Elaine Williams on a project which gives children in care money for books
Owning books and having adults to share them with are two of life's essential pleasures which children in care often miss out on.
The educational and personal benefits to a child of having a special, relaxed and quiet time during the round of a busy day to read with an adult, are well known and well recorded. But these are benefits which children entering the care system, already educationally disadvantaged, have little access to.
Carers such as foster parents and social workers are primarily concerned with creating a stable placement and dealing with the traumas which brought the children into care in the first place. Moreover, many carers have not themselves had a good enough education to feel confident in offering help and support.
As many as 75 per cent of looked-after young people leave school with no qualifications, compared to only six per cent of the general population, a shocking indictment of the quality of education they receive. Disruption has damaged the school work and literacy skills of these children.
With this in mind the Who Cares? Trust, which was established in 1992 to promote the needs of young people in care, funded the Book of My Own project, giving almost 100 five to 16-year-olds Pounds 25 to spend on books of their choice, requiring that they be chosen and shared with an adult. For some it was the first time they had ever owned books, for others the first time they had set foot inside a bookshop. For many it meant much-needed individual attention over reading.
Children from Hampshire and Manchester were selected as these authorities are regarded as among the minority whose social service departments provide dedicated educational support for young people in their care. About 1,000 children are looked after in Manchester, about 80 per cent of those in foster care, and about 250 are supported by the teaching service at any one time, when their educational difficulties are seen to be threatening their placements.
For Judith, aged 16, who lives in Broome House residential home in Didsbury, having somebody to read with encouraged her to read out loud for the first time. She had gone to Waterstones book shop in Manchester with Jane Waring, her key worker, and selected six adventure stories and mysteries "mostly involving horses" with her Pounds 25. She read them with Jane in the evenings. "I used to hate reading out loud," said Judith, "but now I feel more confident. Now when my English teacher at school asks for somebody to read in class I volunteer. Last week I read to the whole of Year 11 in assembly."
When Judith moved into Broome House two years ago she had a statement which said that her educational needs could not be met by mainstream school. Abused as a child, Judith was a "very angry young woman". However, the Manchester Teaching Service for looked-after children was set up five years ago to support children in mainstream school and to fulfil a parental advocacy role.
Judith now attends secondary school where she is school librarian as well as a senior prefect. She relished the chance to buy books of her own and to have special time alone with her key worker.
Jane Waring said: "She has really enjoyed that one-to-one. When we first bought the books she just wanted me to read to her. We needed to go back to that nurturing stage. Then we read together. We have always had a chat at night but when the books arrived we read. She kept asking 'Can we read just a bit more.' We shared the difficult words, she didn't feel embarrassed about slipping up and it gave her confidence. She liked owning the books, she likes owning nice things."
Kuldeep, a seven-year-old in the care of his aunt and uncle, had never been read to before he was chosen for the Who Cares? project. According to Carole Gandy, Kuldeep's teacher as part of the Manchester Teaching Service, he lived in a loving and immaculate home "but with nothing of the child in it, no toys, no books, a completely adult household."
One Sunday afternoon Carole set off with Kuldeep and his 17-year-old cousin Ballal, "a street-wise kid", who had offered to read the books with Kuldeep.
She said: "They had never been into a bookshop like Waterstones in their lives. They were both like tiny children. We sat down and read stories. They were looking at books everywhere." Kuldeep bought two books, a zoo book because he liked animals and an Asterix book, which was obviously Ballal's preference.
Carole Gandy said: "Ballal read Asterix every night to Kuldeep. Every time I went to the house those books were out. Kuldeep's aunt was very pleased and could see real progress in him. These were the first books he had ever selected and owned and he liked to be seen reading them." The project report recommends that as part of their role as "good parent", local authorities should take active steps to promote literacy and make sure that social workers and foster carers are aware of the importance of literacy skills and encourage them to set aside time for reading. One residential children's home has already decided to set up its own library as a result of taking part in the project.
A Book of My Own, the report of a book-buying and supported reading scheme for looked-after young people by John Bald, Jackie Bean and Frances Meegan, is available from the Who Cares? Trust, Kemp House, 152 - 160 City Road, London EC1V 2NP.