David Blunkett’s stated aim was that the National Year of Reading should involve the whole community and change the culture of the nation. As the Year draws to a close, it is time to reflect on what took place and what should happen now. Has it turned us into a nation of readers?
Liz Attenborough , Project Director, The National Year of Reading, explains what has been achieved during a hectic Year.
Books for Keeps readers don’t need me to explain why reading is so important but I will fill in a bit of the background to the Year of Reading. As you know, the Government’s Literacy Strategy is designed to raise standards of literacy amongst current and future school children. The National Year of Reading was intended to support that aim by making reading a whole society issue.
The National Literacy Trust, a small literacy-based charity, was given the task of organising the Year. We aimed to create a national framework in order to allow local participation in ways that suited the individual, the business, the library, the college, or the community. We aimed to encourage all sectors of society to think about reading, to celebrate reading, to read more widely and more often, and to support children’s reading outside the classroom. This included reading books, newspapers and magazines, and developing the skill to access all kinds of information.
We engaged partners in a wide range of media to talk about reading, and to include reading in their television and radio programmes.
The sheer level of activity around the country generated by the Year far exceeded our expectations. The umbrella of a national campaign provided the impetus for all sorts of organisations and community groups to get involved. We have been told over and over again that this or that initiative, activity, connection or event would not have happened had it not been the Year of Reading.
National initiatives included the Government’s highly successful television advertising campaign, under the slogan ‘A little reading goes a long way’. This was expressly designed to encourage parents to take time to share reading with their children, with books but also through such things as shopping lists, sports reports, menus and other reading opportunities outside the home. The accompanying booklet, obtainable from a freephone number and through supermarkets and Post Offices, reached three million people.
The Year has also been for adults and this was a more difficult message to get across. We were helped by Brookside when it ran an adult literacy storyline, accompanied by a video clip encouraging the use of a phone line for viewers with difficulties to be directed towards their nearest adult literacy centre, where they found Brookside-related materials to help in their work.
Businesses, too, played a supportive role in the Year, recognising the value of a literate, well-informed workforce. The Boots Company plc hosted a conference that attracted business leaders to discuss literacy initiatives in the workplace and in the community. High profile initiatives included Sainsbury’s £6m two-year sponsorship of Bookstart, and the News International/Walker’s Snackfood campaign for free books for schools. Whatever you may think about crisps in school, the value of the stories running day after day in the Sun and the News of the World cannot be overstated, highlighting the importance of children’s reading and of good book stocks in schools. A key audience was reached on a daily basis over many months.
Businesses were also keen to provide employees as volunteer reading helpers in primary schools. Companies like W H Smith, Barclays Bank, Lloyds of London, Unilever, Glaxo Wellcome, Boots and McDonald’s are amongst many companies who have trained and supported their staff to help in local schools. Other support came in the form of the use of the NYR logo on such things as Tetley tea bag boxes, on Golden Wonder Wotsits snack food packs, and on multi packs of Smarties.
Businesses got involved in other ways with their staff, too. The Ford Motor Company in Dagenham is running a family-based Learning Together project in the workplace, open to employees and their partners and children. They also created workplace libraries for staff and their children. Whitbread extended their work with schools by sending leaflets with hints for helping children with reading to all their staff who are parents. Orange created and encouraged workplace reading groups through the business community, with companies such as Marks & Spencer amongst the first to sign up.
Local authority involvement
At the start of the planning for the Year, the invitation went out to local authorities to take a lead in organising events. They were encouraged to set up cross-sectoral steering groups involving education, libraries, business organisations, arts bodies, voluntary venues such as leisure centres. All local authorities had a local co-ordinator in place, and 11 authorities were able to create that as a full-time post. Libraries took the lead role in the majority of authorities.
To provide a structure to the Year, and to give us the opportunity to shift the focus to different sectors of the audience, we suggested themes for each month of the Year. These were enthusiastically taken up, and ranged from an early years focus in November, with the BBC running a three-week television campaign targeting books for babies, to March becoming sports reading month, with a variety of football, basketball, rugby and ice hockey stars up and down the country becoming involved in local events.
The campaign also had a fund of £800,000 available to give out as grants to organisations to pilot new reading and literacy initiatives that others will be able to learn from. Amongst the 86 projects funded were a number specifically for young people and their parents. These include:
- Projects to support children visiting their parents in prison by providing books and storytellers; running reading groups in young offender institutions.
- Early years projects such as providing collections of pre-school reading materials in health centres; bilingual storysacks produced by an Asian Elders Centre; a poster/leaflet for parents of pre-school children with known disabilities or likely educational problems, distributed through social services and health visitors; and the production of tactile books for pre-reading children who will go on to learn Braille.
- School age projects encouraging an entire local council work force to read a story to their town’s 25,000 children; a storyteller employed to work in four special schools and train teachers, parents and other carers; and a project designed to teach reading to children who cannot speak.
- Teenagers were encouraged through such schemes as street events, and the production of magazines by teenagers, for teenagers; a project that involved work with graphic novels and illustration and design using ICT; and a project specifically targeting socially excluded 13-16 year-olds through work with the National Youth Agency.
And all the while schools have been beefing up their book weeks, adding a reading dimension to many regular activities, and inviting a host of authors, poets and illustrators into schools to talk about reading. We are so grateful to authors for giving their time in this way. Schools were far more involved than we might have expected. With so much going on in primary schools during this particular period we had not expected quite as much activity linked to NYR.
So has it all been worth it? Undoubtedly yes, I say. The profile of reading has been raised, the climate is beginning to change, and many, many doors have been opened. The task now is to draw together significant outcomes, and share the best ideas widely, adding value to the work in schools as a consequence of the Year’s activities. Businesses have been encouraged to think about their role, and where local authority support was at a high level there have been enormous benefits. I have been particularly pleased to see education and libraries working together, and where good local steering groups are in place there is no wish to disband them at the end of the Year. The interconnectivity of education, library, youth work, literature work, voluntary and business organisations has shown that new approaches to how people learn can have high and long-lasting impact.
We are working now on an end of the Year report (available end December), with evaluations and reports from initiatives around the country. Some key messages are emerging. These include:
- Parents know they should introduce books to their babies and they know they should help their children with their reading – but they just do not know how best to do it. We all have a role to play in making people more comfortable in the reading community by sharing ideas and information.
- Reading being high on the national agenda means that all sorts of local initiatives can get off the ground. Contacts have been made and initiatives triggered that will last well into the future.
- Mention reading and people instantly think of children, and of learning the skill. It is much harder to switch the thinking to adults, and to reading for pleasure.
- People did not need much persuasion to start thinking about joining in the Year – it was quickly recognised that there were few downsides to being involved in such a venture. This high profile for reading must be maintained.
- The sharing of ideas has been invaluable – why start from scratch when there are already so many excellent tried and tested ways that might suit your child/school/community/business.
Reading on into the future
Whilst the Year itself has come to an end, the National Year of Reading has been the start of a new beginning for reading in this country. The National Literacy Trust, with support from the DfEE, will continue over the next three years the networking, promotion and information role established during NYR, providing support to the wide range of reading practitioners now in place. To further that aim, we have adapted the logo READ ON, National Reading Campaign. One of our first initiatives is to produce some good practice guides for different sectors, to showcase good projects and offer pointers to new partners.
We must not waste the opportunity we now have to capitalise on the new reading climate – we certainly don’t want to see reading slip down the agenda. There is much still to be done to ensure that we truly become that nation of readers.
For further information, contact the National Year of Reading Team, National Literacy Trust, Swire House, 59 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E 6AJ (tel: 0171 828 2435).