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The Softlink Australian School Library Survey: Trends and Future Directions Presentation Part 1

Nathan Godfree, Executive Director, Softlink

In this recording from an ASLA presentation in 2015, Nathan introduces the Softlink Australian School Library Survey and presents a five-year analysis of School Library Budgets, and Staffing and Trends.

Join Nathan as he discusses:

  1. What the School Library Survey is and why do we do it? (2:30)
  2. An analysis of results from 2010 to 2014 (7:56)
  • Survey participation (8:14)
  • School library budget changes (9:15)
  • Budget changes by provider (12:04)
  • School library staff FTE changes (13:09)
  • NAPLAN correlation to library budget and staffing (14:21)
  • Intended and actual eBook purchases (15:52)
  • Access to library resources from outside the library (17:28)

To watch part 2 of this presentation, click here

More about the Softlink School Library Survey

To learn more about the History of the Survey, What the survey covers, and how we use the results read this blog

For a key findings summary and a link to the 2018 Australia, New Zealand, and Asia Pacific School Library Survey Report read this blog

For a key findings summary and a link to the 2018 UK and Europe School Library Survey Report read this blog

Read the transcript

Good afternoon everyone, welcome to our session. I trust that what we have to share with you will be both an insight and a challenge. There’s quite some detail in our slides, so we’ll try and keep it as light as possible without producing pages of numbers. If you’d like further detail, the slides will be available in your conference materials.

By way of introduction, my name is Nathan Godfrey. I’m the Managing Director of Softlink and have been involved with the Softlink Australian School Library Survey from its inception five years ago.

I’m less involved with the conduct of the survey these days than I was in the first couple of years, but it’s something that remains very significant for me. Presenting with me today is Susan Gan. Susan will be well known to many of you and is one of our experienced teacher librarians working at Softlink.

In this session, we’ll look to delve into the Softlink Australian School Library Survey. After five years, there’s a wealth of information in the survey results, much too much for an hour’s presentation, so we’ll look to keep it to the most salient trends and changes.

I’ll provide you some background on the survey and what’s been done over the past five years.

There are some noteworthy points of similarity and difference that we can identify when comparing the responses year over year.

In the second half of the session, Susan will look to drill in on some of the additional detail from the last survey in 2014. There are some insights here that you will find quite interesting, I’m sure.

Just a couple of points before we proceed further. I’ll use the term “advocacy” a number of times through the presentation. I’m using it in its broadest sense to encompass the range of communications, papers, presentations, negotiations, and conversations that occur when you’re advancing school libraries within your school community.

One other point of note, it’s quite probable that your personal experience may well differ from what is outlined here. I’m presenting a summary of what we’ve seen across Australia through the survey and taking a rather macro view.

So, let’s set the scene here. What is the Australian School Library survey? And importantly, why do we do it?

Early in 2010, I recall our management team sitting around the meeting table on a Monday morning, discussing what we could contribute to the recently announced “Federal Inquiry into School Libraries and Teacher Librarians in Australian Schools”. I’m sure you will all remember that time.

We wanted to contribute to support school libraries in Australia and, given that about one in two schools in Australia use a Softlink product, we felt that we could contribute something that was unique. The concept of an independent survey was formulated; it brought together two threads that we’d been working on at that time.

Firstly, we’d been doing quite a bit of research on the linking of data present in the library system with literacy outcomes for students.

And then secondly, after many conversations, and fresh off the GFC, we had the desire to assist school libraries address what was a theme of a loss of resources being allocated to them.

And so the survey was created.

In 2010, we conducted the first survey and from this made a submission to the Federal Inquiry. Along with a number of you here, we were asked to attend the Inquiry and provide evidence. I’ll leave the effectiveness and the outcomes of the inquiry process for others to examine.

However, after the success and the feedback that we received from that process, we decided to keep the survey continuing on an annual basis. After all, given the support, there was more that we could do. And there were other areas that the survey could open up.

We were encouraged by many of you and we were encouraged that this was a useful insight into school libraries across Australia and filled the need. So that brings us to an important question, why? Why should Softlink continue every year to devote our own resources to conducting, analysing, and publishing the survey?

The answer is pretty simple for us.

We believe that school libraries and teacher librarians are a vital and irreplaceable part of our students’ education.

School libraries that are properly resourced and led by passionate and engaged professionals, with a vision for the role that their library plays within the school community, improve educational outcomes.

