New food for thought;Basic skills

4th June 1999 at 01:00
Can't read or won't read? Literacy schemes aim to involve all kinds of people. Andrew Mourant reports

For much of her adult life, Lisa Finn had a sense of going nowhere. She couldn't wait to leave school and earn some money, but soon found factory work unfulfilling. Tied down by the demands of raising three children, she was in a rut.

However, a literacy scheme run for parents and children at Blackthorn Lower School, Northampton, has dramatically raised her expectations and restored her confidence.

"It wasn't that I couldn't read when I left school I but I hardly ever did. There was no encouragement from the teachers. And watching my own children go to school, I had the feeling that I wasn't capable of helping them," says Lisa.

Now Lisa, who works at Blackthorn as a lunchtime supervisor and is also a voluntary classroom assistant, can see herself as a future professional - possibly teaching or as a nurse. She has embarked on an NVQ working with children in early years. While not all parents on the literacy course share Lisa's goals, she says that some have made great strides.

Blackthorn's literacy programme has been sponsored in this, its second year, by Barclaycard (whose headquarters are in Northampton). Such has been its success that headteacher Julie Alliott wants to spread the word among other schools in the neighbourhood. Alongside her as she addresses parents will be Barclaycard's community and corporate affairs manager, Irene East, and Lisa.

Two years ago, Lisa would never have spoken in public. "I'll give it to them in black and white: how the course has helped me, my confidence and my children," she says. "My daughter Hannah, who's six, used to be very shy. Now she'll answer questions - the confidence is there. And where I would never bother with a book or newspaper, now I'd rather read than cook the dinner."

Mrs Alliott wants industry to become more aware of what schools are about and better understand their needs. "But it isn't just about money - what we want is worthwhile links," she says.

Her school's scheme is the sort that Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett is seeking to encourage through the National Year of Reading initiative. In terms of commercial involvement, there's no shortage of activity - more than 50 Business in the Community companies alone are involved in reading schemes.

For Liz Attenborough, NYR project director, the crucial development is awareness of the level of poor literacy.From banks to football clubs, there is now a wide spectrum of involvement.

However, some companies were committed long before the NYR was launched, notably Lloyd's of London, whose four-year literacy improvement project in Tower Hamlets, east London, is highly developed. But Lloyd's is not the only firm involved in the borough - 800 volunteers from 59 organisations have been working in more than 50 schools.

According to a detailed questionnaire by the Tower Hamlets Education Business Partnership, 90 per cent of pupils in schools with Lloyd's reading partners improved their comprehension. Sixty per cent were more self-confident and half had improved self-esteem.

Greg Brooks, of the National Federation of Education Research, says: "We're hoping to set up a more quantitative evaluation of the project in east London using tests designed with a standardised reading text, but planning is in its early stages."

Enthusiasm for the NYR has, in some quarters, been tempered with caution. "A year which is celebratory in tone could easily humiliate those who struggle to read," warns British Dyslexia Association chief executive Joanne Rule.

BDA project worker Jane Myers says the glow of NYR-generated publicity has brought benefits. "The year has strong emphasis on books and, while there is a certain level of intimidation in that for dyslexics, I think that has been balanced by allowing two important projects to develop."

NYR money helped develop the Pentonville Prison "Touch, Type, Read and Spell" project, which fosters basic information technology skills and literacy. And with NYR funding, the BDA has produced a resource book aimed at employers, with information about dyslexia and working within the local community.

"There has been quite a good take up," says Myers. "While we've had our reservations, the NYR has given the BDA and dyslexia institutes the opportunity to do things that might not have happened so quickly."

There is no shortage of support and advice for anyone seeking a business link for their school. Business in the Community has 11 regional offices as well as a London headquarters, and there are more than 250 education business partnerships.

Before contacting your local EBP, says Mike McCann, chairman of the National EBP Network, you should think about what you're after: cash for extra books or reading volunteers. "Should the partnership feel that, instead of acting as a broker, there is something that could be better, they will direct schools to the relevant contact," he says. "Some partnerships may be more effective than others, as levels of resources and personnel vary."

If an EBP does take up your cause, then normally, there would be a first meeting between the school and the company, brokered by the EBP, says Mr McCann. At this stage, agreement should be reached on who are to be the co-ordinators at the school and the company, as well as the date of an induction meeting at the school for volunteers.

Some partnerships will also organise training in reading techniques for business volunteers.

Mr McCann also advises: "If there is a school governor in business, try to use that connection. Teachers have friends who work in industry - imaginative heads will find ways of going direct to companies."

National Education Business Partnership Network, Windsor Slough EBP, co Smithkline Beecham, 11 Stoke Poges Lane, Slough, SL1 3NW. Tel 01753-502384.National Year of Reading, National Literacy Trust, Swire House, 59 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E 6AJ. Tel 0171-828-2435. Fax 0171-931-9986. Website: in the Community, 44 Baker Street, London W1M 1DH. Tel 0171-224-1600.

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