In December 2007, the board of the International Association of School Libraries (IASL) declared October as the international School Library month. The adoption coincided with the maiden decade celebration of the contribution of school libraries. The theme for 2009 is “School libraries: the Big Picture”. The significance accorded by IASL to the contribution of school libraries in improving the educational performance of pupils and the attainment of one the key objectives of the UN Millennium Development Goals cannot be over-emphasised.
Advocacy for more and functional school libraries is even more significant and relevant in South Africa where unacceptably high levels of spatial educational inequality based on race and gender still persists. Nearly one and a half decades since the transition to democracy, the majority of the population still endure in persistent poverty, and illiteracy. The majority of children from disadvantaged communities are serviced by dysfunctional and archaic educational facilities in the midst of a sea of plenty. This dichotomy was aptly pointed out by former President Thabo Mbeki, when he used his oft quoted classification of the economic strata of first and second economies that co-exist in the country. A similar dichotomy is also apparent in the education sector.
This is clearly an untenable situation. It is time for all South Africans to join hands and stand up for quality and equal education. It is for this reason that Equal Education, a Cape Town based NGO, has embarked on a campaign aimed to create awareness among parents, teachers, learners and most importantly the bureaucrats and politicians whose task it is to provide a socially just education system.
Despite the availability of evidence which indicates that the provision of school libraries significantly improves the performance of pupils in their exams, the South African government has been and continues to be lackadaisical in its quest to develop a clear vision for school libraries. To date the Departments of Education and Arts and Culture have produced five school libraries charters/strategies but a clear policy has yet to be articulated.
Even the School Register of Needs Survey conducted by the Department of Education attests to the woeful lack of school libraries, especially in schools located within disadvantaged communities. The 1997 survey revealed that less than 30 percent of schools had school libraries - even for those who had school libraries, the majority of those were dysfunctional.
Indeed the school library inequities within the country mirrors the dreadful apartheid legacy, where the so called Model C schools have fully fledged and functional libraries while the rest of the schools have either no school libraries or where the library exists, they are completely dysfunctional.
However, all is not lost. In the recent past there has been positive glimpses of commitment from the Department of Basic Education. At a regional level, the Acting Director General of the Western Cape Education Department was recently quoted as saying that schools should spend 10 percent of their Learner-Teacher Support Material to providing school libraries. Mpumalanga province has also finalised a costing exercise for the provision of school libraries. While these gestures are welcome, they are long overdue. It is important, especially at the national level, to institutionalise the compulsory and non-negotiable budgetary expenditure for the provision and maintenance of a fully functional school library for each public school with a dedicated, qualified librarian who is competitively remunerated.
Although the current global economic situation does not provide much leeway for increased funding for the provision school libraries, we call for the efficient allocation of the available resource so as to provide for school libraries. We further call for the competence for the provision of functional libraries be assigned to the National Department of Basic Education and the funding formula be provided through an ear-marked conditional grant system.
Equal Education is currently campaigning for the provision of fully stocked and functional libraries in all public schools in South Africa. It is also organising a public march on 22 September 2009 from Salt River High School to the City Hall.
To find out more, visit the Equal Education website www.equaleducation.org.za
Ahmed Mohamed is the Parliamentary Engagement Officer at Equal Eduation