More than six million adults have serious difficulties in reading, writing or understanding English. Forty per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds in colleges lack basic literacy and numeracy skills and 25 per cent of adults aged over 19 are classified as functionally illiterate.
Such appalling statistics come as no shock to me. In 1995 I attended a Business in the Community Seeing is Believing event covering some of the most disadvantaged areas of Leeds. That led me to develop the Walkers Reading Programme.
Walkers has historically supported local communities in conventional ways, such as sponsorship of local activities, donations to local causes and charities, and membership of local business groups. However, as a nationally recognised company, I felt it was important for us to be able to provide a more substantive answer when asked by organisations what activity we supported. Business in the Community provided a focus for our community activities.
I wanted Walkers to take a lead in an initiative that could add significant value to the communities where we have a strong presence. It was also important to support an activity that helped ordinary people in their everyday lives.
After a lot of research I decided on a reading programme aimed at five to seven-year-olds. This age period is critical for providing a strong foundation for a child's education and development and their ability to contribute to and play a valuable part in society.
With the enthusiastic aid of Business in the Community, the Prince's Trust organisation which works with businesses to support social and economic regeneration of communities and the education authorities, the Walkers Reading Programme was established.
Twenty-six schools took part in the pilot. Each was provided with funds to buy a treasure chest of 35 books, selected to meet the needs of the national curriculum, and supplemented by materials such as teachers notes, certificates, reading records and stickers.
But to really put something back into the community takes more than just money, it takes commitment and time. The reading scheme gives employees at all levels an opportunity to become involved. We have 100 employees who spend time in schools acting as buddies helping children learn to read. Each buddy receives tutoring on how to be a mentor before they go into the schools.
In July 1997 we had a full review of the pilot scheme, running re-search groups with teachers. The feedback was so positive that the programme was formalised for the new school year in September 1997. Now we are working on a strategy to expand it through partnerships with other large companies.
This scheme led to our involvement in the Government's advisory group for the National Year of Reading, the programme run by the National Literacy Trust in conjunction with the Government that is aimed at improving literacy levels among every sector of the community. As well as the introduction of a literacy hour in primary schools from September, it includes a pound;5 million programme of summer literacy schools and a pound;4 million family literacy programme.
I hope that our programme may inspire and motivate other businesses to become involved in similar activities and support the Government's initiative.
* Tony Illsley is managing director of Walkers Snack Foods.