The word gets around;Literacy

26th June 1998 at 01:00
Read me - National Year of Reading.

The Government lit the flame by announcing the National Year of Reading. Now business has taken up the torch. Stephen Hoare reports.

The Government's National Year of Reading appears to be getting off to a flying start, with pound;23 million budgeted for schools to buy new books in addition to the pound;59 million allocated through the Standards Fund for updating the skills of primary teachers and supporting new and existing literacy and numeracy projects.

The National Literacy Trust is working with the Department for Education and Employment to award grants for reading projects. To date pound;400,000 has been distributed to 28 projects. The trust's National Year of Reading co-ordinator, Liz Attenborough, a former Puffin books editor, says: "We're looking for a number of criteria. Literacy projects should focus on wider issues, such as special educational needs, ethnic diversity, and look at involving adults as well as children."

The Government's focus on boosting the teaching of basic skills in primary schools is in line with business thinking. The managing director of Walkers Snack Foods, Tony Illsley, says: "If you can help children at a young age then you can reduce problems in all areas later on."

For the past two years, Walkers, based in Reading, has been supporting literacy in primary schools as part of its support for local communities near its food processing plants, in Leicester, Coventry, Peterlee and Swansea. Mr Illsley explains: "As a company we felt we wanted to put more back into the local community and focus our attention on an initiative where we felt we could make a difference."

Business in the Community, the leading body for corporate sponsorship of education, helped Walkers devise the scheme. The company provides books, guidance for volunteers and pupils' reading diaries to guide parents helping children at home. The scheme is operating in 20 primary schools and about 100 Walkers employees have volunteered to go into schools as mentors to hear pupils read. They have had a short training programme, and police vetting.

Business in the Community hopes to persuade other companies to follow the lead given by Walkers. Its director of education, Ian Pearce, says: "If you fall behind between the ages of five and seven, the evidence is that you never catch up. One in six school leavers has no qualifications in maths or English. This is the lost generation. It's the vast tail of underachievement who will not get jobs and for whom Welfare to Work has been designed."

The issue for business is that jobs are becoming more linked with high technology manufacturing and processes. Key skills are becoming ever more important. The merger of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications into a single body, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, shows government determination to address business's agenda.

Sue Horner, the QCA's principal officer for English, says: "Demands on literacy are now greater than in the past because of changes in employment patterns and the need for workers to achieve vocational qualifications to level 3."

Companies such as Tate and Lyle, Andrex Toilet Tissues and Fords on Merseyside have also been supporting schools by providing reading mentors, literacy support material and sponsoring projects run by specialist charities such as the National Literacy Trust. The trust has been particularly successful in attracting sponsors for its Reading is Fundamental programme of fun reading activities and books distribution, a British version of a formula that has been successful in the United States for many years.

The National Year of Reading will be followed next year by a similar focus on numeracy. By enlisting the support of business, the Government wants, by the end of its five-year term, to have 80 per cent of primary pupils reaching level 4 in English and 75 per cent of pupils meeting that target in mathematics by the time they are 11 years old.

Banks, building societies and utility companies have been the most active businesses supporting school numeracy programmes, with National Westminster Bank's Face 2 Face with Finance and the National Power Numeracy Project leading the field. The National Power scheme, now in its second year, has given pound;150 million to 500 schools which have applied for grants through local education business partnerships. National Power spokesman Andy Roe says: "This is all about wanting to help in the communities we serve. As a blue chip company we feel it is appropriate to education. There is no commercial spin-off and we are not looking for publicity."

Companies have also been quick to offer help in kind. Deidre Eastburn, chair of the National Education Business Partner Network, says: "Very few companies are spending money in schools. But they're likely to be involved in all sorts of other ways. We put companies with time, resources and expertise to offer in contact with schools which want help."

The Sheffield Star's Passport to Literacy campaign involved the newspaper publishing teaching support material for schools over eight weeks. The scheme aimed to improve literacy and drum up young readers.

Not surprisingly, the book publishing industry has been one of the main sponsors of the National Year of Reading. For National Book Week in April, which coincided with Shakespeare's birthday, publishers, printers and booksellers clubbed together to distribute a pound;1 book voucher to every pupil in full-time education up to the age of 18 and to publish a collection of the best in children's writing. The Children's Book of Books, costing pound;1.

Gail Rebuck, chief education officer of Random House, which publishes Red Fox Reading Gangs, says: "We're putting books back on the agenda and putting the fun back into reading." She adds: "All we can do is to try to change perceptions for a generation used to a large number of competing leisure activities - all of which seem more compelling than sitting down and reading a book."

So is business involvement helping? John Stannard, director of the National Literacy Strategy, believes it is. "We're not directly levering in large sums of private money but the National Year of Reading has sparked a substantial and wide-ranging input from industry and the media - all directly supportive of schools."

The director of the National Numeracy Project, Anita Straker, believes companies could do a lot more to promote problem-solving as a fun activity for all the family to support the work being done in the classroom. "Why don't more companies use maths puzzles on the backs of product packaging and drinks mats?" she asks."It would really help to break down people's negative attitudes."

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