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Story time is a best-seller

Aberdeen's annual multi-arts storytelling festival has charmed and chilled children and parents, reports Judy Mackie

It is appropriate that Aberdeen's fifth annual storytelling festival concluded with Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Youth Theatre's dramatic narrative adaptation of Moby Dick, for the children and adults participating in the six-week Charmed and Chilled Storytelling and Theatre Festival had a whale of a time.

Feedback from schools, community groups and families indicates they were enchanted by the range and quality of free storytelling events on offer and each was fully booked. The festival offers far more than colourful entertainment, however. The education authority says it plays an important role in raising literacy standards in Aberdeen schools.

The authority's most recent performance indicators in primary schools show significant improvement in reading attainment in P1 since 1999-2000. John Stodter, Aberdeen's education director, attributes this to "a number of projects and intervention schemes, from different approaches to teaching to more general factors like the storytelling festival and the involvement of families".

The festival was started as a way to encourage reading by one of Scotland's first arts education links officers, Jacqueline McKay, who is now director of North Edinburgh Arts Centre. It went on to become a multi-arts event and its impact has been felt in many areas, from the promotion of social inclusion and the building of storytelling confidence and competence among teachers and parents to the development of key skills among children of all ages.

"What we offer is fun, excitement and challenge, while focusing on building skills such as listening, imagining, sharing information and being part of a social group," explains Louise Baxter, Ms McKay's successor. The festival is also helping to raise standards of creative writing.

"It is definitely improving literacy levels at Seaton Primary," says headteacher Charlotte Harkess.

"It motivates and inspires the children, as well as being thoroughly enjoyable. Writing is a focus area and we are always amazed at the standard of work after a storytelling workshop."

This year a new team of organisers representing arts education, city library services and cultural education worked to link learning with leisure. New outreach sessions were held across the network of community-based venues.

Children's services librarian Ann Stephen and her colleagues used their contacts to bring authors and storytellers from far afield and to link in to initiatives such as the national Bedtime Reading Week in March and the University of Aberdeen's Word festival next month. Meanwhile, cultural services' education officer David Atherton used the collections at Aberdeen Art Gallery and his links with groups such as the Workers Educational Association and the Grampian Association of Storytellers.

One development for next year is likely to be a greater focus on encouraging children to participate as storytellers themselves. But that's a story for another day.

* Donbank Primary, which is one of four Aberdeen schools to pilot home school teachers, has used the annual storytelling festival as part of an ongoing programme to improve standards of literacy.

"Storytelling is helping to improve the children's literacy," says headteacher Margaret Bolton. "It vastly improves their listening skills; it enables them to access information in a comfortable and exciting manner; it inspires them to become more interested in reading and, ultimately, it improves their ability to reproduce information in an interesting and appealing way."

Home school teacher Lynn Saunders has a particular interest in storytelling and writing. Part of her job is to encourage parents into school to learn storytelling skills so that they can tell stories to their own children and, in some cases, groups of children in school.

"The ability to tell a good story is in all of us, but you do need confidence," says Mrs Bolton. "Hopefully, we are helping some of our parents gain that confidence and it's all down to events such as the storytelling festival."

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