THERE was considerable concern earlier this week after the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy revealed a drop in the number of secondary pupils who can write well.

Among the interventions which seem likely to reverse this trend, a healthy and well resourced school library service would rank high on many people’s list. But in fact, such services have long been under pressure across the country.

As education budgets are squeezed, some councils have moved to eliminate school librarians completely, with East Renfrewshire even proposing their work be carried out by senior pupils, although the council later backtracked on its plans.

From a national workforce equivalent to 334 full-time posts in 2010 there are now just 240 school librarians, often required to spread themselves thinly, working between schools. A petition by Save Scotland’s School Libraries warns of a postcode lottery developing in terms of access.

Education Secretary John Swinney has indicated he plans to examine the role of school libraries. Last month he told Holyrood’s public petitions committee he recognised the need for a national strategy on the issue, and would deliver one.

Such a strategy would clarify the role of school libraries in supporting the curriculum, and the First Minister’s reading initiative, he said. It could include tasks such as encouraging enthusiasm for literacy and promoting information skills.

Mr Swinney has stressed that he cannot dictate to councils what their approach should be when setting education budgets. But he did speak warmly of the value of school libraries.

However, the initial signs are not encouraging. In the absence of such a strategy, Education Scotland, the body responsible for maintaining and improving standards in schools, says only that it is working on a “new tool” to help those library staff who remain to evaluate themselves and how they contribute to literacy.

This grim corporate speak does not do much to reassure about the future of such services. This one does not require lengthy research in the “rocket science” department.

Evidence suggests the presence of full-time librarians can play a valuable role in the intellectual development of learners. Of course there are other factors which contribute to literacy – good teaching, encouragement at home to read, school reading initiatives and the curriculum itself.

But school librarians have a particular role, with the knowledge to support and advise learners in many ways, from research skills to suggesting appropriate authors and titles, and providing individual support. They can help direct specific study and inculcate a love of reading for its own sake.

Above all school libraries, like public libraries, are a leveller, giving equal access to all readers, whatever their background.

At a time when the Scottish Government is aiming to prioritise education and in particular reduce the attainment gap between pupils from different backgrounds, to allow them to be neglected is almost criminal. A national strategy is needed, indeed – rather like an in-demand library book – it is long overdue.