More than a brief encounter

16th April 1999 at 01:00
A City law firm's employees are using their lunch hours to help primary school pupilswith reading. Nicolas Barnard reports

The accountants have been despatched to help Hackney's failing council and in one of the borough's primary schools the lawyers are also going in - by the dozen.

City law firm Linklaters and Paines has linked up with Thomas Fairchild school in Shoreditch, east London. Every day members of staff turn up by bus to help pupils with their reading.

The volunteers - who range from law partners to fax operators - pair up with pupils, listening to them read for 15 minutes, then reading to them. Children have visited Linklaters' offices and some have become pen-pals with the lawyers' own children.

The scheme has trebled in size to 60 volunteers since starting in September. A third of the school's junior pupils now have reading partners, with a dozen Linklaters' staff arriving daily, and more than 100 on a waiting list: a middle-ranking solicitor would normally charge pound;150 per hour for his or her services.

The marriage broker for this relationship was Hackney Education Business Partnership. The failing authority - where accountants KPMG are drawing up plans to contract out the school improvement and language support services - is increasingly turning to business for help, most notably in setting up an education action zone.

The authority borders the Square Mile, yet the contrast is stark. Moving from the commercial landmarks of the City to the bustle and ethnic mix of Whitechapel, Brick Lane or Shoreditch means simply crossing a road.

"We're so close to the City, and yet we're a deprived area where 70 per cent of pupils have free school meals," says Thomas Fairchild's head, Alasdair Friend. "When the children went by taxi to Linklaters for the day, we realised a lot of them had never been into the City, yet they live only two streets away."

No formal teaching goes on in the sessions, an important point both for Linklaters and the school. The children taking part are the better readers; the scheme is thought less appropriate for pupils who are struggling.

"Linklaters' volunteers provide an add-on to the teachers," Mr Friend says. "The relationship that develops is almost as important as the reading.

"It has boosted the confidence of some children enormously. On a simple level, we have children here who now put reading ahead of football at lunchtimes."

The scheme has had other spin-offs - Linklaters' librarians are helping the school to set up its new library, and artwork by pupils features on the firm's new Saatchi-designed brochure.

The firm's new community relations manager, Caroline Knighton, describes it as a great leveller for staff, with partners and secretaries alike helping children to read.

But the greatest benefit is the feel-good factor, she says. "You're feeling stressed, you go out for an hour and you come back with a very different perspective."

More mentors

Mentoring is popular in the Square Mile. Law firm Clifford Chance, for example, has 70 employees who read with pupils at Shapla Primary school in Tower Hamlets, east London. Lloyd's of London is also involved, along with Deloite and Touche, Gartmore, lawyers Herbert Smith, NatWest, BP, Unilever and the Bankers' Trust.

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