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“This library could change everything for our pupils”

November 1, 2019, 7:39 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Unsatisfied with the efforts of design professionals, the staff and parents at Halberton Primary set about remodelling the school’s library space on their own terms...

“Teach a child to read, and keep that child reading, and we will change everything. And I mean everything.”

Earlier this year, that quote from Jeanette Winterson weighed on my mind while I searched for inspiration, trying to devise a vision for our library at Halberton Primary School, Devon. What special environment could we create for our children to encourage them to read, and keep them reading?

Having never undertaken anything like this before, I contacted a library design company and asked them to share some of their ideas with me, but was distinctly underwhelmed by what they came back with. I knew that we could do better. This, then, is the story of how a small team created ‘Shirley’s Library’….

Getting started

The initial creative spark came when I saw the wooden shelving used by an independent book shop here in Tiverton called Liznojan. It looked great, was sustainably sourced and prompted me to wonder whether our library could be based around a similar design.

One productive Pinterest session later, I’d created a woodland-themed ‘library inspiration’ board. I invited the school’s parents to get involved by submitting some ideas of their own, and was delighted to find among the responses we received one from Kayleigh and Will Diggle – Liznojan’s co-founders. Together, we formed a ‘library group’, drew up an action plan and devised a draft timetable for turning our vision into a reality.

As the summer holiday got underway, work on the library began. The room was stripped of all furniture, books and carpets, and the empty shell repainted in shades of green. The paints used were predominantly water-based and derived from natural materials – prior to this, we barely knew that vegan paint was even a ‘thing’.

The conversion work mostly took place over July and August 2019, undertaken by a team of around eight parental volunteers, ably assisted at times by several Halberton pupils. To help shape our woodland theme, plain stools were bought and spray painted to resemble toadstools. A mini picnic bench and curved wooden bench were purchased to provide alternative seating. An old wooden cable reel was repurposed to provide a secure base for the library’s centrepiece tree (more on which later) and a combined seating/desk space. We then added a raised platform made from untreated pine timber – a material certified eco-friendly by the Forest Stewardship Council, which contains no nasty preservatives. The platform’s components were screwed together, leaving open the possibility of reusing them in future. Though originally designed to be 45cm high, the height was eventually altered to 25cm to prevent the slope from becoming too steep. Surplus wooden posts and artificial grass from our federated school, Uplowman Primary, were used to strengthen and support the structure.

A spacious glade

The library’s shelves were created using reclaimed scaffolding boards sourced from the construction industry, which had been deemed no longer safe for site use. Treated with oil, they provide a rich focal point for the room while displaying our books.

Between the shelves we added tree trunk ‘risers’ fashioned from local ash trees that had been found to exhibit early symptoms of ash dieback disease. These were carefully selected and thinned from local woodland areas, so as to exert minimal impact on the wider ecosystem.

Also present is a treehouse feature constructed by parent and builder Ian Awcock, which makes further use of surplus material from Uplowman and employs waney edge cladding sourced from the local, independently-owned Milverton Sawmill.

The beautiful artwork adorning the library’s walls was meanwhile painted by local artist, Jamie Whyte. As he recalls, “Knowing I’d have only seven days to complete it, when I first saw the room I was daunted by the size of it; having measured up, I discovered the wall space amounted to around a thousand square feet. To cover it, I painted three layers of trees in a simple illustrative style, working some more detail and texture into the foreground trunks using household emulsion mixed with acrylic paint.”

An unusual request

The library’s low energy, A* rated lighting system is dimmable and calibrated to a warm colour that makes the space glow, while consuming around half the energy of our old lighting system. Another new addition are the space’s USB plug sockets for use with the tablets our children use, the sole purpose of which are for quizzing the children once they’ve completed an accelerated reader book. We’ve consciously tried to minimise the amount of digital technology used within the library, in favour of maximising opportunities for our children to develop a love of reading books.

As you enter the library, you encounter Ben – a two metre-high Ficus Benjamina tree sourced for us by the local firm, Urban & Rural Plants. We also consulted with another friend of the school, carpet fitter James Pyatt, who explained what we could do in terms of creating a woodland scene using artificial grass indoors – not a request he gets very often! We were impressed at how he and his son were able to skilfully and seamlessly transform our room into a visibly lush environment.

In this library, comfort is key. Keen to let the children choose their preferred spot for reading, we specified a number of cushions that would allow the children to sit comfortably wherever they wish. One of our parent volunteers, Maria Little, created bespoke ‘envelope cushion covers’ for us out of materials donated by a local mattress company.

Combined efforts

So far, the children have been using the library every day and look forward to spending time there. The treehouse has proved very popular, so we’ve taken to randomly and fairly selecting our ‘treehouse children’ each day.

It was great to see how excited the children were upon being introduced to the space for the first time, but what I find more exciting is just seeing them read. From crafting the components to paying the invoices, this project wouldn’t have been possible were it not for the combined efforts of our fantastic team. This library could change everything for our pupils. And I mean everything…


I coordinated a number of funding applications to local trusts, having researched available opportunities online and enquired with others I knew had previously had success in securing such funding themselves.

One of our governors suggested approaching the local Make the Connection grant, which contributed £300 to the project, and the Halberton Primary School Association agreed to add £500 to our funds.

Thanks to the further generosity of other local trusts, including the Norman Trust and Gibbons Family Trust, we were able to put more than £5,000 towards the project.

Who is Shirley?

Shirley Davey recently retired after teaching at Halberton Primary for 43 years, having always advocated passionately for giving children opportunities to read, particularly those for whom such opportunities outside school are limited.

We didn’t know when we started that Shirley would be retiring, but when we found out, I suggested we name the room after her and everyone in the library group was thrilled with the idea. It gave the project a sense of being something bigger and more special; something with real heart and a soulful dedication to a much-loved colleague and friend.

Shirley continues to volunteer for the school in her retirement, supervising sessions in which the children read to her – and what better place to do that than in her very own library?

Christine Campion is head of teaching and learning and SENCo at Halberton Primary School