Reading recovery;Opinion

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
From soap star endorsements to supermarket campaigns, the National Year of Reading won enviable coverage, but did it work? Liz Attenborough analyses the results.

As the National Year of Reading draws to a close, it's time to reflect on whether David Blunkett's brilliant idea has made the difference he intended.

Are we now a nation of readers? The aim of the year was to support the literacy strategy in schools by involving the whole of society in a wide ranging campaign to encourage more reading, and create a culture that promotes reading.

It's clear that a real start has been made, and the challenge now is to make sure that the impact of the year is sustained well into the future and embedded into our society.

The sheer level of activity far exceeded our expectations, and it was evident that the umbrella of a national campaign provided the impetus for all sorts of organisations and community groups, as well as local authorities and schools, to join in and put reading at the top of the agenda.

It's impossible to measure just how many people have been involved, as the initiatives were so diverse. Sainsbury's sponsorship of the Bookstart books for babies project, for example, will offer book packs to 1 million nine month-old babies over two years. On a more local level, the year's co ordinator for Plymouth estimates that more than 18,000 children and adults participated in events. We know that more than 10,000 people telephoned the Brookie Basics telephone helpline, following the literacy storyline in Brookside, and 3 million copies of the booklet accompanying the TV advertising campaign A Little Reading Goes A Long Way were distributed. The TV advertising particularly targeted parents, and follow-up research showed the key message was absorbed - the importance of parents helping their children with their reading.

We thought primary schools would be too busy with the literacy hour to get too involved with the activities, but we were wrong. Many schools have made new contacts and connections, and redouble their general level of reading-based activity throughout the school. Imaginative links with sports clubs, inventive ways to use author visits, and initiatives to include parents have come to the fore. Extra funding for books in schools reinforced the message.

It has been gratifying to see real results. We were able to give pump-priming funding to 86 projects across the country. Successful projects have reached their target audience and found new readers. Some have managed to attract extra funding to keep themselves going. The Kids VIP project, with books and storytelling for children visiting parents in prison, will be supported by Puffin Books for three years, and the Ishango Reading Scheme in Manchester has two years of funding from Nuffield.

Many projects started during the campaign continue to develop - the Leeds Creative Reading Network, the North West Book Promotion Partnership, Sunday opening in some Essex libraries, the development of the LaunchPad Reaching Parents scheme (which attracted significant corporate sponsorship from Asda, London Transport, Ford and Random House).

Some events inspired by the year of reading have not yet happened, such as the Commission for Racial Equality's Global Words initiative in October and November. There are conferences reflecting on the year planned and the Library and Information Commission is completing research into the impact of the campaign on public libraries.

Even more important is to hear news of many local authorities confirming that their reading steering group has proved so valuable that they will keep those groups in place.

Westminster, for example, will be creating a permanent co-ordinating group for literacy and reading support across the city. Coventry has launched a reading and literacy strategy to ensure that the campaign continues long-term. Watford, West Sussex, Thurrock, Warwickshire - all these and more are committed to continuing the work started during the year, having found it presented ways for libraries, arts and education to jointly support efforts to raise educational standards.

It has been quite humbling to hear of some of the work going on and a real privilege to be able to give grants to allow excellent projects to get off the ground. Many have shown a great willingness to get involved - businesses, media, charities, individuals - because there really is no downside to promoting reading, instead of indulging in the national habit of wallowing in gloomy statistics.

Under the banner of Read On: National Reading Campaign, the National Literacy Trust intends to continue to encourage and stimulate people to get involved. We aim to keep the national framework in place to allow local participation in ways that suit the individual, the business, the library, the school, or the community.

We must not waste the opportunity we now have to capitalise on the new reading climate, and certainly cannot see reading slip down the agenda. There is much to celebrate, but still much to do.

Liz Attenborough is the director of the National Year of Reading.

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