Many children i n care fail to make the grade at school, especially when they move homes. But one woman believes she may have found the key to a better future: story books. Rachel Pugh reports
Screams shatter the calm of Leicester Forest East library as six-year-old Philip - in foster care and already permanently excluded from school for violent behaviour - rolls around the floor throwing books and chairs.
Library worker Karen Green walks towards him, sits down a few feet away and starts to read him a story. Philip's tantrum continues, but he gradually becomes distracted and intrigued. Eventually he quietens, moves closer, and, at the final page, asks quietly: "Karen, can I have another book please?"
It's a small miracle for the onlookers, including Philip's foster parents, at this reading workshop for children in care. Philip, co-operative at last, sits, listens and looks at books. For Karen Green, a foster carer with a passion for literature, the scene confirms a deeply held conviction: that books can transform the lives of children in public care, whether they are with foster parents or in residential homes.
It is a view that will surprise many. The educational attainment of children in care is lamentable: 75 per cent leave full-time education with no formal qualifications (compared with 6 per cent of the general population), and only 1 per cent go to university (against a national average of 37 per cent).
But Caring About Reading, a Leicester libraries project driven by Ms Green, is doing something about it. The scheme was one of the top three finalists for the 2003 Libraries Change Lives award, sponsored by the Library and Information Show and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip). The judges said the project demonstrated how exposing children in care to books in a dynamic way could boost educational achievement, improve behaviour, bring psychological benefits and possibly even improve stability in fostering placements. "I have seen reading change lives," says Ms Green. "We should never write off children in care."
Leicester library chiefs attribute the success of Caring About Reading to Ms Green, who has managed the project since its launch in September 2001.
In 16 years as a foster parent (she is currently fostering a two-year-old and a 16-year-old, and has two children of her own), she has looked after some of the most challenging youngsters social services could offer. She also has 12 years' experience in libraries, and reading has always been part of her family life. "I find that the answer is always in a book - usually a story book," she says. She is well placed to build foster carers'
confidence; for adults who have not always had good experiences of schools or reading themselves, sharing books with children might not come easily.
Ms Green started working with the 32 foster families in Oadby, Wigston and Blaby. Her first step was to visit all the families and let every child in care choose a book to keep. Ten children then helped to spend pound;5,000 on books to set up an online readers' circle for children in care. Her aims were to encourage reading, improve literacy rates, further the children's social and personal development, encourage them and their foster families to join a library and to stimulate interest in the education of children in care.
Since she started, the reading ages of the 55 children in the scheme have risen significantly. Nine out of 10 foster families now use their local libraries regularly and the project has been extended to north-west Leicestershire and to all 35 key stage 1 and 2 foster children in the county. Caring About Reading has been adopted as part of Leicestershire county council's public service agreement and will eventually be extended to all 275 young people in care in Leicestershire. The project has been taken up as a model of good practice by Cilip (formerly the Library Association) and the British Council.
Getting the co-operation of foster parents has been vital but not always easy. Not all of them are well educated themselves, and many need a lot of persuading that a poor education is no bar to participation.
The focus on the role of books in foster homes and children's homes began with Breaking Their Fall, a 1999 report from the Who Cares? Trust and the National Literacy Association (NLA) on the literacy needs of young people in public care. In the report and the video that followed, young people who had been in care talked about their school experiences, adults' low expectations of them and the difference access to books might have made.
The study echoed the findings of Professor Sonia Jackson at London University's Institute of Education, who has researched the attainment of children in public care since 1982, and concludes that expectations of them have been too low for too long, with education neglected when a placement breaks down.
Breaking Their Fall struck a chord with librarians nationwide. It inspired Right to Read, an NLA and Who Cares? Trust project set up in 2000 to show how books could improve children's lives educationally and emotionally. The pilot work included setting up libraries in children's homes and enthusing foster carers about sharing books with children, and attracted support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, which aimed to make the scheme national. Caring About Reading, with similar aims to Right to Read, was one of the first beneficiaries, with pound;19,000 funding from the foundation. The foundation has given more than pound;500,000 to 19 projects for children in care so far and plans to spend another pound;1 million between now and 2006, noting that "statutory provision for this group remains inadequate".
Over the past 18 months Karen Green has organised open evenings and taster sessions at local libraries for her foster families, as well as a children's workshop with author Jean Ure. She runs storytelling and activity sessions, which continue through the school holidays. The children love it.
The audiobook is one of her tools for drawing in troubled children, who can be difficult to enthuse about reading. Ms Green explains how she once fostered "the child from hell". Like many fostered children, the girl faced long daily taxi journeys to and from school. Her regular driver and escort were ready to give up because the girl's behaviour had become so violent, until the day Ms Green offered the driver a story tape.
The driver came back the next day begging for another, and now other drivers on the school run use them to improve the behaviour of their young passengers. Harry Potter, Enid Blyton's adventure stories, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and Rob Child's football stories top the list of favourites.
None of this surprises MsGreen. "Imagine you are a child who has had bad things happen to you and you're away from your family. Reading or listening to a story can help you to look at what has happened to you as a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It can give you hope of a resolution of your problems."
At a storytelling session at Wigston library, 11-year-old Loren eagerly reads aloud the beautifully illustrated PB Bear's Birthday Party by Lee Davis. When she was put into care three years ago, Loren and her sister had never been to school and never held a book. She says: "I like books that tell you how to sort out your problems. If I had a problem and I found out about a book that could help me to sort it out, I would read it."
The need to change the experience of children in care is clear. Eighty per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds who have been in care are unemployed, one in four 15 to 18-year-old girls is pregnant or already has a child, and 54 per cent of young male offenders are products of the care system.
Steps are being taken to acknowledge the difficulties these young people face, partly as a result of bad experiences before they reach care and partly due to the disruption to their schooling when placements break down.
Since 2001 the Department for Education and Skills has required schools to nominate a responsible teacher for each child in care. But those involved in the Caring For Reading scheme know that some schools still expect little of children wearing a "foster child" label.
Leicestershire's service manager for quality projects, Helen Millar, says:
"Evidence can only be anecdotal, but we hope Caring For Reading can be proved to contribute to placement stability." There might even be an occasional happy ending.
Children's names have been changed. More information about Caring About Reading at www.leics.gov.uklibrariesreading; or email: Karen Green: email@example.com. The Who Cares? Trust, Kemp House, 152-160 City Road, London EC1V 2NP works to improve the life experiences of young people in care and publishes resources for young people, carers and teachers. Tel: 020 7251 3117; fax: 7251 3123; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.The National Literacy Association publishes Believe in Me, a magazine for teachers supporting children in care, and can supply the Breaking Their Fall report. Telfax: 01202 484079; www.nla.org.uk; email@example.com. The Breaking Their Fall video, plus 10 copies of the report, is available from the Who Cares? Trust, pound;35 inc pamp;p. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org