Last reviewed 21 February 2022

School libraries play a pivotal role in ensuring pupils have free, regular access to a range of books and other media, as well as promoting and facilitating reading for pleasure. Kate Goulson explores how onsite libraries can help schools meet certain National Curriculum expectations.

Are school libraries a statutory requirement?

As it stands, there are no statutory requirements for schools to provide dedicated or separate libraries. However, many non-statutory guidelines point to the provision of school libraries as best practice. The National Curriculum for England makes it clear that schools “should provide library facilities and set ambitious expectations for reading at home” (Framework for key stages 1 to 4, paragraph 6.3) as well as giving pupils “opportunities to exercise choice in selecting books and be taught how to do so, with teachers making use of any library services and expertise to support this” (English Programmes of Study: key stages 1 and 2, p.27). The Department for Education guidelines on school building layout, the Area Guidelines for Mainstream Schools, even specify a recommended amount of library space per pupil.

What proportion of schools currently have a library?

The gap between guidance and statutory requirement, and the absence of ring-fenced funding, means that school library provision is patchy. A 2021 National Literacy Trust report found that 40% of primary schools have no budget for a school library, and the 2019 Great School Libraries Survey findings indicate that 13% of schools do not have a dedicated library space. In addition, while 95% of secondary schools have designated library staff, this is true of only 38% of primary schools.

There are several initiatives advocating for greater school library provision. One of the most prominent in England is the aforementioned Great School Libraries campaign, spearheaded by the School Library Association and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. In Scotland, a report entitled Vibrant Libraries, Thriving Schools: A National Strategy for School Libraries in Scotland 2018–2023 has recently called for higher quality library provision in all education settings, and is backed by a Scottish Government improvement fund.

How can onsite libraries help schools meet National Curriculum expectations?

The curriculum documents for England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland all refer to giving pupils independent access to a broad variety of texts and encouraging pupils to read books for pleasure.

The Northern Irish curriculum states that pupils “should discover how to…access a range of information sources (books, ICT, people)” and “select and evaluate the information for a purpose” (Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities, p.3), the Curriculum for Wales requires pupils to “read for different purposes, e.g. for personal pleasure [and] to retrieve, summarise and synthesise key information” (Programme of Study for English: Key stages 2 to 4, p.7), and the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence expects that “young people will be…reading a wide range of texts to gather and analyse information for a range of purposes” (Experiences and outcomes, Literacy and English: principles and practice, p.126).

The National Curriculum for England expects that “the skills of information retrieval that are taught should be applied, for example, in reading history, geography and science textbooks, and in contexts where pupils are genuinely motivated to find out information” (English programmes of study: key stages 1 and 2, p.35). It also states that pupils should “be encouraged to read for pleasure” and that “schools should do everything to promote wider reading” (Framework for key stages 1 to 4, para. 6.3).

Secondary-aged pupils are expected to be “choosing and reading books independently for challenge, interest and enjoyment” (National Curriculum for England, English Programmes of Study, key stage 3 p.4, key stage 4 p.5). Well-resourced secondary school libraries support this aim, and the increased expectations of self-driven study in key stages 3 and 4, by giving pupils greater access to a wide variety of texts and media.

If schools do not provide libraries, questions arise as to how else they can effectively demonstrate that these curriculum expectations are being met. In the absence of a school library, and without extensive resources in individual classrooms, achieving these aims relies on each pupil’s home circumstances and the available resources within the wider community. This potentially disadvantages pupils who do not have access to this support, and school libraries can help ensure inclusion by giving all pupils equal access to these resources.

School libraries as shared spaces

There is a strong argument for school libraries to be completely distinct spaces as this allows them to be fully focused on providing library services to pupils without distraction and means that the resources can be accessible at all times. However, this can sometimes be difficult for schools to implement due to limited space or funding. Some schools solve this issue by incorporating libraries into shared spaces which include ICT facilities, meeting rooms, teaching spaces or areas for free play. This compromise can allow schools to have a designated library space where they might otherwise be unable to due to higher priority needs. Shared spaces can also give pupils an increased sense of ownership of the library through regular, relaxed use, which in turn encourages them to use the library facilities independently and fulfil National Curriculum aims around choosing texts.

How can school libraries maximise their potential to meet National Curriculum expectations?

  • Varied resources — Offering a broad array of resources, including different genres of fiction alongside subject-specific non-fiction texts that relate to curriculum topics, ensures pupils have a wide choice of books to read for pleasure and research.

  • Extended opening hours — Allowing pupils to access libraries before and after school, and at break times, maximises their opportunities for independent choice and self-motivated learning.

  • Designated staffing — Assigned library staff can be on hand to teach pupils how to navigate library cataloguing and find the books they need. They can also ensure that the space remains calm and focused for independent study.

  • Inclusive spaces for independent learning — Secondary schools in particular often promote libraries as places for pupils to work independently, giving them easy access to quiet, well-resourced spaces. This helps ensure equality and inclusion for children who do not have access to these spaces at home.

  • Careers advice and signposting — Secondary schools and colleges have a statutory obligation to signpost pupils to independent careers advice. Although the advice itself must be from external sources, school libraries are natural hubs for signposting pupils to independent information through publications, leaflets and links to relevant organisations.


  • There are no statutory requirements for schools to have separate libraries, but many documents reference their inclusion as best practice.

  • Independent access to a variety of texts, and choosing books to read for enjoyment, are key National Curriculum aims.

  • Onsite libraries help schools fulfil independent study aims across the National Curriculum and promote reading for pleasure.

  • Giving all pupils free, regular access to a school library can help schools demonstrate they are meeting inclusion expectations, ensuring all pupils have equal access to the extended curriculum.