As more public libraries in the UK shut their doors or cut services, the role of the school library becomes even more vital – but there has been a 10% fall in the number of secondary schools with a library. Helen Osgood explains

It seems curious that, in a world where literacy and digital literacy are so important, access to libraries is shrinking at an alarming rate.

In the past decade, the UK has lost almost a fifth of its public libraries (Walton, 2021), despite the significant part they can play in supporting improved outcomes, not only for literacy, but also for health and wellbeing, wider skills, and so much more. Libraries are also a vital public resource for the vulnerable and those on low incomes.

We know that children who read for pleasure make accelerated progress in maths and English compared to those who do not read, but books are expensive and without access to them this accelerated progress is the reserve of the wealthy.

As such, libraries are such a vital support mechanism for our communities. And it doesn’t stop there. Only this year, we saw libraries stepping up to the challenge of families being unable to heat their homes by setting up “warm banks”. The wider events and activities many libraries lay on are also crucial to our communities – especially those who are disadvantaged.

Empty shelves

The cuts to public library provision make the provision of school libraries all the more vital. But not all schools have a library, let alone a librarian. Research from the National Literacy Trust (NLT, 2022) and Great School Libraries coalition (2023) makes for uncomfortable reading.

There has also been a significant drop in secondary schools with a school library – by around 10%. Furthermore, one in seven primary schools does not have a designated library space, and this is even more pronounced across the different parts of the UK.

At primary level, data from the NLT shows a clear North-South divide, with no library at three times the number of primaries in the North East (18%) and North West (16%) compared with the South East (6%). It is perhaps no surprise to note that those two Northern areas have the lowest expected reading levels for children in early years education. Early reading is essential if we want to foster a love of learning, but schools are having to cut their cloth ever further, with many stories of school libraries closing during the pandemic and never opening again. This is exacerbating the gap between rich and poor as children who do not have access to books at home are the ones most reliant on school and public libraries.

A 2022 Ofsted report into the importance of good literacy noted the role highly skilled librarians play in inspiring learners, but fewer and fewer schools can afford such critical staff. Librarians are key in ensuring books are purchased to inspire readers and to meeting their diverse needs, making such a difference to pupils’ enjoyment of reading as well supporting struggling readers.

The librarian can also play a key role in supporting teachers and reducing workload through leading on online reading assessments and other activities and interventions.

A vibrant library is one that has an impact. Researchers have found “a considerable body of evidence showing libraries’ impact on: higher test or exam scores; successful curriculum or learning outcomes, including digital and information literacy, and positive attitudes towards learning” (Williams et al, 2013). This hasn’t changed.

In its report, Ofsted notes the improvement in pupil confidence and motivation, with greater engagement in class. School libraries also help pupils to develop vital research skills.

Cost-of-living cuts

The cost-of-living crisis has meant that many public libraries have had to make savings and shrink their stock of books, cutting staff and reducing their opening hours just at a time when families, also looking to save money, are increasingly visiting their local library.

School libraries, too, are having their budgets cut, and yet the cost of purchasing new books and resources is increasing all the time.

On the plus side, some schools have sought to involve pupils in running their libraries. Yes, they need to be trained and overseen, but the time invested in training will pay dividends when these pupils are able to help guide others and change displays to maintain excitement in the library.

Libraries don’t neatly fit into a box. They have the power to unite subjects and people across the school.

As Sofia Akel, founder of the Free Books Campaign, which works to get free books into homes that need them, said: “Access to books is important for many reasons, from developing the essential reading and writing skills needed to navigate the education system and beyond, to also providing fertile ground for children of all backgrounds to explore their creativity, fuel their imagination and, for some, be their escape and reprieve from the harsh realities of living under austerity.

“The power of books cannot be undermined – many would agree that education is a basic human right and by the same token access to books must also be a universal right. As for some, it holds the keys to a brighter future.”

  • Helen Osgood is national officer for education and early years with Community Union. Read her previous articles for SecEd via

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