Pupil Library Assistant of the Year Award A Reflection

It all started in the autumn of 2010 with Alan Gibbons’ Campaign for the Book. Library cuts were all over the press and authors, librarians and many interested supporters started lobbying the government. Less noticed was the quiet closure of many school libraries together with the redundancy of school librarians, a formerly quiescent and biddable group of people. With a local colleague I organised a Public Meeting which was attended by over one hundred people from all walks of life, not just schools or libraries. They were aghast at what was happening without a lot of fuss. As far as schools were concerned, that was all about to change.

It was one of the proudest evenings of my life when two of my pupils spoke publicly with passion and commitment about their school library. They were then in Year 10 and had been regular users of the library, book club members, Carnegie Shadowers, library helpers and much more for years. They said afterwards that they rather took their library for granted and could not believe that every child in the country did not have what they had and, indeed, that prisoners had a right to a library but not school children.

Two years later, in the autumn of 2012, those same pupils along with others came along with me to the Mass Lobby of Parliament for School Libraries organised by Barbara Band who subsequently became President of CILIP. Tom wrote in his blog, which was published in The Day: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of a school library”. I am paraphrasing the American Constitution here a little, but the basic principle still stands: I believe that every pupil in the country is entitled to have access to a library within their educational institution. Certainly, in this respect I was proven yesterday to be by no means alone, as over ninety British citizens gathered in London to stage a lobby in the hope of one day convincing our current government to make school libraries a statutory requirement nationwide. Sadly, that has not yet happened, but those pupils met with Liz Truss, the then Schools’ Minister, and Justin Tomlinson, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Libraries. The meeting was judged a success when the Minister for Schools commissioned the APPG to conduct a full investigation into the benefits of school libraries and why some headteachers fail to recognise their value.

The Award It was the support of pupils for the Lobby that first gave Barbara the idea for a Pupil Library Award. We all knew of amazing work done and support given to our school libraries by pupils but this was very rarely recognised, even within schools themselves. Pupils that help in their school library gain valuable skills and experience that they can transfer to the workplace. They become a valued part of the library team and often the school librarian could not manage without them. However, it is more than learning skills and loaning books. Barbara felt that a national award would reflect the synergy that occurs between pupils and libraries. We know this happens because we see it all the time but so many people don’t even know it exists. They think of the library as a static place full of resources. They have no idea of the pastoral role that libraries can play, the difference they can make to individuals, especially at crucial, important, emotional times in their lives.

When Barbara asked me to be involved in the autumn of 2013, I jumped at the chance. After all, I had been the beneficiary of some amazing pupils. In order to make it inclusive and to foster collaboration, we wanted it to be a joint award between the School Library Association and CILIP School Libraries Group, of which I was then a national committee member. The resources and expertise of both groups would be used and we felt it would reach a wider audience with the joint promotion. We also felt that using the template of the SLA School Librarian of the Year would add gravitas to the award and give us a set of guidelines to use.

It has worked well. We consulted with both groups over the criteria and guidelines and the judging panel consisted of people from both organisations covering a range of schools including primary, secondary and School Library Services, as well as consultancy experience. This wide range of experiences brought different perspectives to the process, not everyone looked at the nominees through the eyes of the school librarian. The Chair will alternate each year between the SLA and the SLG. There is a growing number of examples of literacy organisations working together and this ensures a louder and stronger voice which has far more impact in the wider world.

The inaugural award was launched at the SLG biennial conference in April 2014 and was promoted heavily at that and at the SLA Conference in Manchester in June that year. We hoped for perhaps a dozen entries in our first year but were amazed and delighted when the final tally reached 57 entries! Truly we had struck a chord and filled a need. At the SLA Conference, Barbara and I delivered a seminar on “Pupil Power” and discovered lots of good work going on in school libraries around the country with regional awards even being in place in some areas. We worked hard on the criteria with many discussions about eligibility but in the end decided that we wanted this award to reflect real commitment. That is why we decided on a minimum of two years’ service at senior school level and this decision has been vindicated with the quality of the entries of this first award. Although pupils working in junior school libraries were discussed, it was felt that they would be quite likely to volunteer at their senior school and eventually be nominated.

That is one of the real strengths of the award: that the pool of pupils available for nomination is constantly changing as older pupils leave the school and younger ones take their place. The Award was intended to provide recognition of the skills and experience gained by pupils within the library. Skills that will serve them well in life and are valued by employers: customer service, team working, discipline, reliability, using initiative, the list goes on. The Award would also be a means of advocacy for the school library and the librarian. The pupil has to be nominated by a school librarian and cannot win unless the school has a library. The achievement of being shortlisted is a direct reflection of the school librarian and a national award raises this awareness within schools. It shows the wide role that libraries play within schools; not just a place to borrow books and read but as a facilitator and provider of information and digital literacy skills, supporting education and teaching.

