Get into their good books

26th April 2013 at 01:00
How do you transform a town's literacy rate to as close to 100 per cent as possible? A giant sleepover, books on buses and a clever campaign are good places to start

Midday at a primary school in the North of England. Six tents have been erected in the hall and the windows are blacked out. Sixty chattering children arrive in their pyjamas and are divided into six groups of 10. Each group is given a torch and they rush off excitedly to their tents.

This is a sleepover with a difference - and not just because it's happening at lunchtime. Inside the tents there is a book for each child. They read snippets from their books and talk to each other about what they have read, while munching on a tasty snack - the midnight feast. And they are allowed to take a book home.

The sleepover is the latest method used to encourage children at Newham Bridge Primary School in Middlesbrough to read. It seems to work. "It was absolutely brilliant," says 10-year-old Joshua Dean-Mett. "I'm sure it inspired half the people to read. We all sat in our pyjamas and had books and snacks. I got to take home one of the Diary of the Wimpy Kid books."

A few months later the school held a reading competition to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, with children receiving prizes for the amount of reading they did. Joshua devoured book after book. "I used to just play video games until I went to sleep," he says. "But I read five Diary of a Wimpy Kid books that month because I enjoyed them that much. It's been crazy. I have loads of computer games, but now I have even more books."

Start early

The sleepover technique may not turn every child into a voracious reader. After 140 years of universal elementary education in England, we have yet to find a method that does. But a recent study, entitled Teaching Reading in Europe: Contexts, Policies and Practices, looked at literacy across 31 countries and found a few simple principles that work. Speak to babies positively as much as possible and ensure that small children have access to books. Schools should have a systematic phonics programme, specialist reading teachers and a range of entertaining activities. Outside school, libraries, charities, book gifting and the government can underline the message that reading is for everyone.

But the sleepover method exposes an even simpler principle - children need individual attention when they are learning to read. A new project - also in Middlesbrough - aims to do just that. The Middlesbrough Reading Campaign uses an array of resources: from schools, Sure Start centres, the local authority, the health service, private businesses and the media. The campaign, coordinated by the National Literacy Trust in partnership with Middlesbrough Council, aims to create a network of support for every child.

In an impressive coup, the initial funding for the campaign was provided by the Booker Prize Foundation and the Man Charitable Trust. Man also sponsors the Man Booker Prize, one of the most glittering accolades in publishing. It comes with a pound;50,000 cheque for the winner, who will follow in the footsteps of luminaries such as Hilary Mantel, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood.

A spokeswoman for the Booker Prize Foundation said: "We get masses of requests but what appealed about this one was the idea of taking a town and flooding it with literature and opportunities to read. This project is huge in ambition and reach. It is astonishing how many organisations have been brought in."

There is much work to be done. Middlesbrough is one of England's poorest areas; half of its wards are within the 5 per cent most deprived areas in the country. One of those wards is Pallister, where half of all families live in social housing; crime and mortality rates are high; and employment and educational achievement are low. Just 20 per cent of Year 11 students in Pallister left school with five A*-C grades in 2011 - compared with 59 per cent nationally.

Yet, against the odds, another primary school is achieving success in many areas - and one of them is reading. More than 60 per cent of students at Pallister Park Primary School claim free school meals - last year, the figure was 81 per cent for Year 6 students. A significant proportion of children are on the child protection register.

Pallister Park Primary has overcome these disadvantages to become an outstanding school and a teaching school. Last year, 84 per cent of students left with level 4 in English, compared with 85 per cent nationally. Ninety-one per cent met the target progress between Year 2 and Year 6, with just four students falling short. Attendance has risen from just over 80 per cent to 96 per cent. "The children want to come to school every day," says headteacher Chris Wain.

With primary schools at the forefront of the drive to get children reading, Pallister Park illustrates why they can't do it alone. Wain says that she felt a "moral obligation" to apply for teaching school status."There are not a lot of schools in our context that Ofsted would allow to become one.