And fundamentally, we also believe that a school community that values the school library, and the teacher librarian will also value the tools that Softlink creates.

Therefore, whilst the survey has always held a mirror up to school libraries, and provided interesting insights into trends and challenges, the core of what we have always sought to achieve is to facilitate and assist advocacy.

At times, this has been advocacy at the institutional level or across larger groupings of schools. But significantly, the survey has sought to provide the tools for you to advocate for your school library, within your own school community.

For those of you who have participated before, you’ll know that the survey has always asked questions about the annual budget and the full-time equivalents employed in the school library.

Softlink summarises the survey findings into a report but we also provide specific data driven feedback. Those of you who have participated will recognise the report on the left-hand side of the of this slide and also the data set on the right-hand side.

By using this set of results, you can compare your budget and your staffing levels to other schools of a similar size. It is broken down into quartiles, you can compare amongst school types, and you can compare by state.

By using this information, you can compare how your school is positioned in relation to others. I strongly believe that the comparability and transparency created from this data driven approach is important for strong advocacy.

Now, what is an appropriate outcome or goal for your advocacy is for you and your leadership teams to determine. It might be the next quartile or the median or, for some, it might be the top quartile. However, by using an independent measure, it’s much clearer how the school compares with others and it improves accountability.

This report is provided to you as a tool to use as, and when, appropriate. We’ll have a look at another way to engage with this information towards the end of the session. So, let’s have a look at what the past five years of results shows.

I have a few graphs for you over the next slides. If you’re having trouble making out the numbers, please remember that they will be available in your conference materials after the session.

Over the past five years there has been a strong growth in participation in the survey. We are now at the point where one in eight schools are participating each year. Of course, the more who participate than the better the information, the more reliable the data.

The graph on the slide shows the increases in participation over the years. The green, red, and blue represent the segregation of primary, secondary and combined schools. You’ll note that the mix of each continues to be consistent, which is pleasing. Ensuring the sample is representative of the population has always been a challenge, particularly as this has always been a voluntary survey.

We believe the growing numbers reflect the trust in the process and the engagement with the outcomes. This graph represents the core of our observations over the past five years. And it was one of the reasons for the inception of the survey in the first place. I can’t really sugar-coat it, the results are concerning.

Each year we asked the question “How has your school library’s budget changed from the prior year?” We summarise these numbers in our reports to profile the range of movements. The blue blocks on this graph represent the number of school library budgets that have increased in any way from the prior year. You can see that over the period of the survey, between 17% and 20% of schools have reported that their budget has increased. The red blocks on this graph represent the proportion of school library budgets that have decreased from the prior year. You can see that this is between 25% and 30% of all respondents.

The gap between the responses is clearly concerning. However, there are also a couple of points that are worth unpacking to understand the picture here, the range of decreases are usually higher than the increases.

For example, increases are rarely greater than 10%. However, decreases often are. Secondly, there’s no allowance in these numbers for ordinary CPI increases, that is the ordinary cost of living increases that occur each year. In fact, just to keep up with the cost of living increases, the school library budget should have increased 10% over the period that we’re looking at here.

With this, it is our estimate that across Australia, there is $5 million less allocated to school libraries in 2014 than in 2010. To put that in context, that’s a decrease of about $550 per annum per school on average.

If you put this in real terms after the CPI impact we estimate that the 2014 budgets across all school libraries in Australia are 14%, less than in 2010. These are concerning numbers. It ties into something that I’ll touch on soon, a strong theme that we hear resoundingly each year. We are being asked to do more with less.

So, let’s look at where these changes are coming from. What we have done is split the Catholic, Government, and Independent schools separately for some additional analysis.

You can see from this slide that Government schools have had the most schools report a decrease, and the least report an increase, across the five years.

In fact, over this period 13% more Government schools have reported a budget decrease than those reporting an increase.

In general, the Catholic and Independent schools have equal numbers of schools receiving an increase as those receiving a decrease. But what we are seeing a greater funding gaps opening up.

The other aspect of resourcing that we have tracked is employed positions within the school library. We’ve done a similar analysis on that aspect of resourcing.

For the last three years we’ve asked the same question about the change in paid full-time equivalents employed within the school library. You can see from this graph that between 60% and 70% of schools have reported no change.

The bigger point is that there is a significant gap between the red blocks representing decreases to the blue blocks representing increases. Each of the past three years between 20% and 30% of school libraries have had their staffing allocations cut. Around 10% have had them increased.

