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School libraries fundamental to pupils’ success

But SA has a lot of catching up to do, writes Kate Sidley

SUNDAY TIMES – Nov 14, 2010 12:00 AM | By Kate Sidley

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At St Stithians Boys College in Johannesburg, the library is quietly buzzing. Pupils meet to discuss groupwork projects. A boy lounges on a sofa with a novel.


Others catch up on their homework or go online to research projects on one of the bank of computers. Library staff are on hand to assist and advise.


Thembelihle Secondary School, in Khayelitsha Town 2, established a library this year with the help of the NGO Equal Education, which donated shelving and 2500 books.


"The library now has fiction, reference books and dictionaries," says principal Bongani Mfikili. "Pupils come to high school unable to read and write well, and we hope this library will help to remedy that shortfall. Having a variety of books makes them more interested in reading. They can stay after school and read, or borrow books.


"Teachers use the library, too, and I even encourage learners who are now in tertiary education to use our powerful library. I am hoping next year to put in five to 10 computers with internet."


Few of South Africa's students are so fortunate. According to the Department of Basic Education, about 79% of public schools do not have libraries (19465 out of 24717).


Those that do have libraries are mainly former model C schools that are funded and staffed through fees and donations.


It's tempting to view a school library as a "nice to have", but teachers say it is fundamental to pupils' academic success.


Doron Isaacs of Equal Education – the NGO behind the Campaign for School Libraries: 1 School, 1 Library, 1 Librarian – says studies show that a functional school library with a librarian can add between 10% and 25% to average pupil outcomes. "Many South African homes do not have books. If grade 1 or 2 children don't read every day, they will never catch up, probably never go to a tertiary institution or be financially secure. It is fundamental to have books at that age," says Isaacs.


Marj Brown, a librarian and head of history at De La Salle Holy Cross College in Victory Park, Johannesburg, says: "The library should be the heart of the school. It's here that children learn how to deal with sources, to stretch their parameters, to see more than one point of view, to debate with themselves and others.


"For a strong civil society and a working democracy, we need inquiring minds and public debate. Freedom of information is not enough without access to information. That's where libraries are so important."


A library is just a start, says Brown, who is behind two initiatives – the Kids Lit Quiz and the Phendulani Quiz – designed to give children the impetus to read and to build up libraries in under-resourced schools.


"Someone has to love books and have a vision of the importance of reading. I've seen schools where books have been donated, but are kept under lock and key, and the children don't have access to them. There's no librarian to catalogue the books or encourage children to read them."


Mary Reynolds, HOD of resources at St Stithians, says the role of librarians has changed.


"A teacher-librarian is critical in terms of teaching the 21st-century skills of information literacy. How do you find information? How to you evaluate it? What do you do with it?"


There are currently no government-funded posts for school librarians. In terms of policy, progress is slow. The National Policy for an Equitable Provision of an Enabling School Physical Teaching and Learning Environment, gazetted on June 11, acknowledges the need for a library in every school.


Isaacs says if school library guidelines are finalised by January 2011, as planned, for the first time democratic South Africa will have a policy on school libraries.


"Unfortunately these will be guidelines without a budget or implementation plan.


"We're encouraged that the department has committed itself to a library in every school in its Action Plan 2014, but the target date is 2030. We need a short-term target too."

School libraries fundamental to pupils’ success