Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Good, the Bad and the Trivial: My Trip to the UK

Last week, I arrived back in the country after spending three weeks in the UK.  This was part of an NZEI scholarship I received to find out more about reading for pleasure initiatives there.  

The Good

I had the most marvellous trip - the people I met were enthusiastic, generous with their time and full of ideas that inspired me.  I was incredibly well looked after by everyone I came in contact with.  I was met at the airport and given a place to stay in London.  I was picked up in cars and ferried around, sometimes over multiple days.  I was shouted school lunches, pub lunches and dinner (with mushy peas!).  I was given train advice and taken to meet authors, to poetry/jazz evenings and to football games.  People took time out of their busy days, sometimes even their weekends, to talk with me and to share their passions.  To give me books and information packs and USB sticks filled with documents.  I feel very blessed to have been able to plan the scholarship trip of my dreams and for it to have exceeded my expectations.

I have already begun a big project based on research from the UK.  My trip has provided me with many other items for my "to do" list that I will attempt as time allows - for example, ideas for book clubs, author visits, award shadowing, shared reading, storytelling, building empathy and bringing librarians and communities together.  As I implement them I will blog about them, and I will also share these ideas when I present at the SLANZA conference in July.

I have been in contact with a few of my new friends from the UK already, and will follow up with some more tomorrow.  I know that they will continue to support me in the work that I do and I hope to show them that their ideas will make an impact in New Zealand too.

Another good thing that I have to bring up, actually an amazing thing, is the work of the succession of Children's Laureates that have worked in the UK since 1999.  Chris Riddell, the current Laureate, is an absolute hero to libraries, his advocacy work is tireless.  Plus, he draws on walls everywhere!

At CLPE, London

At Seven Stories, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne

At the Norfolk Children's Book Centre

I want walls like these, possibly something to start with the next illustrator who visits!  I'd also love a NZ Children's Laureate, and Kyle Mewburn agrees.  It would great if we could make that happen.

And finally, there are some amazing trusts and agencies that support reading.  Actually, BookTrust manage the Children's Laureate.  I love the nationwide Summer Reading Challenge that is run by the Reading Agency.  It is very visible and has recognition across the UK, as three quarters of a million children take part.  The ability to promote one event and have schools working with public libraries seems like a great way to coordinate resources and spread a single message.  World Book Day, supported by all the major agencies, is another event that every school I visited seemed to do something for.  By the way, I got snuck into the main London event and managed to see Chris Riddell live...

The Bad

While I was lucky to be in the presence of some amazing people doing wonderful things, I also have to mention the difficult circumstances in which many were managing to operate.  In England, Year 6 students have to sit SATs.  This appeared to be the overwhelming focus of their entire year, until the final eight weeks after exams when they got to enjoy other things like art and school productions.  A lot of the great initiatives I saw only went up to Year 5, because Year 6's had no time for things like reading for pleasure.  We can only hope that the way these tests narrow what is taught, and become all-consuming, does not happen in New Zealand.

It was so rare for a primary school librarian to exist that the mere mention of my title was cause for discussion.  In Scotland, I was told that they have never had primary school librarians, and that many of their secondary school librarians are under threat.  In England, I was warned it would be difficult to find primary school librarians to talk to.  This was not actually a problem but it was clear that there are far more primary schools without librarians than with them.  Many librarians that I did meet were worried about the future of their jobs. 

While I was in the UK I saw articles like this one, talking about a "budget crisis" facing schools, with one school governor saying "we can no longer afford books/pencils/IT".  Another article talked about what is happening at secondary level:
School trips, after-school clubs, sports fixtures and summer schools are being cancelled, while school premises are falling into disrepair, IT equipment is out-of-date and schools are unable to buy text books for new GCSE courses...
Public libraries have been decimated too, and many are staffed by volunteers.  "Since 2010, 8,000 librarians have been made redundant across England Wales - a quarter of the workforce - while the number of libraries has fallen by 340 since 2008".  The same article said that book budgets have been first in line for cuts and one of the two main categories of books not being replaced is children's books.  The Chief Executive Officer of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals stated that:
As a nation, at exactly the moment when we ought to be investing in literacy and skills, we have allowed at least 10% of our public libraries, and many of our much-needed school libraries to close while many others have been forced to implement drastic reductions to opening hours and services.
It is an incredibly hard time to be a librarian in the UK and I was feeling very happy that New Zealand didn't seem to be experiencing the same problems.  And then I came back and heard about 178 New Zealand schools that don't have a library and 74 jobs being lost at Auckland Libraries.  We're still nowhere near the crisis levels that the UK's libraries are facing but we need to be actively advocating for our libraries now, because there's no guarantee that's not in our future.  Especially since the government has frozen the school operations grant that school librarians get paid from.  I hate to get all "union-y" on you but when you see what can happen it makes it really important that we put pressure on the government through the collective power that a union can provide.  If you are not in the union, please consider joining.  And then you can apply for a scholarship too!

The Trivial

Here are some other, slightly less important observations from my trip:

  • It is easy to reach your step goals in London!  With a ten minute walk to my nearest train station, then lots of walking from the tube to my end destinations, I was blitzing my targets with no problem whatsoever (in fact, on some mornings I was waking up with sore legs, I didn't realise I should have upped my fitness levels before travelling!). 
  • I could see that I caused distress to the staff on trains and in hotels.  This wasn't intentional, however it is clear that the English do take the drinking of tea very seriously.  If you then decline their offer of coffee, well, let's just say that I could have been saying that I wasn't going to breathe air.  It was incomprehensible to them.
  • English traffic lights have a red-orange phase just before the lights turn green again.  I like this, it's a great way to get your handbrake off and get ready to go.  I wonder why we don't have this in NZ?

I did get three days of sightseeing on my trip, and had some evenings out.  Here are a few photos to prove it:

Warner Bros. Studio Tour

Chris Lam Sam, a Kiwi author launching his first book with Angela Keoghan
- "Inspector Brunswick - The Case of the Missing Eyebrow"

Edinburgh Castle

St Paul's Cathedral

Fulham vs Blackburn at Craven Cottage

Punting at Cambridge