"The government in London sometimes seem to know little about the real world. There are complexities when you're dealing with the third or fourth generation who have not got good literacy skills."

Attention to detail

There is no magic in the school's success. The headteacher focuses on finding and keeping high-quality staff, and looks for support and inspiration from other good schools and heads. She cares about her community and shows it in her attention to detail. "We give children a book for their birthday, wrapped up - with their name on it," she says.

Wain and her staff have shown that they can encourage, teach and inspire children once they are at the school, but what about the pre-school years?

Starting early is vital. A Department for Education study called How do Pupils Progress during Key Stages 2 and 3? found that more progress was made per year in reading by children aged 7 to 11 than by those aged 11 to 14. It also showed that students whose reading is poor when they start school are in danger of falling even further behind.

One answer is to get parents involved. At the Literacy Champions programme, which takes place at the TAD children's centre in Middlesbrough, parents work with other parents and toddlers on literacy activities. The aim is to reach lots of families and make it fun, explains Andy Parkinson, communities and local area manager for the National Literacy Trust.

Sarah Eales, 29, is a volunteer champion and a full-time mum with three children aged 2, 7 and 9. She says "literacy" for under-3s is not some kind of "tiger mum" acceleration programme. "It's simply chatting to babies and toddlers as you go about your everyday life, pointing out the trees, singing songs, looking at books," she says. "It's also about social skills, bringing them out of themselves - children and parents."

In the capital, the London Literacy Champions programme introduced 1,600 families to activities at local libraries. More than half said that it was the volunteers' support that had given them the confidence to go along.

The Middlesbrough Reading Campaign seems to be making an impact on pre- school and school learning, but what about the rest of the town? As part of the scheme, books are taken on to the town's buses. Jigger's Day Off, Michael Morpurgo's tale of a sheepdog who has just one day off a year, is just one of 15,000 books placed on Middlesbrough buses for passengers to use during the journey - and take home to finish off.

Michelle McGuire, a spokeswoman for Arriva North East, which is behind the scheme, says: "We want to encourage people to read to their children instead of sitting there bored. It's free time, so why not use it to read?"

The scale of the literacy challenge is huge. It sinks in as you travel round the ring road, past the old Transporter Bridge in Middlesbrough. Like the rest of the country, the town is suffering in the economic crisis. The local authority has just cut its budget by pound;12.5 million and says that a further pound;32 million will have to be saved in the next two years.

Clubbing together

Ray Mallon, the town's elected mayor and a former police officer nicknamed RoboCop, supports the campaign but acknowledges that it is starting from a low base - in some areas, 40 per cent of adults are struggling with literacy.

Can a free book on the bus, a chat with a parent about nursery rhymes, daytime sleepovers at school or busy headteachers on tight budgets really turn the tide?

The National Literacy Trust's Parkinson believes they can. "A lot of it is about getting working relationships between people working in schools, local authorities and healthcare in place," he says. Like reading itself, it is not about the individual components, but how you put them together.

It also takes a bit of imagination. Few people might, for example, link reading with football, but the link has been made in Middlesbrough where Middlesbrough Football Club is supporting the reading campaign. It runs Words for Work programmes in which staff from the MFC Foundation and local businesses go into secondary schools and talk to teenagers about the communication skills they will need at work.

Helena Pinder, the foundation's manager, who is also studying for an MA in education, says: "In Teesside, everyone supports their local club. That gives the club a community feel. Everyone in the town wants us to do well.

"In turn, we are an established charity. We've been running education projects for 11 years and use football to engage children. I would like to think we're all spreading the same message. You need literacy skills."

The National Literacy Trust plans to use Middlesbrough as a model for similar "hub" schemes elsewhere, and one is already running in Oxford.

The Transporter Bridge is the symbol of Middlesbrough, but in the 1930s the local firm Dorman Long was also behind the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia, which is stamped with the words "Made in Middlesbrough".

The town, as much as anywhere, knows that it is the small things - the nuts and bolts - that turn ambition into reality.

Photo credit: Getty

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