The word on love of reading

Harvey McGavin

Everywhere you look in Benfield junior school, Brighton, you see books. From the small displays of religious volumes and picture dictionaries near the entrance to the book corners in every classroom and the newly converted library, the printed word is prominent.

For headteacher Ann Gilham, encouraging her 296 pupils to read widely and often is a key objective. She says: "If they can't read well then they can't access the curriculum, it's as simple as that.

Mrs Gilham, a self-confessed bibliophile ("When I was a child I used to read encyclopedias for fun"), has made reading a priority since arriving at the school seven years ago.

The refitted library, housed in a converted washroom and completed with the help of a Pounds 6,000 grant from a local charity, was opened in February. Colour-coded books cram its shelves or spill messily off them - a sure sign that the library is well used - and huge cartoons decorate the walls, souvenirs of a visit from author and illustrator Hilda Offen.

In the classroom book corners, where the children's handmade storybooks (titles include The Shrinking Children and The Frightening Scorpion) sit alongside their commercial equivalents. Benfield's intake includes a wide range of abilities and so reading partners are used to help the less able and there is a home reading scheme training parents to encourage the habit out of school hours.

But in contrast to her increasing efforts, Mrs Gilham has seen the money she can allocate to books diminish. She now spends between Pounds 2,000 and Pounds 3,000 on books and printed resources at around Pounds 5 to Pounds 7.50 per pupil per annum, some way below the survey average of Pounds 12.31 and, by her own admission, "inadequate". The school manages to supplement its book-buying with parental contributions and one-off fundraisers such as a sponsored skipping event which put an extra Pounds 300 in the kitty.

She doesn't blame Brighton and Hove Council - as a new unitary authority, she says, it is saddled with added start-up costs, but it funds schools as well as it can and runs an "excellent" school books service which offers long-term loans. For the school, budgeting is more of a balancing act between competing needs: "If we hadn't decided to keep our class sizes at 23 or 24 then we would have had more money."

She sees important implications for the book budget in the Government's drive to improve literacy and in the forthcoming Year of Reading. "If they are looking at whole-class teaching where you need more than one copy of a book then that is going to need really careful strategic planning over the next couple of years."

She believes that equipping children with the means to make the most of their education involves fostering a love of literature at an early age.

"It's about giving them a positive attitude towards reading and that's not just about money. But if we don't make books our priority it's not going to happen."

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