Our charity works towards a world where no one lacks access to books. Every year, we provide around one million brand new books to thousands of communities where people have very few opportunities to access books and read. We also support and establish school libraries, create children’s reading spaces in libraries and invest in our partners so that they can support reading and learning in their own communities.

I’ve had the privilege of supporting the establishment of hundreds of school libraries. Our schools programmes are quite varied – some focus on refurbishing disused space to create a library, others on providing a book box library for use in classrooms – but whatever their size and shape they usually include a collection of UK donated and locally purchased books, the resources to create a reading space and teacher training.

While the schools we support face varied challenges there are common themes which I’ve seen emerge, and there are four key lessons I’ve taken away:

School libraries with a rich and carefully chosen selection of books enrich classroom learning

We provide only supplementary books and we focus on creating a rich, varied book collection tailored to children’s needs. We have found that when vibrant and up to date books are available children are immediately attracted to reading, and improved reading translates into better performance across all subjects.

In many of the communities where we work, teachers have so few resources that they resort to making their own learning resources from whatever they can find. A well-stocked school library creates a world of new resources for them, and it allows teachers to be creative in using fiction and nonfiction books to teach topics in an exciting way.

For example, I’ve heard about teachers using picture books to teach counting and non-fiction books about topics like volcanos or dinosaurs to enrich science lessons. This really enhances the learning experience for pupils.

School libraries thrive when teachers are supported

Where teachers have had to teach using no or few resources, access to relevant books may not automatically lead to those books being used to achieve curriculum learning outcomes. That is why training for teachers, high quality teachers manuals and collaboration are so important.

The training we offer covers how to set up and manage a school library, how to use supplementary books in teaching and lesson planning and how to use the library to encourage children’s reading. These courses are tailored to each school’s needs – in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp’s Early Childhood Development centres we focus our training on books and early literacy in the refugee context for example.

In the vast majority of cases, the greater the teacher involvement in the training, the better the outcomes at the school. In particular we find that if the head teacher makes books a priority by putting reading on the school’s official time-table, schools can begin to create a reading culture which helps children discover books and develop a love of reading which can benefit them throughout their lives.

There is great value in linking schools and libraries, specifically librarians and teachers

My colleague Kenyan librarian and Book Aid International project manager James Kimani has a wonderful phrase to describe African public libraries – ‘sleeping giants’. Professional librarians have a wealth of skills, knowledge and experience which can support children’s learning – but their value isn’t always recognised in the countries where we work, and library and school networks often don’t coordinate as well as they might.

Our largest education programme, Inspiring Readers, has brought books to the classrooms of over 287,000 primary school pupils and, crucially, linked each school with a local library where a specially trained librarian can offer on-going support for schools and refresh book collections as needed. Schools that work with librarians to support reading in class often have higher exam grade results and the teachers who work with librarians tell us that they’re much more able to help children begin to read with a librarian’s support.

Vibrant school libraries can support whole communities

We have seen again and again that a school library in a community where there is no public or community library impacts on lives far beyond the classroom. Adults with low literacy can use the books to improve their own reading, and children help their families discover books by taking books home to share with relatives.

The impact of school libraries in the wider community is the basis of our newest project: Books to Go. Books to Go creates collections of books for schools to lend to pupils in case of further pandemic lockdown or other school closure. These books will enable children to keep reading and learning together even if classrooms must close.

Covid-19 means that the need for books in schools has never been greater – and we are determined to offer children the books they need in their schools to catch up on lost learning. But we can only reach out to schools around the world through the support of donors like the CLA. We would like to thank the CLA for its generous support, and we look forward to reaching many more readers together in the years to come.