I have been doing quite a bit of thinking recently regarding the trend in outsourcing school services in the United Kingdom. Outsourcing in education is not a new development; schools and universities throughout the world have been outsourcing “non-educational” services for years in an attempt to save money and improve the efficiency of services. Services that have traditionally been outsourced include janitorial, catering, and transportation services. Whilst the decision to outsource can have a tremendous impact on the people performing the services and the communities in which they work, most would agree that these services fall under the category of “non-educational” or “ancillary” support services.
There is, however, debate as to whether it is appropriate to categorise ICT and library services as a “non-educational” support services. Many would argue that ICT and library professionals serve a distinct educational role, and their services are vital to the instructional aims of the school. Indeed, some advocates of library services go so far as to claim that the library is “the heart of the school” and librarians are uniquely positioned to coordinate interdisciplinary projects. ICT professionals with educational expertise can help teachers understand how educational technology can be used to streamline traditional tasks, as well as open up new possibilities for student collaboration and assessment.
School librarians especially are encouraged to become actively involved in the teaching and learning aspects of the school. Over the past two decades, there has been a shift away from library instruction, in which pupils learned research skills in isolation, towards integrated information literacy instruction that emphasises the importance of research in curricular context. It seems reasonable to question whether school librarians and teachers will be able to form successful collaborative relationships if librarians are perceived as providing a service to the school, rather than becoming integral members of the school community. Whilst the decision to transfer school library services to charitable trusts has rightly acknowledged the role of librarians in providing access to resources, the teaching role of school librarians needs to be examined.
Unlike their counterparts in North America or Australia, most school librarians in the United Kingdom are not qualified teachers, yet many do perform formal and informal instruction in research skills. Although it is rare for school librarians to seek formal teaching qualifications, many engage in CPD that allows them to develop their knowledge of pedagogy and improve their teaching techniques. They are usually managed by a member of the senior management team (SMT) who helps ensure that the librarian is working successfully across all departments to meet learning goals.
Whilst collection development and resource provision remain important aspects of a librarian’s job, they are not the only duties. As more content becomes freely available online, the role of librarian has shifted from that of information gatekeeper to information guide. Education librarians now believe that instructing others in the evaluation, synthesis, and ethical use of information is now a core duty. The most innovative librarians go even further and help their students become knowledge creators and teach them how to create a responsible digital footprint.
One wonders what will happen to the collaborative relationship between ICT professionals, teachers, and librarians when they are line managed by separate organisations and responsible for adhering to different services level agreements (SLAs). There are already examples of outsourced ICT services in English schools in which the service provider failed to produce any savings. Whilst the economics of outsourcing remains a concern, my primary preoccupation is with the effects the outsourcing is having on learning and teaching. Will we start to see noticeable differences in the quality of education in Scottish schools that have chosen to outsource these (arguably, core) services versus those that have retained in-house services?