Books devoured with relish;Special needs;Books

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
Geraldine Brennan visits a school where Byron, Dahl and Frankenstein areall on the menu.

If it's Tuesday it must be spare ribs and pecan pie - followed by J T Edsonreading from his Wild West yarns. On Friday there's Byron's Italian poems for assembly and cannelloni for supper. On Ghostly Thursday it's Frankenstein's Feet on Sticks for lunch, and it's best not to think about Wednesday (Roald Dahl day).

It's book week at Knossington Grange, where Dahl and Roger McGough are favourite writers alongside Stephen King. The themed school meals are among several secret weapons in a strategy to ensure pupils get hooked on a reading habit. Also on the programme are author visits (including one from Chris Drake, an old boy who now writes science fiction and Captain Scarlet stories) and a session with a caricaturist.

There are trips to the Roald Dahl museum in Buckingham-shire, a screening of The Borrowers film and tours of two local newspapers and the Ladybird printing press in Loughborough.

The Grange is an independent residential school in a Gothic pile near Oakham, Rutland. The pupils - 75 eight to 16-year-old boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties - have been referred by their LEAs in the hope that the Grange's combination of education, care and therapy will help them return to mainstream education. An average of six boys a year do so.

The Grange's success in improving reading earned a special commendation in the school's glowing Office for Standards in Education report in 1996. Earlier this year it was one of only two EBD schools with secondary-aged pupils mentioned in Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead's list of highly effective schools.

Boys arrive with a wide range of reading abilities. "Some are unable to read, some are very keen, and many come from homes with no books," says the school's head of education, Robin Lee.

"We use any means at our disposal to show them that books are fun and interesting, including drama and poetry. We make sure there are newspapers and magazines around and that there is a wide choice of books in our boarding houses for evenings, when reading is a voluntary activity.

"Literacy is the key to all our work and we take a systematic approach, reading one-to-one with each pupil every day until they reach a reading age of eight-and-a-half. We've been doing literacy hour for years. A lot of thought goes into matching reading material to areas of interest."

In the second class in the lower school, the pupils' chronological age is between eight and 13, while the reading age is between eight-and-a-half and 10 years three months. Anne Basden, head of lower school, makes use of Ginn's series of fast-paced stories for reluctant readers such as Impact Horror, Humour and Sport.

"I also use plays for paired reading which helps to keep their interest up, and Story Chest mixed-age-range selections for the boarding houses. The key is interest and variety."

The Grange does not have a library - its book collections are spread around the school and boarding houses - but has set up an unused dining room as a book room for the week. The pupils are producing a daily news sheet and individual books with their own writing.

Highlights of the week (apart from the food) are the chance to escape from school and connect the printed page with the world of work. Many pupils' parents are unemployed, and the school sends Year 11 boys on workexperience.

At the Ladybird factory, formerly the commercial printers Wills and Hepworth ("Dennis's Lincolnshire Pig Powders, 10d per dozen" in 1900; corset catalogues in the 1920s) the Grange party saw some of the day's output of 100,000 Ladybird books printed, bound and jacketed. Then they chose a book each. Fitting in nicely with the week's programme, Ladybird does a film tie-in edition of The Borrowers.

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