A world of reading pleasure up the Beanstalk

I GREW up surrounded by books. Reading was the most important activity for many members of my family and I could read before I went to school. I was lucky.

Not all children are so fortunate. Many grow up in homes with no books, no newspapers and where nobody is seen to read. My mother read to us every night and when we were able to read for ourselves we were encouraged to read for half an hour when we went to bed. There are many children who don’t grow up with this experience.

It is not easy to find absolutely up-to-date and credible statistics on where England ranks in terms of literacy and numeracy, in comparison with other developed countries. But it is clear that there are many young people who are failed by the education system in this country.

That failure results in depressingly bad results, as reported by the respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in a comprehensive survey which was widely reported in 2013.

One of the most shocking aspects of the report was that not only did it find that levels of basic skills were lower than in its previous survey but that some school leavers were achieving lower scores than their grandparents’ generation.

The OECD research showed that 16 to 24-year-olds are close to the bottom of global league tables in literacy and numeracy. England was ranked 22nd out of 24 western countries in terms of literacy and 21st for numeracy – being outperformed by a wide range of countries including most of Scandinavia, and Estonia, Poland and Slovakia.

The report showed that most countries had made little progress helping the weakest students improve their performance in reading, mathematics and science over the past decade. The OECD comments that too many young people leave school without the basic skills needed in society and in the workplace and that the levels of basic skills had effectively worsened over the last 40 years, with recent school leavers registering lower scores in tests than their parents’ or grandparents’ generation.

Statistics from the literacy charity Beanstalk highlight the problem at primary school stage – and show the cumulative effect and direct correlation between literacy and the future prospects of young people.

• In July 2014, more than 66,000 children – 12 per cent – left primary school unable to read to the required reading standard.

• 1.5 million children will reach the age of 11 unable to “read well” by 2025 unless urgent action is taken.

• 70 per cent of pupils permanently excluded from school have difficulties in basic literary skills.

• 25 per cent of young offenders are said to have reading skills below those of the average seven year old.

• 60 per cent of the prison population is said to have difficulties in basic literacy skills.

Beanstalk works in more than 1,200 schools across England, helping primary school children to read – 8,406 in the 2013-14 school year. It aims to help more than 18,000 a year by 2018. To achieve that growth, the charity needs more funds and more volunteers. The organisation has now come to Somerset – the first county in the south west to have a Beanstalk scheme – thanks to the support of Wells Festival of Literature.

Beanstalk was founded by Susan Belgrave in 1973 – now in her 90s, she lives in Dorset, and was at the launch event in Wells. The charity recruits and supports trained reading helpers to work with children, aged from seven, who are struggling to read. Volunteers help three children with two half-hour sessions a week for a year, and the results over many years show that this one-to-one attention helps the youngsters to attain the reading levels for their age-group.

Wells Festival of Literature is committed to supporting education projects and encouraging a love of words in young people so the involvement with Beanstalk is a natural progression. The charity’s work in Somerset will be managed by Amelia Shaw, who is also the London area manager.

The local project is being co-ordinated by Sue Rye, a member of the Wells festival committee. At the launch, she said: “This partnership with Beanstalk goes to the very heart of our vision at Wells Festival of Literature. We want to encourage the love of reading in the community and among young people, and we know that Beanstalk’s work can help change the course of childen’s lives.”

For more information about the work of Beanstalk visit www.beanstalkcharity.org.uk and for more information about Wells Festival of Literature visit www.wellsfestivalofliterature.org.uk

Fanny Charles