How to breathe new life into the school library

3 pupils in the school library

When Toni Slee took on the library at Farnborough Academy, it was just a room where children were sent to languish when they skipped PE, housing out-of-date book stock. Toni turned this around with the help of a Foyle Foundation grant, and now the library is a place where reading is the norm and students squeal with delight over new books.

School libraries are not statutory, so library provision within each school is entirely down to the head teacher. A change in management, and therefore vision, can have school librarians quaking in their boots. That’s if the school has a librarian. Or a library.

The Foyle Foundation recognises that not all school -libraries are equal, and has set up the School Libraries Programme to help schools plug the gap.

They offer schools the chance to apply for a grant of anything between £1,000 and £10,000. Schools must demonstrate that they are in need of investment and that any assistance given can be sustained through commitment to developing the library.

Priority is given to funding the purchase of library books rather than text books but that they will consider funding other items which would help with the development of a library, such as IT equipment and furniture, but will not fund salaries.

I heard about the Foyle Foundation School Library Programme through the School Librarians’ Network, and thought our school library would fit the criteria. 

Books nearly as old as the school itself

When I took over the library at Farnborough Academy in 2012, it was a room full of books rather than a functioning library and too many of them were nearly as old as the school itself (built in 1954).

As I started compiling my application, I started a mass cull of books: beauty books from 1984; ‘current’ affairs books from the 1970s; and computing books that made the BBC Acorn computers look like cutting edge technology! In no way did they support the curriculum or the interests of the children in the school. 

Low expectations

Until my arrival, the library was just a room to hang out in on rainy days or somewhere to put the kids that had forgotten their PE kit. 

Very few books were issued and the ones that were borrowed were through a couple of enthusiastic English teachers, who insisted their classes come to the library on a regular basis. Otherwise, the collection was so uninspiring that I could completely understand why it was underused.

The library had been in this way for so long that staff didn’t really expect much more from it and it was difficult to convince management that a cash injection was worthwhile, so I decided to apply to the Foyle Foundation for help.

Building the background information

The process is worth taking time over. With only around 1 in 4 applications granted an award, it is competitive. The application is quite detailed so it is necessary to really think about why you are applying, exactly what you need from the grant and what you will do with it.

You also really need to show that there is no way the school can provide the level of funding you need to bring your library up to scratch. Background information about the school is needed, including information about the number of children on free school meals (FSM), the percentage of pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN), and the levels of deprivation in the area.

This is where it really is necessary to talk to the person in charge of data so you have an accurate picture of the background information needed. I found this a useful exercise in understanding the demographics of the school and also of the community and I used the Office of National Statistics website to gather an accurate picture of the community.

Low literacy levels and deprivation

Deprivation was one of the strongest arguments in my application. Our school has a particularly high percentage of pupils on Free School Meals (FSM) and pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN) – both more than 40 per cent. Levels of attainment are low, and some parts of the catchment area are amongst the top 20 per cent of deprived areas in the UK.

Literacy is a real problem and this impacts on attainment, which was below the government’s expectations of a minimum of 40 per cent of pupils attaining five A*-C GCSE grades. I felt that by overhauling the collection, I would be able to encourage reading more easily and this was another strong thread of my application.

By throwing out outdated books and replacing them with up-to-date reading books and books that supported the curriculum, I felt the library would be able to support literacy throughout the school and, in turn, aid attainment.

On this basis, I applied for the full £10,000. The budget I submitted with my application asked for 1,250 books (fiction mainly, but also non-fiction) and 40 audiobooks. I felt this would allow me to update the stock and spark an interest in reading for all pupils but also to support the work teachers do in class. This budget would also allow me to replenish most of the 2,000 books I had discarded.

Book shopping from scratch

I applied in June, and in September I received confirmation that our school’s application was successful.

After collecting topic lists from all faculties, I went shopping. I did it in several stages – £10k is actually pretty tough to spend when you’re trying to overhaul a whole collection!

I went to Peters Booksellers in Birmingham with the head of the Learning Support Unit to spend the bulk of it. She bought books for the SEN cohort and I bought books to support the curriculum. I then bought the bulk of fiction through their online Petranet service, but I also bought from various other places online and in person.

Unpublished titles that I thought might be popular were pre-ordered to arrive throughout the academic year so there was a constant flow of fresh stock arriving in the library.

What impact has the grant had?

The impact of the grant is undisputed. I don’t like to judge a library by its issue numbers but I think I have to mention it. The year before I arrived (2011-12), fewer than 1,500 books were issued in the school, with around 800 pupils on roll. In my first year around 2,500 were issued. This year around 4,500 books have been issued. Having a well-stocked and up-to-date library makes such a difference. 

We have the most up-to-date Tom Gates and Mortal Instruments books, which the pupils love. When the latest Mortal Instruments instalment came out, we had it from its publication date.

A year 10 pupil was in having a moan about how she had reserved it at the local library but they didn’t have it yet. When I said ‘Is this what you’re looking for?’ and pulled the book out (which had only arrived that morning), she was squealing so loudly that everyone was asking what was wrong! 

Now reading is the norm

The constant flow of new books has brought new pupils into the library and now reading is the norm within the library and throughout the school.

In an area where there is nowhere to buy books and many of the children don’t have books at home, having an up-to-date library at school is an asset in encouraging pupils to read. During any break or lunchtime in the library, you will find pupils reading and discussing books.

Pupils are starting to recommend books to other pupils, and I’ve started building a reservations lists for the first time ever. Pupils borrow books for their parents to read and to read to their younger siblings, which I view as wholly positive and it is something I’d like to build on in the future.

The right stock to support study

Most faculties are also using the collection more, either by bringing classes in for research sessions or by ordering a book box to use in class. Having the right stock to support the study needs of the school makes such a difference. Staff are also reading more books from the library.

With an improved collection, I feel like I am in a better position to recommend books to them in the hope that they will enjoy the book then recommend it to their pupils.

School recognition

The grant has undoubtedly given the library a boost and the school has recognised this. The book budget for the library has been tripled and I now have an assistant so I can work more closely with faculties to support research and reading for pleasure using the collection we now have.

It is impossible to show how this grant has impacted on attainment so soon after spending it, but the profile of the library and reading is rising and this has been recognised throughout the school.

Building on the investment

The Foyle Foundation wants to know that the money it provides to invest in the library can provide a service which can be sustained. It awarded 10 £10k grants in 2013, with Farnborough Academy being one of them, and 119 awards totalling £621,150 throughout the course of that year.

Of course, it’s not just the financial investment in the library that has made a difference. I have worked hard to make sure the books we have bought have been used by constantly advocating the -library and its resources. I feel I can confidently say that with a dedicated librarian to concentrate on buying the stock and promoting it, we have fulfilled the aims and objectives of the Foyle Foundation’s School Library Programme.

The library now feels like a library rather than a place to hang out – a place for reading and research. My advice for any applicants would be to really think about how you could use the grant to support the literacy, teaching and learning needs of the school and how you can get the most out of the money you are applying for.

Having £10,000 has been wonderful, but it is only a starting point. There is still a long way to go to build on that investment. 

Do you work in a school library? What do you feel is key to engaging pupils? Let us know in the comments below


Image credit: Farnborough Academy

Update magazine

This article was originally published in CILIP Update Magazine, September 2014.

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