Now, of course, each individual situation reflects a set of circumstances that are specific to that particular school. However, from a macro perspective, again it comes back to the clear message, we are being asked to do more with less. Now these numbers don’t take into account the additional duties being asked of the teacher librarians or the dilution of their roles that often are reported.

One of the calculations that we have sought to measure over the past five years was the relationship between the budgets and staffing resources allocated to the school library and that particular schools reading literacy result.

We have compared the school library resourcing to the NAPLAN results that are reported on the MySchool website. Now, before anyone throws anything sharp at me, we are well aware that a correlation does not equate to a causation. There are numerous studies from around the world that empirically link the role that school libraries play in the school community and the educational outcomes for students.

Over the past five years we’ve offered this analysis as additional support for these papers and to contribute to the discourse in the area. We are not seeking to provide a standalone analysis, but something that works with the other research. What you can see indicated in the graphs on these screens is that there has been a consistent set of results across the five years. There was one anomaly in 2013 for year three, and year five NAPLAN results, but that was the exception.

In the annual reports, you’ll also see how high, middle, and low performing schools resource their school libraries. Again, this information is provided to assist with your advocacy at every level of your communities.

Besides the hard data of resourcing, the annual survey has also sought to reflect the emerging issues and opportunities before school libraries. One area of significance that has grown exponentially in the past five years has been the impact of eBooks.

The blue blocks on this slide represent an intention to purchase eBooks in the next 12 months; the red blocks represent when this occurred in the past 12 months.

What you’ll note there is that it’s almost half of what was intended. What we’re seeing here represents a gap between the intention and possibly the vision for the school library, and what is actually being delivered.

A high percentage of respondents have had intentions to add eBooks. However, when we go back a year later, on average, only half actually did. The consistency of this result over the years has been interesting.

The reasons for the gap are clearly varied lack of budget, insufficient time, technology challenges, policy conflict, lack of school leadership buy-in, and others. However, what it comes back to is that many teacher librarians want to be engaging their students with additional digital resources but are not. This impacts the service that the school library offers and its engagement with students.

In a similar vein, we have asked the question over the past three years, whether you think it is important to provide access to the school library’s resources from outside the school. Each year 80% of respondents have felt that it’s important. However, in 2012 only 40% actually did provide access outside of the school. You can see that this has increased over the past three years to be just under 50%, which is good news.

As you can imagine this is particularly good news for the system providers like Softlink as school libraries are beginning to embrace the potential that technology opens up for them.

Again, the story here is the difference between the blue and the red columns. What is represented amounts to a gap between the vision for the school library and what is being delivered. The reasons are no less varied than for eBooks.

Although, it’s worth noting that in a number of states departmental policy has had a very significant impact on this. What we’re seeing is that the opportunities that technology brings and the vision for the role that the school library plays in the educational community is ahead of what is actually generally occurring across Australia.

I would offer that if you’re in this room, then it’s probable that the gap between your vision, what is possible, and what is actually occurring is much smaller. However, the survey reflects what is occurring in school libraries across Australia.

Each year, we’ve also asked open ended questions. What are the opportunities and challenges that you face in your role in the school library? The answers are somehow concurrently, uplifting, inspiring, they’re challenging, and disappointing. They’re humorous and occasionally offensive. But most of all, they’re passionate.

And I’ve got to say it’s a privilege to work with so many people who believe in what they do.

The word cloud on this slide reflects the most used phrases and words within these responses and I’m sure that they will resonate with you at some level.

In the second part of this session Susan will go into these themes in a little more detail and also look into the specific findings of the 2014 survey.

Softlink is committed to the future of the School Library Survey whilst you continue to support us in our efforts. We believe we’re partners in this journey and hope that we can help provide tools that are valued in your own advocacy.

I would ask that you participate in the future surveys and that you encourage those in your own networks to contribute. Please help us to help school libraries across Australia and New Zealand.

Now, this presentation has outlined a number of the challenges that have been apparent for some time now. In particular, I’ve talked a lot about resourcing. There’s one encouragement that I would leave with you:

Around the world we’ve seen time and time again, that there is no more important resource, no more important resource to any school library than a passionate, energetic and visionary teacher librarian.

In general, I see it’s those people that find a way to obtain more budget or hours. It’s those people who find a way to influence the stakeholders and gatekeepers. It’s those passionate, energetic, and visionary teacher librarians who get community engagement. And it’s those people that make us proud to serve school libraries around the world, and in particular, around Australia. Thank you very much for your time.