving to achieve their dreams can inspire students to reach for their own, whatever they may be.
Argyll & Bute’s decision to get rid of their school librarians – and, by extension, libraries – doesn’t just mean they’ve cut off access to books. It means they’ve deliberately narrowed the horizons of thousands of children currently studying in the area, and potentially hundreds of thousands to come. It means they’ve made the choice to put all school pupils in the area at a disadvantage when it comes to exams, college, university, and just making their way in the world. They haven’t done this by accident. They have made that choice.
But it’s not too late to make a different choice. I urge everyone reading this to take a few minutes to sign this petition to try to get Argyll & Bute council to reconsider its decision. Don’t do it for me, though. Do it for Bridget, and for all the thousands of pupils at schools across Argyll & Bute. And not just them – do it for pupils at schools all across the UK, who risk losing their own school libraries if this mindset that libraries are a luxury we can do without doesn’t change.
And do it for Miss Black, who I can confirm is just as awesome as she sounds!
Bridget contacted several other authors to ask for their help in raising awareness of the library closures, and several of us are planning to get together to do just that. Watch this space for more details.
You can also lend your support by following Oban High School Library on Twitter, and sharing their tweets.