Young people in children's homes are reaping the rewards of a novel scheme that recognises the crucial role of books in their educational and emotional development. Geraldine Brennan reports
The sky above the poppy-strewn meadow is a heavenly blue and dotted with fluffy clouds. Shantelle (not her real name) knew it would be a perfect spot for lounging with a book, especially when it was dark outside. Shantelle, a 13-year-old book-lover from Lancashire, dreamed up this design of rural tranquillity, which transformed a boxroom in the children's home where she lives into a haven complete with cushions, posters, reading lamps and an unlimited supply of new books. She helped with the decorating last September, and the library opened for business last term.
The bookshelves have been filled by the Right to Read project, organised by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the National Literacy Association and the Who Cares? Trust, a charity that campaigns for the rights of children in public care. Publishers donated books (from children's classics to contemporary mass-market series such as Animal Ark, The Sleepover Club and Star Wars). NLA director Charlie Griffiths then distributed them to 40 homes in five pilot local authorities (including secure units and homes for children with special needs).
In return the homes had to set up attractive and accessible areas to display the books and guarantee they would not be kept under lock and key. If children lose a favourite book or take it with them when they move on, no problem - Right to Read will send some more.
One aim of the project is to give children living in council-run homes the kind of access to books that a child in a moderately well-off family would enjoy. At present, books are treated as a luxury rather than a necessity in children's homes, paid for out of each child's personal needs budget, which also covers toiletries and Christmas presents, or under a vaguely educational extras budget that covers books and ICT (which can be just pound;100 a year for up to 12 children).
Charlie Griffiths found that any communal bookshelves that already existed were likely to be filled with hand-me-downs and charity-shop finds, many unsuitable for children. "You might find a Jackie Collins, a bodice-ripper and a Reader's Digest condensed collection, or ancient copies of classics that won't have wide appeal," she says. "There's nothing wrong with well-loved or second-hand books as long as someone's thought about what they are, but these children have the right to a choice of new books that will entice them to read, show them we think they deserve the best and be a comfort when they are angry, confused or upset.
"Publishers and others in the books industry have been very generous - I was able to send every home an extra box of books for Christmas or the new year."
Breaking Their Fall, a 1999 report from the NLA and the Who Cares? Trust, pointed to the low profile of books in the lives of many children living in residential homes or with foster carers. Some residential staff may already be committed to introducing reading into the daily routine. In Shantelle's home, the four staff read stories to up to 20 children most days. this has not traditionally been part of social work training, although the value of reading to young people is covered in the coursework of the new NVQ level 3 for foster and residential carers.
Another key element of Right to Read is informing and inspiring the adults in the lives of children in public care about the transforming possibilities of books, through its roadshow visits to the five pilot authorities.
Carers leave the workshops with armfuls of new titles (some for the children, some for themselves) but first they listen to Wendy Cooling, a children's literature expert who specialises in reminding adults and older children "of a time when books were lovely". At the roadshow's visit to Shantelle's home town, she says: "You can read picture books until you die. I've seen 15-year-old boys, said to be reluctant readers, glued to a big-book edition of We're Going on a Bear Hunt (Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury's bestseller for younger children). We've got to believe in stories, magic and imagination - they give children power and passion and make a difference to the rest of their lives."
As Wendy Cooling enthuses about her favourites - life skills books such as Ros Asquith's Teenage Worrier series; Morris Gleitzman's Bumface; Gregory Rogers and Libby Hathorn's angry picture book about life on the streets, Way Home - the audience nod and smile as they spot books that will be right for a particular child.
Poet Nick Toczek, one of Right to Read's team of supporters from the book world, which also includes poet John Hegley and author Jacqueline Wilson, adds that sharing books helps children find a way to retell and discuss their own life stories. "You can't eradicate a child's past but you can help them find a place for it," he says. "People will seize any chance to explore family associations and memories, however painful."
The pilot authorities - Blackburn with Darwen, Kirklees in West Yorkshire, the London borough of Islington, Somerset, and St Helens near Liverpool - are now expected to continue their own Right to Read training, buying in experts or using their library services, although books will arrive for as long as publishers are willing to donate. The pilot scheme has shown that Right to Read must have support at a senior level (so staff can attend courses, for example) and that a key employee has to be committed to making it happen.
Blackburn with Darwen already has the right person in Marion Russell, an extrovert Glas-wegian and former English teacher. Ms Russell is known across the local education authority, where starter libraries have been set up in six children's homes, as "her with the glasses and the books". At the opening of the library in Shantelle's home, she curled up on a bean bag to read Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow at the children's request. She says:"It's wonderful to see the excitement this room full of books has generated - the children have a real investment in it."
