Hundreds of thousands of people go to book groups across the UK, but here in Gloucester it’s working a little differently: the 11 members are teachers and the books on the table are all children’s titles.
They are here in response to an educational predicament – now the subject of national debate in schools – that teachers have too little time to read children’s literature, and that includes reading it to their class. It seems this lack of engagement is having a knock-on effect on children’s own desire to pick up novels just for fun.
This isn’t merely about fun, though. “Our research shows that children who read for pleasure do better at school across all subjects, so helping them develop a love of reading from a young age will set them up for success in life,” says Catherine Boulton, head of schools business development at the National Literacy Trust.
“As well as boosting attainment, reading for pleasure increases pupils’ general knowledge, understanding of other cultures and people, and their place in the community.”
It’s a topic that was high on the agenda at last year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival and the result is this book club, part of the Reading Teachers = Reading Pupils programme led by Ali Mawle, the festival’s director of education. She now hosts these sessions for groups in the county every half-term.
At each meeting, primary teachers discuss a novel selected by a panel of experts from the publishing and education sectors, books she describes as “beautiful and carefully chosen for plot, character and a connection to ideas about what it is to be human”.
Lisa Loxton, a teacher at The Rissington School in Cheltenham, says that it has been time well spent. “I’d got into the habit of looking for books linked to topics and using them to illustrate those topics,” she says. “Now I’m exploring novels outside the set themes for the term, and reading those books for 10 minutes at lunchtime and 10 minutes at the end of the day – and they are loving it. Loving that time, but also coming up with new ideas in the classroom as a result.
“Every time they do, I’m reminded how beneficial this is. My teaching is better because of it.”
An evaluator from the Open University is here this evening and is following all of Mawle’s sessions. The team, led by Teresa Cremin, will also be doing observations in schools and interviews with children; along with the teachers taking part, they’ll all report back at a special event in July.
“In a couple of years, we’d like to see this become a national programme and extend it into secondary schools,” says Mawle. “This pilot and the evaluation at the end of it will be useful for that.”
She plans to train champions around the country who will run their own book groups, and create a community of teachers who can share ideas both locally and nationally.
Jenny Hulme is a freelance journalist