The Reading is Fundamental project is giving books away to crack the literacy problem at home. Jonathan Croall reports. The words "Oxford" and "disadvantage" are rarely seen as synonymous. Yet many pupils at Bayswater middle school, living less than two miles from the bastions of privileged learning in the city centre, suffer greater deprivation in their lives than children in inner-city areas of Birmingham or Manchester.
Unemployment on the local Barton estate is high, and single parenthood common. In some homes the furniture has been sold to pay for drugs; in others a parent may be in prison.
"Life is tough, families are under stress, and just to feed and clothe the children is a mark of success," says headteacher Clive Lambert.
Reading rarely looms large in the children's homes. Some parents are unable to read; few homes have more than half a dozen books; television is usually the focal point. Little wonder that the average reading age of the children in each year group is 18 months behind their actual age.
It's this mix of problems that has led to the school being chosen as one of the first dozen locations for Reading is Fundamental (RIF), the National Literacy Trust's new project launched last week. Starting in September, it aims to spread the message of reading for pleasure by getting books into children's homes and involving parents in the process.
"We're trying to create a new generation of readers in areas where intervention might make the most difference," says Roy Blatchford, RIF's director, and a former headteacher. "It's part of 'The book fights back' campaign. Technological literacy is very important, but without the basics of reading, children will just switch off."
Helped by Pounds 400,000 worth of sponsorship from Tate Lyle, RIF plans to set up 80 projects over the next three years. Each project will receive Pounds 1,500 in the first year, with which to buy discounted books from publishers, and distribute them free to children, who will make the selection themselves.
A similar scheme has been operating successfully in the United States for 30 years, where some 3.7 million children have been targeted. Sports stars, notably top basketball players, have attended distributions at some of the 6,000 projects nationwide, acting as role models for the children.
Follow-up research has shown that the more books there are in the home, the more children's reading skills improve. As a result of the work of RIF in America, reading test scores have improved significantly, children have spent more time reading, and parents have become more involved at home.
Peter, aged 12 but with a reading age of eight, is one of those the scheme is designed to help in the UK. In the library at Bayswater school, he's enjoying the luxury of half an hour's individual attention from teacher Diane Ansell, of a kind that's all too rare in his own classroom of 30 pupils.
A few minutes' hesitant reading shows up the serious problem he's having in recognising vowels. His teacher notes down his errors, suggests ways of improving his recognition, and then gently reinforces what he's learned with a few word-games. On the other side of the room, 10-year-old Tara is receiving similar help from teacher Norita Roberts.
Both support teachers come in for these sessions as part of Reading Quest, Bayswater's own version of Reading Recovery. Children get three half-hour sessions a week for six weeks. Results so far have been encouraging, and occasionally spectacular: one girl improved her reading age by a year in the six-week period.
But more support is needed, and the school hopes RIF will help it to build on this initial work. A book committee has been set up, consisting of parents, teachers and children, and next year 75 children in Year 5 will receive three or four books each at distribution sessions, linked to a tea party or similar event.
Nationwide, parents are seen as crucial to the success of the scheme. At Hague primary school in Tower Hamlets, where there are many Bangladeshi families, videos of stories such as The Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are will go home with the books, so parents can better understand the stories.
Brighton, Birmingham, Walsall, Oldham, Hammersmith, Southwark, Leeds, Bristol and Hastings are other areas chosen by RIF. There are hopes that, beyond the 80 funded projects, other schools, education projects, playgroups or community organisations will sign up to the principles; and so qualify to buy quantities of discounted books.
Roy Blatchford has no illusions about the difficulty of the task, "It will be an uphill battle, there's a long tale of underachievement," he says. "But it's vital that as a nation we crack the problem of children's literacy; and I think this concern now goes right across the political divide."
Further information from the National Literacy Trust, 1a Grosvenor Gardens,London SWlW 0BD. Tel: O171-828 2435