Diana Hinds reports on a project that is turning children into avid readers. A brightly-coloured series of paintings of different parts of the world hangs above the bookshelves in the entrance hall of Leighswood junior school in Walsall, and underneath are clusters of pins, each bearing a child's name. Between lessons, eager pupils pause beside the paintings to check how far their pins have moved, and a man dressed in furs and carrying a sword saunters casually past. "That's William Tell," explains the head teacher, Jan Taylor; "it's the deputy head's challenge."
Unlikely as it may sound, these are the signs of a craze for reading that has taken hold at Leighswood, as well as at 30 other schools (including one comprehensive) in Walsall, inspired by a new reading project called Books and Beyond.
The scheme was first devised in California in 1978, by teachers concerned that their pupils watched too much television and had not developed the habit of reading. In 1993, Tim Hazledine, head of learning support services in Walsall, won a scholarship, sponsored by the NASUWT, to work on the project in America, where it is now used in some 5,000 schools. Seconded by the education authority on his return, he introduced it, successfully, at the King Charles primary school, and the project is now spreading right across the borough.
The idea of Books and Beyond is essentially a simple one: to encourage families to read together, by providing them with incentives to do so, and modest rewards. Each school turns a large wall area into a giant reading progress board, depicting a thematic journey.
Over a three to six-month period, all those who choose to take part have a marker, or pin, which travels across the board according to how much they read. Schools can set their own targets, but Tim Hazledine recommends 20 books per stage for emerging readers, or 300 pages for experienced readers, which are recorded on forms and signed by parents. As well as a special medal for those who complete the journey, schools can offer small inducements along the way, such as certificates or stickers.
The beauty of the scheme is that it leaves room for teachers to use their imagination in exactly how they organise it. Leighswood school, for instance, came up with the idea of a journey round the world, with rewards of flags and badges (designed by the pupils) for each country, given out every Monday in assembly, as well as extra treats like a piece of Swiss chocolate in Switzerland and a fortune cookie in China. In addition, members of staff have promised to dress up - hence William Tell - if a certain number of pupils make it through a particular country.
Being read to, Tim Hazledine emphasises, is just as important as reading to yourself, so this also contributes to the reading journey. And there is no cost to the readers, since one of the most valuable offshoots of the project has been in encouraging children to use public libraries. There is a further incentive here, too: Walsall librarians give children who borrow books a Books and Beyond raffle ticket for a fortnightly draw at the school.
Another key to the project's success is that it involves not only the pupils but their families and others connected with the school. At Leighswood, 230 out of 270 pupils are taking part, as well as another 150 or so parents, teachers, governors, support staff, and siblings. The children love checking up on their teachers, according to Jan Taylor, pointing out if they've been stuck in Switzerland for more than a week.
She is optimistic that, since it was launched in November, Books and Beyond has fostered a reading habit in her pupils which will continue long after the reading board comes down.
"We had been particularly concerned recently about those children who were reading at their chronological age but who were not avid readers - an increasing majority, for whom going home and switching on the box was their usual entertainment. What this project has done is remind them that they can make choices about how they spend their time. The motivation to read is now huge, and the habit of going to the library is well established."
Although she and her staff have put considerable energy into the project, there has been little paperwork: the tasks of form-collecting and pin-moving have been done by two parent volunteers. As for the cost - an estimated Pounds 600 for the rewards - that has been met largely by sponsorship from a local hinge and bracket firm, and money raised from the balloon race which launched the project.
The final proof that Books and Beyond is working in Walsall is the enormous enthusiasm of the children. "I like getting the flags," said Andrew, aged 8. "I don't usually like reading - I'm more interested in CDs," admitted Lucy, 11. "But when Books and Beyond came, I started reading more books. It's getting me a better education, and I'm also practising for senior school".
For more information, contact: Walsall Education Development Centre 0922 711931.