A share in the children

13th June 1997 at 01:00
The City is investing in schools in neighbouring east London. Elaine Carlton reports

Mike Tyler, director of Tower Hamlets Education Business Partnership, spends his days rushing round the City of London trying to persuade businesses to send their staff into local schools as volunteers.

In a borough where two-thirds of the pupils speak English as their second language, finding sufficient companies to support its literacy programme often seems like an uphill struggle.

From the moment the Tower Hamlets children leave school in the afternoon until they return the following morning, many of them will not speak a word of English.

"They can't use their parents to help them so they must use someone else, " said Mr Tyler.

However, it is far more difficult to persuade companies to get involved in reading schemes in secondary schools. "Getting people into secondary schools is a far bigger challenge but they need support just as badly as primaries.

"Secondary schools are taking in pupils with literacy problems and that student carries this handicap through the secondary process and into adult life. These schools are geared up to help pupils pass exams. They are not equipped to handle the 60 per cent of children in the borough who do not speak English as their first language" So far just three programmes are running in the borough's secondary schools. Insurance market Lloyd's of London and insurance house Bowring support Swanlea school. Lloyd's, which also runs its own community programme, works in Bethnal Green Technology College and accountants Neville Russell has volunteers in Bow school. These programmes concentrate on Year Seven where a number of children, in the case of Swanlea, have a reading age two years behind their natural age.

Tower Hamlets EBP, an independent charity which receives no government funding, has also developed friendships with the Stock Exchange, fund manager Gartmore and American merchant bank, Bankers Trust. Mr Tyler is planning to build on these to provide further secondary schools with outside reading support.

Companies are far more used to having contact with secondary school sixth-forms and colleges than primaries but this is almost always concerned with work experience or industry days. It is far less common for them to provide literacy support.

Margaret Burden, from Community Service Volunteers, said: "Volunteers believe that the academic demands are greater in secondary schools and they find it very daunting and intimidating to walk into a school with thousands of teenagers. From a practical point of view, there are far more timetable constraints in secondary schools, which makes it more complicated to fit in the reading support."

But despite these barriers, Ms Burden is working on a pilot scheme for next term in two secondary schools.

Pupils at Central Foundation in Islington and Kingsland in Hackney will be offered literacy support for up to an hour a week as part of the scheme. Businesses which are located nearby have shown an interest, including Whitbread, the brewers .

Employees will have a regular slot - one lunch hour a week for six weeks - after which they will review the programme with teachers. The volunteers will all be trained before they enter the school.

Peter Stokes, who is running the project, said: "It is a fine line between leaving pupils to struggle with a word which could knock their confidence and helping them all the way."

Literacy problems in secondary schools are often dealt with as part of broader mentoring schemes where staff from local businesses are invited to help a particular pupil with any school work problems they have.

The Basic Skills Agency, an independent body working to improve literacy and numeracy, is funding 103 secondary schools to allow them to set up mentoring programmes involving staff from firms in their communities.

Leek High School in Staffordshire received a grant and is now bringing in employees from local businesses as mentors to low achievers in year nine. An agency spokeswoman said: "The volunteers are asked to come to school to help pupils with their own individual problems but this often this means helping with reading."

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