Schools with no library for people of the book?

By Keren David, October 6, 2011
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Mazaltov to King David High School in Liverpool as it settles into its new £25m building. Last week in the JC, the head and governors were showing off glossy classrooms, dazzling whiteboards and many, many computer screens.

However one sentence made me choke on my breakfast and - assuming my family were to move to Liverpool – vow that no child of mine would ever attend King David. "In another advance on tradition," it read, "there is no school library."

Tradition can be double-edged. On the one hand it holds us back, on the other it defines who we are. Jews know that better than most. I'm all for getting rid of educational traditions that hold back children and give them an uncomfortable, backward-looking education. Few miss corporal punishment, rote-learning and dunce's caps.

But how is getting rid of a school library progress? What can replace a well-stocked library, where children are encouraged to read fiction and non-fiction? Where else can they browse books in a variety of subjects - including those they do not study – read expert opinions and have a break from the fact-cramming, box-ticking, keyword-spewing curriculum imposed by politicians?

I vowed that no child of mine would ever attend King David

Pupils at King David High School will "have facilities for books" but "most research work will be undertaken online". There's no mention of a librarian. I imagine if there is one her job is to wander around the school trying to locate books and readers.

I should declare an interest, beyond being a mother of secondary age children. I am the author of books for teenagers, and some of my income comes from being invited to speak in schools. I've visited schools where children are encouraged by outstanding librarians to read and discuss challenging literature - and reluctant readers are helped to find books which kick-start their interest. I've seen libraries which are a refuge for shy, lonely kids who don't feel secure in the noisy playground. I've talked to those who are inspired by the books in the library to imagine themselves as writers one day. In a library it doesn't matter how much money you have, or whether you're an A* student.

I visited a school in Manchester which had gone the King David route in its award-winning multi-million pound new building. Four shelves of paperbacks in a classroom housed the only fiction available for the 790 pupils. There was no librarian. It is the only school I have visited where a boy boasted that he "never reads books with words in them". This didn't feel like a great advance on tradition - more a tragedy for the pupils.

This school and King David are following a trend. Computers are touted as the future of education, not dusty old books. School librarians are sacked, and book budgets slashed. Britain's heads and governors use progress as a fig-leaf, while they trash the intellectual heart of their schools.

Private schools, in contrast, value their libraries and arrange regular author visits. The lack of a library increasingly denotes social inequality. Parents should not be dazzled by technology. A good librarian in a well-used library is just as important.

Perhaps those responsible for getting rid of school libraries have never experienced the solace of a good book. They under-estimate literature's power when they downgrade education to research by website.

The stridently anti-Israel organisers of last week's Tottenham Palestine Literary
Festival well understood the impact of books in schools. They were keen to involve local schools in workshops and writing
competitions, to - they said - encourage
children to emphasise with those living under occupation. It took Education Secretary Michael Gove to dissuade two schools from taking part in this politically biased event, leading to predictable squeaks of outrage. Former Children's Laureate Michael Rosen called the ban "draconian", even though the festival went ahead and children were free to attend weekend workshops and win certificates for their imagined accounts of life under the Israeli jackboot.

What a shame, I thought, that the festival was so clearly unbalanced. Why not bring Israeli and Palestinian writers together in schools – let's leave out Mr Rosen and other compassionate bystanders – and show children both sides of the conflict?

The obvious place for such a festival would be Jewish and Muslim schools. Both sets of pupils are well-versed in their own side of the conflict, a joint initiative could spread mutual respect and understanding.

The best schools to plan and promote a joint venture would be those with a strong Jewish ethos and a high proportion of non-Jewish pupils. Perhaps King David - despite its lack of a library - could take the lead?

Keren David latest novel is Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery (Frances Lincoln)

    Last updated: 10:10am, October 6 2011