Wendy Cooling meets the 1993 winner, Susan Belgrave
The Eleanor Farjeon Award, established in 1965, is conferred annually by the Children's Book Circle for outstanding services to the world of children's books. This year's ceremony began with a tribute by Elaine Moss to Marjorie Fisher, the first in a list of distinguished recipients, who died on Christmas Eve 1992. It seemed especially appropriate that the 1993 Award should go to Susan Belgrave, the founder of Volunteer Reading Help, as the charity enters its twentieth year.
It's easy to see how Susan Belgrave, a woman of real determination and commitment, opened the way into London's primary schools. As a secondary school governor she saw that children entering the school with poor reading skills had little chance of catching up afterwards. She thought about it, became a Care Committee worker to get real experience of primary schools, observed, listened, got to grips with the bureacratic workings of the education service and then went into action. Susan's idea was simple, but inspired, and was based on a belief in a grass roots approach which is still very much with her today. She was certain that many children experiencing difficulties with reading could be helped by one-to-one support and that this was unlikely to be provided on a regular basis by hard-pressed class teachers. Here was a role for volunteers, volunteers from all walks of life, who would work with children in school and help them `to have a happy time with the printed word'.
It was 1973, the Bullock Report which was to focus minds on reading was still unwritten and many primary schools had signs on their gates saying, NO PARENTS BEYOND THIS POINT. Susan Belgrave took on the authorities, used all her diplomatic skills and got her seven volunteers into the classrooms. The seven have expanded to nearly 900, their ages range from 18 to 80 and they are from all cultures and backgrounds. There are now 12 Volunteer Reading Help branches around the country and volunteers are working in 427 primary schools with just over 2,600 children aged six and above. Susan's volunteers, her `nuggets of gold', have proved the value of the organisation and have helped thousands of children to feel good about themselves and their reading. Sometimes progress is slow and a volunteer wonder whether to continue ... only to be inspired afresh by the class teacher commenting on how different the child is in class -joining in group activities and growing in self-confidence. Volunteer Reading Helpers aim 'to give as many children as possible a better chance in life, through literacy and the dramatic improvement in self-esteem it brings'.
How does it work?
Well-designed posters asking for people to 'help a child to read' are displayed in public libraries, health centres, etc. Patience and interest are the only qualifications needed. Volunteers are invited to meet VRH staff and, as they are applying to work alone with children, are asked for a medical reference to ensure that they are emotionally stable. Three training sessions follow - one run by VRH staff, one by a teacher and one a few weeks into the work when Volunteers really know the questions they need to ask. One of the first trainers was John Welch, a former ILEA Staff Inspector for English and an inspiring speaker on reading. The commitment of a man who was constantly in demand and who also did excellent work for gifted children indicates the strength of Susan Belgrave's idea. As the number of Volunteers has grown, regular support by telephone, visits and newsletters is now offered and there are termly meetings, refresher courses and book exchanges.
Volunteers go into schools with a suitcase of 26 carefully chosen books and four games. The teachers select the children to be helped -children with little confidence, under achievers, those for whom English is a second language and those with little parental support. Volunteers do not offer specialised help but simply read with three children, individually, for half-an-hour, twice a week. They aim to match the books to the child's interest, to create a feeling of friendship and confidence and to make the reading sessions fun.
VRH was run from home for the first seven years and Susan Belgrave raised funds and persuaded her friends to become Volunteers. In 1980 VRH became a registered charity and grants from several Trusts helped to fund book-buying and a part-time secretary. Today Lady Plowden and Sir Peter Newsam are active patrons and there is a Director, a small national staff and a regional organisation. Funds are received from the Department for Education, local authorities and, with LMS, direct from schools but the main income is still raised via donations from companies, trusts and individuals.
Susan Belgrave is now VRH's first President; her commitment has never waivered and she is an outstanding ambassador for a flourishing organisation. In accepting the Eleanor Farjeon Award she did so on behalf of all the Volunteers who have given `love, time and patience' to children who, for whatever reason, had become discouraged in their reading. She began VRH she told me because she enjoys a challenge, believes in the value of unpressured encouragement and is an incurable optimist.
Meeting Susan is quite an experience. I was caught up in her enthusiasm for action and touched by the warmth and determination of her personality. She talked of literacy in her speech, and of her concern that still children leave school with inadequate skills to deal with our complex society, and she referred to the 99 by 99 Campaign, launched that morning. Her voice must be listened to as she calls for action rather than words.
The VRH national office is at Room 438, High Holborn House, 49/51 Bedford Row, London WCI V 6RL (tel: 071 404 6204).
The Eleanor Farjeon Award is sponsored by the Books For Children Book Club, and is administered by the Children's Book Circle. For details on how to become a member of CBC, contact Francesca Dow at Orchard Books (tel: 071 739 2929).
Until recently Wendy Cooling was Head of the Children's Book Foundation. Before that she had been a teacher for 20 years, and now plans to spend her time on consultancies and in-service work.