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No free lunches for reading volunteers

While other office staff head for cafes and bars for lunch, Pat Nash and her colleague Michele Astey take a short walk to Winton Primary School in the unprepossessing area of London's King's Cross.

Pat is a systems administrator, and Michele head of human resources at the National Westminster Bank's head office. They go through the school's security gate and make their way to Blue class Year Four and asked Jane Seed, the 28-year-old teacher, how they can help.

Mrs Nash then settles down to help Amena, aged eight, whose parents are Bengali, understand the properties of light and shade. Ms Astley helped Mary, also eight, whose parents are from the Caribbean, understand how hot weather creates droughts.

Mrs Nash and Miss Astley are volunteer helpers who give up their lunch hours once a week to help children in the Victorian primary school write, read and learn. They are two of 50 adult volunteers from local businesses and other nearby organisations who help to raise achievement levels in the school a stone's throw away from the prostitution, drug addiction and seediness surrounding the railway terminus.

Since 1991 volunteers have been regularly coming into the school to help support learning by listening to the children reading, correcting their spelling, helping them to understand science, playing junior scrabble and assisting with their maths. The scheme is not designed forchildren with real educational difficulties but for any pupils who might benefit from additional support.

The school, which is bright, spacious and happy despite its unpromising catchment area, has 300 pupils aged 3-11. Sixty per cent of them are bilingual. Twenty-eight different mother languages are spoken by the pupils who include the sons and daughters of overseas refugees, the homeless, well-established Bangladeshi families, local white working-class families and a small number of children from middle-class black and white families.

Jane Fulford, the school's head, started the volunteer scheme five years ago after watching children in the playground. She realised that while she could not do anything to help homeless, unemployed or socially deprived parents, she could increase the children's one-to-one contact with adults by getting outsiders in from local firms.

She said that lots of children were not getting enough adult learning support at home. They have no quiet rooms in which a child could read. Some parents were too distracted by economic and social problems to help. In other homes English was never spoken.

So with the help of Community Service Volunteers, which is based nearby, she applied for a grant to a charitable foundation to hire a co-ordinator to set up the volunteer scheme. The scheme is now run by a voluntary co-ordinator and costs nothing to administer. The volunteers, many of whom are commuters from Surrey and Kent, give the children the chance to meet adults from different walks of life and with different educational backgrounds to those they normally encounter. Since its inception in 1991, seven volunteers have gone on to become teachers.

Mrs Fulford said: "I think the volunteer scheme gives children a lot of self- confidence and great self-esteem. The children think: `She comes just for me' and `It is amazing they do this for nothing'. The volunteers are a breath of fresh air. They are not judgmental and are incredibly supportive."

Mrs Nash, who commutes from Woking and helps with a youth club and Sunday School at home, said she enjoys working with primary-age children. Miss Astley, from Leighton Buzzard who helps with the local Brownies and Guides at home, has worked as a City of London special constable. She said the children are happy working with the volunteers and look forward to their visits. Both agree that working with the children is a refreshing break from office work and even helps them in their jobs. Having to speak clearly and simply to children, they say, improves their communication skills.

Jane Seed, the class teacher, says the volunteers make a big difference. Amena's reading skills have improved greatly this year thanks to Mrs Nash's help. And Mary, a very bright child, is now reading books written for 13-year-olds.

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