Much has been written about the differences in quality between North American and British school libraries. The majority of this writing seems to be anecdotal and informal, but there have been some recent scholarly attempts to study this issue.
North American, especially those in the United States, school libraries are often considered to be a model for other countries. There, school librarians are often dually qualified teachers and librarians. Exact qualification requirements vary by state, but it is generally understood that a school librarian should have knowledge of pedagogy as well as information management. This enables the librarian to create a library programme that is fully integrated into the curriculum, rather than an ancillary book lending service.
US school libraries are often noted for their funding and staffing levels. Even though this has been under threat due to the recession, school libraries in the US still fare better than their counterparts in the UK. There seems to be more of an agreement in the US that library assistants or part-time clerical assistants are needed to allow librarians to concentrate on professional duties. Library budgets in the US also tend to be much higher than library budgets in the UK, where spending per pupil is often as low as £2, despite CILIP recommendations that secondary school libraries be funded at £14 per pupil.
Of course, it is important to note that the American school libraries I praise are typically those found in middle class or affluent public school districts and private schools. Poorer, inner city schools suffer from poor quality or an absence of school libraries, and that is an issue that I would like to explore in greater detail another day.
The question I would like to address today is “Why are there such glaring differences in the quality of UK school libraries in comparison to US school libraries?” Whilst there may be some UK school libraries that perform better than US school libraries (and vice versa), the general consensus seems to be that, on the whole, US school libraries are “better.” Some say this is down to funding, others claim it is to do with the level of training US school librarians/teacher-librarians receive, but I argue that curriculum is a major factor.
Despite the recent education reform debates and the standardized exam crisis that has resulted from the No Child Left Behind legislation, educational achievement in the US is still largely measured by individual schools (again, this is more true of affluent public schools and private schools). Assessments are done internally, and although university-bound students do take standardized exams such as the SAT or ACT, their college admissions are largely based on their high school grades, which are awarded by their class teachers. Although US educators understand that part of the purpose of school is to prepare students for university and employment, most are appalled by the idea that education be reduced to a mere sorting mechanism for higher education or the workforce.
UK schools, on the other hand, are quite clearly a sorting mechanism, although dedicated teachers understand that their role goes beyond this. Acceptance to most British universities is based largely on external exam results (Highers or Advanced Highers in Scotland or A-levels in England). The rationale behind this is that it leads to a more straightforward, equitable university admissions process. The downside, of course, is that many schools spend the bulk of their time preparing senior pupils for these exams. The lower a school’s record of exam achievement, the more likely a school is to spend the majority of class time on exam preparation.
The purpose of this post is not to determine whether the British system of assessment is any better or worse than the American system, but I wanted to acknowledge the differences in the way school achievement is measured as I believe this has a tremendous impact on the way school libraries are used and measured. Whereas school librarians in the US might work closely with class teachers to design, implement, and assess rigorous research projects for 11th or 12th grade students, a school librarian in the UK is less likely to have this opportunity. UK school librarians are more likely to be asked to provide quiet places for exam revision or revision guides. In a slightly better scenario, they might be asked to provide some research instruction for Advanced Higher investigations or essays, but like classroom teachers, they are still at the mercy of the qualifications authorities. They simply do not have the flexibility of their US colleagues, which is an important aspect to keep in mind when doing comparative studies.