The data is well known in NGO circles; over 30,000 schools in Kenya, and only about 2% of them have libraries. And just as often, the shortcomings of this statistic are discussed – it is old, it is hard to trace, and ‘library’ wasn’t defined. We know this field of research in Kenya needs more attention, and that more papers need to be published. However, regardless of the hard numbers, we all know that most schools in Kenya, even the top National Schools, need libraries, or at least complete library upgrades. This would leave one to intuitively assume the job of finding recipient schools for us to donate to is easy. This is not the case though. Not all schools are a like, and as we have rolled out our projects, in different areas and at different levels, we have come to develop a very strict criteria of what we look for, and what we avoid. Having a need isn’t enough to justify a library donation, the school has to be ready to use the resources properly, and to inspire the reading culture so important for the success of a library donation. Below are the top elements we look for when considering a library donation to a school:

1. Leadership of the Head Teacher

For us, this has become a must. Where the leadership of the Head Teacher is weak, or where there is obvious discord between the Head Teacher, the Board, and the teachers, it is almost impossible to successfully implement new programs at the school. If the absenteeism of the Head Teacher is high (we subtly take notes of this when we do site visits to assess the possibility of a donation), it is also unlikely that a new program can be adopted. If a Head Teacher inspires, and has the trust of his/her teaching staff, so much is possible.

2. Leadership of the Board of Governors

This is just as important as the leadership of the Head Teacher. The BoG overseas the school. They control the budgets, inspire the PTA and parents, and act as a checks and balance against the local government. When it is difficult for us to get a meeting with the BoG of the school while we are doing an assessment to donate (or thereafter) or when there is a lack of interest from most of the members, it is unlikely the program will reach its potential. This is across the board, whether the BoG is for a high performing urban school and made up of politicians and business leaders, or for a small village school made up of parents and elders, their support is critical. Knowing that the BoG will act as active custodians of the program once we have donated the resources is extremely important.

3. Involvement of the PTA

The existence of a Parent Teacher Association at the school is another critical factor, as this is the body we need to work closely with to make sure that the students are not only given time to read when they are home (often they spend free time doing chores) but that they are also encouraged to read. The PTA helps communicate messages from the teachers to the parents, and vice versa. If teachers aren’t taking advantage of the library, a strong PTA will mean that parents place pressure on the teachers to change this. Similarly, if parents are restricting their children from the reading their children can be exposed to with a new library, the teachers can place pressure. Again, whether the school is a top performing National School, or a rural village school, a strong PTA is equally important.

What about the teachers?

The support of the teachers is a given requirement before we donate a library, but what we have often found is that it is not enough. With weak leadership at the school, the teaching staff seem neutered in their ability to inspire change and success. They need an inspired Head Teacher, BoG, and PTA to support them arranging teaching timetables to use the library, in keeping the library open during off hours for them to access, and in time provisions to adopt their lesson plans to the new resources at the library. All of these elements are critical. With them, as we have seen, a library will thrive and academics will soar. Without them, a library will become no more than another room used to study.