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Helen Cleaves 2014

Honour List 2014 Profile

Helen Cleaves
Kingston Grammar School
, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey

Helen CleavesTo Helen Cleaves, the library can be all in the mind, or wherever you need it to be. “I am inspired by the idea of the virtual library and how it can exist anywhere.” Her previous career in technology PR with an emphasis on web 2.0 “taught me to think about technology in a way that has been useful ever since”.

It sowed the seeds for the spirit of innovation that she applies to her work at Kingston Grammar School. She has worked closely with the school’s Head of IT and worked to integrate the library’s function throughout departments. “I would like to change the perception of what a library is for and might do, beyond the traditional expectations of support for research and finding resources.”

Yet, with an English and French literature degree from Warwick University, Helen is still smitten with “the romance of books”. After a career rethink, she embarked on a masters degree in librarianship at University College London (she is now working towards Chartership) and a part-time job at the iconic private lending library, The London Library.
 “It was an amazing place to work. Vanessa Redgrave would come in, Sheila Hancock would be on the phone and Jeremy Paxman would bark University Challenge questions at us in the issues hall.”

A first school librarian post followed at St James’ Senior Girls School in Hammersmith, west London. “It was cosy and genteel with 300 girls from Year 6 to upper sixth, and I was the first full time school librarian they had had. I was free to re-align expectations of what a library might be. I wanted to engage reluctant readers and I tried to get out of the physical library and into the classroom as much as possible.

“I couldn’t afford author visits so I set up a Skype session with Marcus Sedgwick. We had a 360-degree tour of his writing hut and he showed us his notebooks and inspirational objects. Later we held a virtual launch party for The Chaos in Rachel Ward’s Numbers Trilogy. At the time we had a difficult Year 9 group whose reading age was low compared to previous groups, and they found the events inspiring.”

Helen Cleaves ClassHelen moved to Kingston Grammar School two years ago, to save commuting time after having her children. She works full time but is currently on maternity leave after having her second child. Kingston Grammar is a co-educational independent selective school.

In a typical collaboration with the IT department, book trailers filmed by students were embedded in posters and book jackets with augmented reality software that could be activated by smartphones. “It created a buzz. Pupils who weren’t enthusiastic readers were interested in watching the films. The pupils who had made the films brought their mates into the library to see them. In everything the library does, I consider how we can interest different groups of pupils and engage them beyond the obvious.”

More films followed, to introduce the First Year's independent research project and for National Poetry Day in 2013 (“we filmed staff reading their favourite poems: the whole school was talking about it”).

Helen has expanded Skype technology to organise inter-school lunchtime debates. “You just need to find half an hour where previously you would have had to get in a minibus and go on a trip.”

A longer-term goal is the enhanced information literacy and digital literacy of the whole school community. “Every pupil now has my guide to research skills in their pupil planner which goes home with them and reinforces academic good practice to parents as well as pupils.

“All our first years do a project in collaboration with the religion and philosophy department which embeds their research skills and second years reinforce these with an author research project which involves creating offline Facebook pages for fictional characters.”

Kingston Grammar pupils’ and parents’ encounter with the library starts at open days: Helen has created an app to support a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” game in which pupils are given clues to fictional characters.

“The pupils who are showing parents round can play the game on a phone or iPad and the library is being connected with innovation and a sense of adventure.”

Helen also treasures one aspect of the job that is probably immune from innovation: personal connection with pupils. “I was sad not to be in school when Kevin Brooks won the Carnegie – my maternity leave started in May, but I really wanted to know what the kids thought of The Bunker Diary.”