Blackburn with Darwen is a "new" LEA, a unitary authority formed in 1998 which took over the education function from Lancashire County Council. Its good record on attempting to improve services for children in care through its Equal Chances unit, where Marion Russell is one of three education staff, contributed to its selection for Right to Read. The borough has about 285 children in care and is responding to government guidance on their education published last May.
Every Blackburn with Darwen school has a "designated teacher" for children in public care, and schools are recruiting designated governors, with a third of these in post. The Equal Chances team, which liaises between social services and education staff, was set up as a result of another Who Cares? Trust pilot scheme. In the first full year of its operation, the percentage of children in the council's care leaving school with no qualifications fell to 24 per cent in 2000 from more than 75 per cent in 1999 (the national figures are 75 per cent in 1999 and 61 per cent in 2000). The government target of one A to C grade GCSE or equivalent for one child out of two in care by summer 2001 (75 per cent in 2002) looks achievable, although Charlie Griffiths is among commentators who believe the target is "dishearteningly low - it reveals poor expectations of teachers, carers and children".
The unit's projects include learning and homework support from qualified teachers in each children's home and a programme to encourage foster carers to use the borough's study support centres in community centres and public libraries. It has also started to serve a crucial function as a one-stop shop for carers with questions or concerns about education.
Judging from the comments at last term's Right to Read roadshow, this is necessary. Invited to ask questions about introducing children to books, the foster carers in the audience instead spelled out the pressing anxieties that sometimes got in the way. Chief among these were lack of communication with schools and what was perceived as a relatively high level of exclusions among children in care.
"There is a tendency for schools not to let carers know about problems until it's too late," said one foster mother. "With three out of four schools I've had good communication, but at the other one you can't get to talk to anybody. Knowing there's a designated teacher will make a difference."
"My eldest foster child has just left secondary school and I've never met any of his headteachers," said another.
Marion Russell points to the team's success in reducing the exclusion rate by acting as the point of contact between carers and schools when pupils are at risk of exclusion, and ensuring that schools discuss potential exclusions with parents. "There was only one permanent exclusion between February and October 2000, compared with nine between September 1999 and February 2000," she says. The borough's pupil support manager and exclusions officer have also advised schools and carers on early identification of difficulties.
Designated teachers and social workers are developing a personal education plan for each child in care as prescribed in Department for Education and Employment guidelines; under the Right to Read scheme children's reading tastes will be added to the information store that accompanies a child through changes of school and circumstance.
"The corporate parent, bless it, has no memory," Marion Russell points out. "It can't keep track of whether Diane might still want to be a vet at 10 because she was watching Animal Hospital at four and now she's reading Animal Ark and later she might think about choosing biology at options, getting a job in a local stables or doing a veterinary science degree. We need a document that supplies the memory for us, and what a child likes to read is part of that."
Comments from all the children's homes will be built into Charlie Griffiths's report on the pilot scheme, aiming to convince Government and social services directors that books have a crucial role in meeting children's educational and emotional needs, and can help open new chapters in turbulent life stories.
The Paul Hamlyn Foundation is now offering two years of funding to projects that improve long-term access to books for children in care, with imaginative collaborative efforts by LEAs, libraries and social services likely to benefit.
For Charlie Griffiths, another impressive legacy of Right to Read emerges from evaluation forms filled in by carers. "It's noticeable how many say that sharing books has led to better relationships between carers and children. One carer said the book area had given young people a quiet place to go, and that one girl headed for the books whenever she was upset. That alone makes it worth doing."
Breaking Their Fall is available from the NLA, Office No 1, The Magistrates' Court, Bargates, Christchurch, Dorset BH23 1PY. Telfax: 01202 484079. email: firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Who Cares? Trust, Kemp House, 152-160 City Road, London EC1 2NP. Tel: 020 7251 3117. Fax: 7251 3123. email: email@example.com. The trust produces a magazine, Who Cares?, for children in care and has published several policy and practice guides. The report on Right to Read will be available from the trust after February 28. Paul Hamlyn Foundation funding details from Susan Blishen, tel: 0207227 3500. Fax: 020 7222 0581. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
THERE IS A PLACE
There is a place
That is all mine
Where I will go
Even when I'm older
A long path ends
At a river side
Under a tree
And there I fill
My head with dreams
Of nice things only
And I watch the branches
Sway above me
Like the waves
On a gentle, green ocean
By Shantelle, aged 13