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Young in care learn the riches of reading

Su Clark reports on an initiative to improve prospects for reluctant young readers who are being looked after by local authorities

The joys of reading are a closed book to some children. The lure of the television or computer games can be enough to prevent any child from developing an appetite for books.

But for those who are, or have been, looked after and accommodated by local authorities, further obstacles, such as limited access to books, peer pressure and lack of adult encouragement, make the chances of getting hooked on reading even slimmer. And it has repercussions for the rest of their lives. Low attainment is endemic among this group of children.

The Scottish Book Trust is determined to change this. It has linked up with the children's charity NCH Scotland in an initiative aimed at nurturing a love of reading among children in care.

In January, it began working in three NCH Scotland regions - Moray, Western Isles and central Scotland - to develop a rich reading environment for children aged between 3 and 16 in residential and foster care homes.

"We want to make reading part of everyday life for children and young people in care," says Pam Wardell, project manager of the scheme, Reading Rich.

It could prove an uphill task. Over the past four years, the Scottish Executive has targeted millions of pounds at children in the care of local authorities. Yet the most recent Audit Scotland report revealed that while 93 per cent of children across Scotland attain Standard grades in English and maths, they are attained by only 40 per cent of those in care. This group has one of the lowest levels of attainment among children in Scotland.

"Young people in care are not reaching their educational potential," says Steven Paterson, assistant director at Who Cares? Scotland, an organisation that champions the rights of children and young people in care.

In its report A Different Class, published by the Scottish Executive in 2004, Who Cares? Scotland revealed poor results among 7-to 18-year-olds in care. Of 170 surveyed, even those achieving qualifications did less well than the national average, while those in residential units fared worse than those in other care settings.

"The average age a young person leaves care is 16 or 17, approximately five years earlier than those who live in the family home. It means that when they should be studying for qualifications, a lot of time is spent preparing them for independent living," says Mr Paterson.

There are additional factors that make it difficult for a young person in care to succeed academically. High numbers are excluded from school. Others are simply disengaged. Many are victims of bullying. Some are out of school because no placements have been set up following a move within the care setting, such as a change of foster homes.

A Different Class found that 40 respondents were not in full-time or part-time education, including one 7-year-old who had had no placement for six months. Sixty-five per cent of unofficial leavers (those who should legally be in full-time education) lived in residential units.

It is against such a backdrop that the Scottish Book Trust and NCH Scotland, with pound;90,000 over three years from the Scottish Executive, are trying to improve the experiences of young people in care.

Initially, 50 young people will be targeted for Reading Rich, but the plan is to roll out the initiative to all the NCH Scotland regions, as well as to young people with learning disabilities and 16-to 21-year-olds in supported housing.

Ms Wardell, who is charged with getting the first tranche of reluctant, disaffected young people to pick up a book, is a force to be reckoned with.

A trained drama teacher and former BBC radio producer, she talks quickly and enthusiastically. All the participants know her well and she is determined to be hands-on.

"They call me the Book Wifie in Moray and the Book Wimmun in Stornoway," she says with a throaty laugh.

"I have to travel a lot to help set up the scheme, though once things are in place I won't need to be there so much, but I'll still visit them regularly."

Ms Wardell also plans to write regularly to each young person involved, to encourage reading and correspondence.

The first step is to provide the participants with a home library of 10 books that will be theirs, and which will be added to over time. This is made possible by support from Ottakar's book shops and Edinburgh-based publisher Barrington Stoke, which produces specialist books for reluctant readers.

The children will then be encouraged to start their own reading files and record their reactions to the books. These will then be collated into books or CD-Roms.

"The files will include photographs, poems, jokes, captions, reviews, drawings, cartoons, book lists and their own personal writing; anything that stimulates them," says Ms Wardell. "We want to show them that words and stories are an integral and valuable part of their world."

It is not just the children who are being targeted in this initiative.

Recognising that adult support is hugely significant in encouraging the reading habit, the book trust is reaching out to the carers of the children involved, both in foster homes and residential units to support the young people.

"Children learn to read and enjoy stories through sharing those stories with significant adults in their lives. The encouragement from such adults is fundamental to establishing a love of reading, writing and telling stories," says Ms Wardell.

Getting the carers on board may be critical in persuading young people that turning off the computer and turning to a book can be a worthwhile choice.

It is not enough to give the children books; they also need someone behind them reinforcing the message that reading can be joyous.

The final step will be to take the Reading Rich initiative out into the wider community. Ms Wardell would like to see schools and libraries getting involved.

For now, it is early days. So far only 35 young people have been recruited.

But already one 12-year-old boy has built a shed with a carer and plans to write a book about the process.

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