Many children in care find the most reliable adult they encounter is their reading volunteer. Victoria Neumark reports
Deirdre Watson "works with the worst society can do and the best society produces," as organiser of a new reading mentor scheme for looked-after children. Run by Volunteer Reading Help, a national charity which matches book lovers with reluctant readers in schools, Time for Children is bringing the stimulus of shared reading into the often chaotic and bookless lives of children in care. It's officially a success: having finished its pilot three years in the North West, funded by the National Literacy Association, it's about to be rolled out nationally.
For Ms Watson, a passionate advocate of the rights of children to "at least be able to read a book", it's an exciting and fulfilling time as she sees the most unlikely pairings turn into reading-based relationships in respectful, focused meetings of half-an-hour once a week.
The meetings, either at school, in residential children's homes or in libraries (for legal reasons, volunteers cannot go into private or foster homes) anchor children. The 63 young people currently in the North West programme, which covers five education authorities, are matched with volunteers from students to young professionals to the retired.
They tend to be women, since male abusers are sadly more frequent, but do include some men (all volunteers have Criminal Records Bureau checks). A two-day training is supplemented with information on child protection procedures.
"I'm just at the end of a phone line or email," says Deirdre. "You can feel quite drained after dealing with our children. Either because they are so unresponsive or because they carry so much tragedy, they can be difficult to work with. Yet they can also be immensely rewarding."
Andy, for instance, whose home life is unpredictable, makes Herculean efforts to arrive at school for Monday morning to share reading with his helper Val. Andy is 12, his face is pale and wan and he does not like school. "It's rubbish," he flares up in an unprecedentedly eloquent outburst. "You can't eat in lessons, you can't drink in lessons, you can't talk in lessons, teachers stressing at you all the time, you have to wear stupid uniform that makes you look like a squat nerd. I can't wait to go to college."
But when Andy looks at Val he has the sweetest smile and she, a comfortable granny figure who used to work in a library, says how much she enjoys sharing her time with him. They alternate games - hangman, Boggle, Scrabble - with reading, mostly factual books. "She reads one page, I read one page," he explains. Val followed Andy from his primary school and has been the most constant figure in his life.
Or there is Shabnam, a smart young Asian professional woman whose love of Shakespeare has helped her get painfully shy, awkward teenager Josie back into school, choosing GCSE options, publishing poetry in online competitions and learning Punjabi to "chat with my mates".
Meanwhile, sparky little Katrina, who successfully hid her dyslexia for years, met her match with Pippa, a young legal executive, who challenged her minutes into their first meeting in the children's home: "What does that mean? Can you tell me?" Now Katrina makes presentations in front of audiences of 200 and 300, takes part in arts activities and has won a poetry competition.
What all these volunteers have in common is their commitment: sometimes they travel for hours to keep faith with children. After meeting with beloved adults who cannot, for whatever reason, fulfil their parenting role, the children are often in a feverish whirl of disappointment. "We can't make their lives better," says Ms Watson, "but we can help them read."
For schools, Time for Children offers a welcome boost in the national drive to raise standards of academic attainment for children in care. Although the percentage scoring five A*-C at GCSE has doubled in the past five years, it is still only 10 per cent. "What would we say," asks Ms Watson, "if our own children did so badly? And yet, corporately, these are our children. We have to help them do better."
www.vrh.org.uk. The National Literacy Association is organising a free reading roadshow for foster carers in Birmingham on October 18, 10am-2pm, including advice from children's book consultant Wendy Cooling. Book on firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 0121 622 5143. Register forThe TES's free Time to Care symposium on November 14: email email@example.com. See the advertisement on page 18 for details