Forty per cent of Scotland’s primary schools have no libraries and 99 per cent have no librarians, according to a survey of local authorities by The Ferret.

There are also serious shortfalls in the provision of library services in secondary schools, leaving thousands of children across the country deprived of adequate access to books and information. Experts warn that this will harm attainment levels.

The information comes as new schools data shows a decline in the standard of literacy in Scottish schools. The number of S2 pupils performing well or very well in writing declined from 64 per cent in 2012 to 49 per cent in 2016, while the number of P4 pupils performing well or very well in reading dropped from 83 per cent to 77 per cent over the same period.

The revelations have prompted demands for action from campaigners alarmed at the loss of library services, increasing pressure on ministers to ensure that councils improve library facilities in schools.

The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland said it was “deeply concerned” about the lack of libraries in schools. “Research shows that they help pupils achieve higher exam scores,” said the institute’s director, Catherine Kearney.

“Professionally staffed school libraries make an essential contribution to raising attainment by supporting curriculum delivery and literacy.”

Schools lacking library services

Type of schoolTotal responsesWithout libraryWithout librarian
Primary1,9697671,948
Secondary2852247
Totals are based on data supplied by 30 local authorities. Two failed to respond.

Data released by councils under freedom of information law show that 767 of 1,969 primary schools don’t have libraries and 1,948 are without librarians. Just 21 primary schools – around one per cent – were reported as having either a full-time or part-time librarian, with 12 in Aberdeenshire, three in Highland and six in Shetland.

Secondary school libraries in 24 councils suffer staffing deficiencies, with a patchwork of provision across the country. This has been described by campaigners petitioning the Scottish Parliament as a “postcode lottery.”

A total of 47 secondary schools spread over nine local authorities have no librarian, a figure which includes all 26 schools in both Argyll and Bute and Dumfries and Galloway. In some areas, such as Renfrewshire, Glasgow and South Lanarkshire, almost all school librarians are part-time.

In East Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire, however, every secondary school has both a library and a full-time librarian. But librarians’ contracts in six North Lanarkshire schools are term-time only.

In January this year the trade union Unison warned that secondary school library staffing had dropped 25 per cent since 2010. Its report also highlighted concerns with librarians’ hours being cut and services reduced, such as school libraries being closed at lunch times.

Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee is currently considering a submission calling on MSPs “to urge the Scottish Government to set out a new national strategy for school libraries which recognises the vital role of high quality school libraries in supporting pupils’ literacy and research skills.” The petition has been submitted by Duncan Wright of the Save Scotland’s School Libraries campaign.

The library should be the hub of any school - primary or secondary - and it should be staffed by a good quality librarian. Bill Boyd, Literacy adviser

The education secretary, John Swinney, told the committee on 20 April that he was planning a strategy on school libraries. “I acknowledge and strongly support the provision of school libraries, which are an important part of the work that we undertake in encouraging an appreciation of literacy and literature among young people,” he said.

“I do not think that there is unanimity on the need to have a national strategy, but the petitioner makes a fair point about the importance of having such an approach and it is my intention to formulate such a strategy.”

Swinney warned that if he could not “persuade local authorities to follow good practice” then the government may “consider making it a requirement”. He was unable to conceive “how teachers will be able to adequately convey the importance of an appreciation of literature and information literacy without being able to exemplify that in a school library.”

According to Bill Boyd, a former English teacher and now literacy adviser, school libraries are increasingly seen as a luxury. “The library should be the hub of any school – primary or secondary – and it should be staffed by a good quality librarian,” he said.

“Not only does it improve literacy, but it can make the links across the curriculum which are essential to effective learning.”

Dr Lauren Smith, research associate at the University of Strathclyde’s Computer and Information Sciences department, believes that a national focus on libraries and librarians is vital. “Studies have found that children who make extensive use of libraries are more likely to achieve highly in terms of literacy, and that librarians have a key role to play,” she said.

“A series of studies in the US found that regardless of the economic status of a community, students tend to perform better on reading tests where their school library is staffed by a trained librarian. Evidence indicates that a good school library can contribute to reducing the attainment gap, particularly through supporting the most disadvantaged students.”

Smith added: “School libraries have a significant contribution to make in terms of students’ academic performance, information and digital literacy capacities, and health and wellbeing.”

Councils are currently responsible for funding school library services, but there is no specific statutory requirement for them to do so.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) blamed the loss of library provision on budget cutbacks. “Many schools are working together within their local authority groups to provide a quality service both within schools and by linking with their community libraries,” said a COSLA spokesman.

“We have worked with the Scottish Government through the Carnegie Trust to develop ‘A Strategy for Public Libraries in Scotland 2015-2020’.  After working with the professionals it was published less than three years ago and we endorsed it.  So did the Scottish Government.”

He added: “Given how pressed our funding is it is impressive that despite the cuts in library budgets – at about eight per cent and similar to all non-statutorily defined services – the use that is made of them has gone up in Scotland by about 30 per cent over the five years we have benchmarked data for.”

The Scottish Government accepted that school library provision varied across the country. “A national strategy will help to provide a clear plan of action and build on the positive impact school libraries make in many schools,” said a spokesperson.

The detailed statistics that underpin this story are available for download from The Ferret data library on github.