What is the role of a library in a special school where many young people are likely to have literacy problems? Liz Millett obviously knows the answer. She has just won a School Librarian of the Year Award.
Liz works at WeatherfieldAcademy in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, a special school for students aged 7 to 19 with moderate learning difficulties and additional complex needs. Many of the children come from backgrounds where reading is not a priority. She set up the library in 2009 and her role is to make sure that the 3,000 books will fire up the 112 pupils and turn them into enthusiastic readers.
Nowadays there are so many different forms of entertainment that reading for pleasure is not high on many children’s agendas. Liz finds she gets the best results by tapping into their interests so she spends time talking to children: ‘One of my students, a 13-year old girl, improved her reading levels by 23 months in a year. Once I realised that she loved horses I found her collection of horse and pony books and she just ate them up. At the moment I know that one little boy is obsessed with lorries so I pick books out for him.’
Liz has set up a rewards system to motivate pupils. She had built a relationship with Weatherfield’s local public library and adapted the idea of the Summer Reading Challenge. Children are given a set number of books to read and those who persevere and meet the target are presented with a certificate in assembly. There is also an end of term Library Trophy for the most enthusiastic reader.
She tries to encourage parents to enjoy reading too and this can be hard work as some of them have problems with literacy. Like most special schools, WeatherfieldAcademy takes pupils from a wide area and many live up to 20 miles from the school. Liz builds personal connections very slowly and encourages them to email her as the school is promoting an online facility for children and parents to choose books together at home.
The school’s uses the Creative Curriculum up to Year 9. Last term’s topics were ‘Sport and Life’ and ‘Health and Fitness’. Liz helps teachers to find appropriate resources and creates displays to reinforce topics. She also ensures that each pupil develops information literacy skills to the best of their ability, with colour-coded shelving alongside the simple Dewey system so that pupils can find their books independently.
The School Librarian of the Year award recognises the fact that Liz has made such great progress since taking over the role in 2009: ‘I’ve been given more and more responsibility over the years and I’m always busy but the difference you make to individuals makes it worthwhile.’