"We are all humans." This was the simple yet profound answer I was given by the Year 7 boy I read with every week when I asked him what made us the same. It was an answer that, in its own way, demonstrated the success of the scheme we were participating in.
That scheme is a reading mentoring programme between sixth-formers like me at Bedales School in Hampshire and Year 7s at the Charter Academy in Portsmouth. The aim is not just to build literacy but to improve social understanding and create a community.
It's quite a task. On the face of it, there is little to connect the two schools or the students who attend them. We're just a 25-minute train journey apart but so much separates us. Most obviously, Bedales is a leading independent school in the leafy countryside and Charter Academy is a comprehensive with an inner-city catchment area that has high levels of disadvantage. Building bridges requires both groups to recognise that this is a two-way process.
The cool kids
It started two years ago. The basic structure involved teachers pairing a child from Charter Academy with a sixth-former from Bedales. Each pair chose a book and received a reading log. The Bedales students visited the Charter Academy library every Wednesday and would check the logs, which were meant to be filled in every day. We would then continue reading with our partners, using whatever material they chose. Before we met the children, we received training to tackle the reading challenges they might face.
The weekly check-in proved effective because the children wanted to impress the "cool older kids" and would therefore read every day so they had a full log to show off. Suddenly, they were reading with enthusiasm outside school.
This is a key aspect of why reading mentoring systems work. For most children, if a teacher tells you to do something, it is not going to seem as important as when someone in an older year group encourages you to do it. When I was younger and my mum told me to brush my teeth, I would object. But as soon as my 17-year-old brother said it was "gross" if I didn't, I was in the bathroom, brushing away.
These programmes are also great because they are simple to run. Once the schools have found a time and a place, the students can take care of themselves. And so, for a couple of hours a week, each child has someone's full attention.
Literacy wasn't the only focus; community and shared experience were just as important. The whole group began to build friendships and establish personal trust. I volunteered with the intention of helping - and I do feel the programme does the children we read with a lot of good - but I also ended up receiving the most influential schooling I have ever had.
Embarrassingly, I went into the exercise apprehensive about how I would be received. I thought these children would treat me with cynicism and no respect. I expected to find a classroom of rioting students who were going to laugh in my face when I opened a book. This was my ignorance. My reception was, in fact, the opposite. This was humbling and enlightening. I hope any preconceptions in the other direction have been proved wrong, too.
I want to make it clear, though, that this programme is most definitely not a tokenistic community service scheme. It very quickly becomes an emotional journey where both parties are deeply affected by each other. If schools run this type of programme, they must realise that a strong and important bond is made during these weeks. When the year comes to an end, it can be heartbreaking.
Independent schools tend to reach out overseas with their community service schemes, but what this programme emphasises is that global is, first and foremost, local. It opens each school to the heart of the other. It sets aside differences and creates a place of trust where we can help each other grow and find our common humanity.
Radheka Kumari is a sixth-former at Bedales School in Hampshire