The Criteria and Nominations Our criteria for nomination shadowed the School Librarian of the Year Award and the SLA kindly provided certificates for all the shortlisted nominees. The criteria were:

  • Personal qualities

  • Examples of particular contribution (i.e. helping other pupils, taking part in Pupil Committee, helping with library web pages, helping with displays, etc.)

  • Role Model (describe how the nominee is a role model for other pupils and supports the goals and vision of the school library)

  • Reader and Library User (describe the reading and library habits of the nominee)

  • Promotion (describe how the nominee promotes the school library)

There were some very strong candidates indeed with glowing accolades from their librarian and Headteacher under these headings. It was a real joy to read about all these young people who gave up so much of their time but, more importantly, were passionate about what they were doing. If only they could all become school librarians in the future!

The closing date for nominations was the end of October and the Judging Panel then had the task of reading through the 57 nominations and trying to pick out the best. This was very difficult as every single one had been nominated with such pride and had something to commend them to us. The Judging Panel met in early January and spent an entire day going through and discussing every nomination. It had been intended to have a shortlist of six but, in the event, seven worthy candidates were shortlisted. They were:

  • Abbie Craske from Aylsham High School in Norfolk, citation by Caroline Lawrence;

  • Francesca Hannay from Derby High School, citation by Teri Terry;

  • James Kearney from The King’s School, Grantham, citation by Tim Collins;

  • Jessica Ince from Heritage High School in Clowne, Derby, citation by Lucy Coats;

  • Megan Gardner from King James’ School in Almondbury, Huddersfield, citation by Sufiya Ahmed;

  • Morgan Boswell from Wilsthorpe Community School in Long Eaton, Nottinghamshire, citation by Jeff Norton;

  • Olivia Bowes from Antrim Grammar School in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, citation by Cliff McNish.

The Award Ceremony We were absolutely delighted that every finalist was able to attend the Award Ceremony which took place at the BT Centre on 12th March 2015. BT provided a venue worthy of the event and the students came from every part of the United Kingdom. The community of authors did us proud. Every pupil had an author to champion them, read their citation and, of course, have a photo opportunity. Charlie Higson was our Guest Speaker and entertained the room with a fascinating talk about his life and work. Other authors who supported the event were Dawn Finch (also a judge), Sarah Naughton, Lindsey Barraclough and Lydia Syson. The event was sponsored by Authors Aloud UK, Hachette Publishing Children’s Group, Macmillan Children’s Books, Peters Books and Furniture and Puffin Books. Due to their generosity every finalist went home with a fantastic goodie bag of signed books. The importance of the event was also demonstrated by the attendance of Kevin Crossley-Holland, President of the SLA, and Lord Tope, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Libraries. It was important to get the balance right between a celebration of something real and worthwhile whilst having a great time. There was a real party atmosphere and, as each citation was read by their supporting author, the excitement mounted. Our winner, voted for unanimously by the judges, was Abbie Craske from Aylsham High School in Norfolk. Abbie’s Headteacher, Mr Duncan Spalding, says that Abbie is an invaluable support to the librarian team at Alysham High School and that being a pupil librarian has transformed her from a quiet pupil lacking in confidence to a self-assured young adult. The judges felt that Abbie demonstrated that “synergy between pupil and library”: the library was a better place with Abbie in it and Abbie was a better person for having discovered and then championed her school library in so many ways.

The Future We have, of course, learnt a great deal from this first award and will make small, but significant changes. We would like to encourage schools to have their own internal awards so will only take one nomination per school in future. We will also require that the nominee is still at the school which nominates them. The 2016 Award will be chaired by Lin Smith, Past Chair of the SLA and the 2015 judges have all elected to stay on the panel. We hope that we will be as well supported by authors and publishers, all of whom this year were delighted to be part of the Award and fulsome in their praise of the part played by the young people who they came to support. We intend to work hard to increase media coverage. So little is known about all the good work carried out by these pupils and many others, not to mention their school librarians. This needs to be shouted from the roof tops and it would be a real achievement if we could interest the TES, Guardian Education and other educational publications. If the library profession is to be valued by all schools and their teaching staff, the work of these committed young library assistants and this award may just be the promotion we need.

The last word must go to the first Pupil Library Assistant of the Year, Abbie Craske: “I became library captain in September 2014. At our school’s Open Evening in October, I was proud to tell parents and prospective students about the work we do in the library and how wonderful our library is. In the beginning it was an escape from life - now it enhances my life. It has made such a difference to me, and it is a privilege to give something back to the place I love.”

Sue Bastone LVS Ascot https://about.me/suebastone

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