Working with pupil library assistants in primary schools

Lucy Chambers shares ideas for running successful pupil library assistant programs that empower students, build their confidence and create lifelong readers.

Background

I am a member of a team of professional primary school librarians in the Schools Library Service (SLS) in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets is in central London and has a mixed demographic, ranging from some of the wealthiest people to some of the poorest. My schools are made up of more than 50 per cent Pupil Premium students (a measure of poverty), and many EAL students.

Introduction

Pupil library assistants (PLAs) assist the librarian: they are not, as is sometimes thought, a cheap way of running the facility. PLAs’ work provides genuine benefits to the school library, the wider school community, and themselves. PLAs:

  • act as positive role models to encourage others to read
  • develop ‘ownership’ of the school library and a sense of pride in its facilities and opportunities 
  • raise the profile of the school library
  • help the librarian with tasks including shelving, tidying, book-processing and library promotion 
  • learn skills that are useful for the future such as responsibility, organisation, communication, and teamwork
  • grow in self-esteem and confidence, and feel empowered
  • may gain an improved attitude toward education.

Each year, the UK School Library Association and CILIP School Libraries Group run a national competition for secondary schools called the Pupil Library Assistant of the Year Award. A nominee acknowledged the mutual gain of the PLA experience: ‘Being a pupil library assistant has had a phenomenal impact on me; not only as a pupil but also as a person. I love unlocking new doors for others but some have also been unlocked for me’ (cited in Finch 2015).

PLAs in Tower Hamlets primary schools

I work with PLAs in all my schools, as do some of my colleagues. How I manage them and what they do depends on communications and expectations within the school, how much time they can commit, and how much training I can give them. I find that the job develops gradually, depending on the children involved and school management factors.

When talking to the head teacher about PLAs, I say that it is not just about helping in the library, but also about students developing aspirations and citizenship skills for use in class and beyond.

How to recruit PLAs

PLAs complete application forms and have a job description. I select children who offer statements such as ‘I like reading’, ‘I like helping tidy at home/in class’, or ‘I like organising’. I also talk to the class teachers about any children they think would rise to the challenge. These are often the ones who don’t write a brilliant application form or won’t apply due to low self-esteem. PLAs come from years 4 and 5 (eight- or nine-year-olds) and work in the library for the whole school year. They commit to attending one session a week to work, and regular team meetings. I have a dedicated message book so that they can write down queries and problems to discuss.

I train PLAs in basic library tidying skills, and issuing and returning books using the LMS. I also give them tasks where they can use their initiative to promote reading. The PLAs suggest ideas, which I encourage them to undertake. These have included book and author posters, competitions, displays, a Lucky Dip box to widen children’s reading choices, Top Ten reads, book talk at assemblies, reading books to younger children, and displays about their roles.

In some schools, I work with the PLAs once a week, but in others I am unable to do this. In the former, I follow a training program for wider librarian skills. In the latter, PLAs have specific jobs, such as tidying the shelves and returning books.

Challenges

There are a couple of challenges we face in delivering the PLA program at our schools. The first revolves around data protection. There is currently debate about whether students should be able to log in independently for fear that they access confidential information. The other is related to health and safety rules. While some schools do not encourage children to walk around the school with no teacher present — let alone work in the library independently — others do.

Rewards

I offer rewards to students in the form of new books, bookmarks, and stickers, which are usually acquired free from publishers, exhibitions, or review websites. If I organise an author visit, I ensure that my PLAs also attend and assist. All PLAs have been given a special badge to wear.

Case studies

Columbia Primary School

I am only in the school 3.5 hours per week, and I rely on PLAs to keep the library tidy during the week. Before they started, I received no help with shelving and the library was constantly messy. I spent too much time tidying up and was unable to strategically manage the library or plan events. Users complained that they could not find books on the shelves. The school could offer me no teaching assistant help. I chose three PLAs at a time to attend the library independently to shelve books, replace book displays, and tidy up.

Activities, challenges and outcomes

There were initial school organisational issues with children visiting the library without a teacher. The library is locked when no classes are in. The head teacher resolved this by talking to the lunch staff and assigning playground buddies (also children) to accompany the PLAs, unlocking the library for them himself.

Teachers commented that the children are now excellent reading champions in class, and that they encourage everyone to tidy up the library. The PLAs feel empowered, enjoying the responsibility and challenge of the role. They operate the message book system well, sharing problems and making suggestions for books to buy. Some children do not turn up, but the team has taken it upon themselves to find new, more reliable PLAs. Over the year, the PLAs have gained confidence and self-esteem.

Globe Primary School

Globe Primary School has a long-established system of pupil responsibility to develop independence and citizenship skills, with jobs ranging from office helpers, to the FAB anti-bullying team, to bankers (who count money), to assembly ushers. PLAs are included in this system, which is fortunate as I am only present in the school seven hours per week.

Activities, challenges and outcomes

For the past three years, the PLA team of 9- to 11-year-olds has run the library independently for regular KS2 (students from years 3 to 6) drop-in sessions. An anticipated problem was behaviour management, but the PLAs have developed the confidence to deal with this effectively, knowing where to get adult help if necessary.

I run a library skills training session weekly. Topics include cataloguing and classification, and bibliographic data for ordering books. So that they could gain experience ordering, the PLAs completed an order from beginning to end, over a couple of weeks.

The group has had many ideas for library development and I encourage them to put these into practice, following staff liaison and approval. One such idea was running a World Book Day quiz in class where the PLAs read out questions and marked the answer sheets.

The literacy coordinator works with the PLA team to help with whole-school reading events, such as book swaps, family reading promotions, and book sales.

The PLAs at Globe Primary School were the only primary school team taking part in a CILIP SLG-run PLA training event in a secondary school, and were very inspired by it. They discussed how they would handle different difficult library problems and presented a brief description about their role in front of 300 students.

Teachers comment that the PLAs are increasingly confident in class and are also excellent at promoting reading to their peers. Their self-esteem has risen as their sense of independence has been nurtured in a safe environment. They have become confident at sharing their ideas with school staff and in other scenarios. Not least, they have become skilled PLAs, winning the Tower Hamlets primary school PLA award for the past three years — the national offering is for secondary schools only.

Conclusion

Gillian Harris, Head of THSLS, and I have developed a training module specifically for primary school PLAs, to encourage more schools to open libraries and offer students opportunities to assist in order for them to develop practical skills and become reading champions. 

I recommend starting a program of PLAs in your school. They are not a threat to the school library professionals, but rather an enhancement, as the more independence and specific training you give students, the more they feel empowered to take responsibility and help you develop the library.

References

Finch, D 2015, ‘Why all pupils deserve a real school library’, blog post, 23 February 2015, https://archive.cilip.org.uk/blog/why-all-pupils-deserve-real-school-library

Lucy Chambers

Primary school librarian

Tower Hamlets, London, UK