A Ministry of Justice report showed that 48% of those arrested in the summer riots of 2011 were unable to read or write properly by the time they had left primary school. Over 88,000 children left primary school last year unable to read to the required standard. In London around one in five children leaving primary school sadly just don’t hit the standard required.
There is no doubt that London’s educational performance has been a relative success story over the last 20 years. We know, too, that the single most important factor in quality education is the standard of teaching. You can forget class sizes, school uniforms, homework, after-school clubs, and access to internet teaching programmes. All of these may play a part but the quality of teaching is the most significant factor by some distance.
If a child starts to fall behind, though, for whatever reason, it can be very difficult for teachers to find the time to give them the individual help they need. I can remember reading to and with all of my children. My oldest son – who is 31 in June – still remembers camping holidays with me reading Lord of the Rings to him and his three brothers. More importantly though he, like the others, would have read to me when he was even younger and beginning to read himself. All readers need that help at some stage.
However, not every child gets the opportunity they need. Maybe their parents are not strong readers themselves. I know of one school where children were asked to bring in a book from home and they brought in an Argos catalogue because it was the only book in the house. Maybe their parents are too stressed or too busy to read.
Volunteer Reading Help has been stepping up to the plate and meeting that need for nearly 40 years. It trains and support volunteers who go into primary schools and spend a couple of hours a week reading with children. Each week it has 2,000 trained reading helpers across England supporting around 6,000 primary school children (aged between six and 11 years old) each year who are struggling with their reading. Each reading helper supports the same three children week in, week out for a whole year, giving each child two half-hour sessions of quality, one-to-one time per week.
This provokes a couple of responses from me. Firstly, I like the scheme – it’s evidence of impact is good; VRH is a well run, well organised charity led by a very smart capable CEO in Sue Porto. And secondly, we should work to raise some money for them to extend their work initially to another 50 schools in London, hopefully from September.
But I have also been thinking about those volunteers. I know from Sue that they are all sorts of people, many of them retired but many not. The impact those 2,000 people are making is huge. Children who could not read can now do so partly because of their help. The whole world opens up to those children. School makes more sense. The world around them – adverts, TV, the internet – begins to have a whole new set of possibilities. I know the volunteers get a lot of satisfaction from the work they do. But basically they are doing what they do out of the kindness of their hearts. That compassion, that generosity of spirit is not unusual. It is part of the human condition. However, it is maybe not so often featured in our media. There is perhaps more appetite for bad news. I don’t know. But that simple goodness is there, it is around us, it is part of our lives, and we should not forget that, and we should cherish it.
There are lots of other spheres of life dependant on volunteers. The whole fabric of sport in our communities would be impossible without volunteers, for example. Also, when I ran a children’s hospice in Surrey we had very wealthy women living locally who employed cleaners at their own homes, but came along and donned the marigolds to clean the hospice toilets and bathrooms themselves. And here at the Fund, we benefit from this philanthropic spirit in the form of our special advisers and interns who contribute immeasurably to the success of our extremely important work.
We should not be surprised at evidence of compassion. It is a key part of human nature. Nevertheless, it’s good to see.
Go to mayorsfundforlondon.org.uk and click ‘Donate Now’ or text ‘TMFL11£10’ to 70070 to donate £10 to the cause through JustGiving.