Elaine Williams meets the sports commentator who gave up his day job to champion reading among disaffected boys, the latest star to join the crusade for the written word.
Pinched, resentful, sullen faces stare back at Paul Sleem as he enters the classroom - the faces of boys who long ago lost the art of hopefulness. These boys are on the verge of exclusion from Medlock Valley high, a special school for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties in east Manchester. At 13 and 14 they are on the brink of a life without education, of being reclaimed by the streets. While their teacher, Jill Richford, prepares the boys for their next lesson, Paul Sleem walks across to one of them, Daryl, to say hello. Daryl wants to disappear. He slides down his chair, his chin virtually resting on the desktop. He hides his face with an arm in plaster. He makes no response. He's been in a "mood" all morning, and has no intention of coming out of it, not even for this new guy, a 6ft 3in embodiment of black chic.
Paul Sleem is unperturbed. He's seen this before. The slouching boys' silence does not deter him. The poise and energy of this striking, besuited figure, full of smiles and good humour, contrasts hauntingly with the scrunched-up, downcast, listless figures before him. He is here to get the boys reading, and has no doubt that, by the end of the lesson, his magic will have worked.
Sleemo, as he likes to call himself, was formerly the "voice" (commentator) of the Manchester Giants basketball club. He evolved a unique blend of match commentary and engagement with the spectators. Young and old, schoolchildren and adolescents, were encouraged to sing, dance, rap, read and write poetry in the pre-match warm-ups.
A graphic design graduate whose first job was in the fashion industry, Sleemo is a walking one-man show. Over the years he has developed acting skills (he has appeared in Emmerdale and Coronation Street) and become an inspired master of ceremonies appreciated by the many charities that have used him. He has co-hosted a charity gala at the London Palladium in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales. And in 1999 he received a certificate of commendation from the Lord Mayor of Manchester for his charity and community involvement. Throughout, he has maintained a commitment to education and developed the Giants' schools policy.
When he acted as MC at the launch of the east Manchester education action zone, his outstanding ability to engage children struck Jackie deLuce, the zone's literacy manager. She persuaded the EAZ to seize the moment and hire him to raise literacy standards among boys, one of the EAZ's priorities. "He has a gift for engaging children," she says. "He is gentle and non-threatening, and has a unique skill for spotting the excluded, the child on his or her own, the one in real difficulty, and bringing them on."
The decline of heavy manufacturing in east Manchester in the 1970s led to high unemployment, poverty, disaffection and standards of educational achievement well below national averages among a largely white population. The EAZ has focused on addressing social inclusion, involving parents and raising attainment in literacy, numeracy and ICT. Paul Sleem now acts as a roving ambassador for reading in the zone's 17 schools, but also works on the schools' wider needs, tackling issues such as racism, targeting particular groups and individuals. He was recently made a National Reading Champion by the government-backed National Reading Campaign, and is one of a growing band of sportsmen involved in promoting boys' literacy.
John Amaechi, who also grew up in Manchester, is a multi-million-pound player with the US basketball team Orlando Magic. As a passionate reader - he reads and writes poetry and is midway through a PhD in child clinical psychology - he has been drafted in by the National Literary Trust to promote the Reading is Fundamental scheme, which provides books to children in schools in deprived areas around the UK. He says: "A lot of boys want to be sportsmen, so my message to them is, maximise yourself in as many areas as possible, and that includes reading."
Under Paul Sleem's wing, reading sessions in east Manchester become enlivened, if not downright entertaining. He blends storytelling, tutoring and general advice on attitudes and behaviour. To complement his classroom work he runs basketball coaching sessions, school discos and an EAZ-funded website to promote children's writing, www.lets-reachout.com.
Sleemo says he is eager to make a long-term commitment to the children of east Manchester. "I didn't want to be flown in as a quick fix. That's demoralising for children. I do think I can help children to have belief in themselves; you have to build them up. My mother supported me. She taught me never to use my colour as an excuse, to have self-respect. The word respect was always in our house, and I want to help these pupils have self-respect. Being a reader is part of that."
On this particular morning, Sleemo is as sure-footed as ever, knowing that by the end of his hour with this band of tearaways they will be falling over themselves to come out and read to him in front of the group, wooed by his cool, his banter, his street wisdom. He talks to them about growing up in Manchester's Moss Side, and how people always assumed that as a big black guy he must be dealing in drugs. He talks about his own difficulty in reading, how he used to stutter and stammer as a child and how other kids laughed at him. He switches with ease between spirited jocularity, parading, dancing, laughing, and serious straight-talking, about the need for trust, the importance of making the right choices.
He reads a story, Little Giant and Jabber Jabber, by Hiawyn Oram (Andersen Press pound;9.99); the tale of a boy with a mischievous spirit who sits on his shoulder and constantly exhorts him to get up to no good. As the story progresses, Sleemo's audience warms up, until the boys are eager for every turn of the page, encouraging each other to get up and read. They become smiling and responsive, a rare event.
As well as being a teacher, Jill Richford is a co-ordinator for Projectmeld, the EAZ's learning support centre for EBD pupils who are truanting or about to be excluded. "These pupils are very disaffected, but he makes them want to learn to read," she says. "By the end of his session (Sleemo spends six weeks with each group) he will even have the non-readers standing up and reading in front of the others. They become so excited about his every visit. In my career I have never seen anything so magical. He even gets them laughing, and these children never laugh. I believe he does have a lasting effect."
The National Reading Campaign continues to seek out male Reading Champions - men and boys who inspire others through their enthusiasm for reading. To nominate a champion or find out more about the existing champions, contact Genevieve Clarke at the campaign on 020 7828 2435, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.literacytrust.org.ukcampaign champions.html
A few miles down the M6 from Manchester a scheme to draw eight to 11-year-olds and their fathers into reading has been born which could soon be taken up nationally.
The Premiership Reading Challenge, devised by libraries in Walsall, in the West Midlands, is supported by the FA Premiership and funded to the tune of pound;22,000 by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Wolfson Reader Development Programme. The challenge, which has just finished, involved teams of up to four people (containing at least one adult and one child) "playing" a Premiership football club by choosing recommended books from a list linked with the club. For example, the reading list for Arsenal ("The Gunners") is on the theme of attack and defence and includes War Boy by Michael Foreman, War Dogs by Martin Booth, and the novels of Robert Westall.
The challenge was completed when a team had "played" all 20 Premiership clubs, having read 20 books between them. Four hundred teams registered, half involving fathers, and 100 completed the challenge. Dan Johnson, spokesman for the Premiership, says: "It is a brilliant idea and it ties in with the work we are doing in our 13 study support centres at Premier clubs."
Details about Reading Challenge promotions from Dan Johnson on 020 7298 1690