Patron of Reading

Dispirited at the idea of children being tested on their reading skills aged six, Tim Redgrave, head teacher at Ysgol Esgob Morgan in Clwyd, began to look for an alternative way to inspire children to want to read. He came up with the idea of reading patrons.

Redgrave explains, "There was a lot being discussed about children being tested on reading at six years and I felt that this would just not inspire readers – I can't think of anything less inspiring than to be told you’d be tested on reading. It makes reading a threatening thing to do."

As children who struggle with reading attach bad feelings to it, Redgrave wondered about how to attach something more positive to reading and whether someone famous could inspire readers? He explains, "Children all seem to have aspirations towards being famous these days and I had read about JK Rowling going to visit her previous school. I thought we should look into bringing someone inspirational to our school."

Just as the arts has patrons, he began to wonder whether the school could have its own patron of reading, and then remembered earlier meetings with the author Helena Pielichaty. "I had met her a few times and she had previously visited the school and we all got on well. I asked her and she said yes, and then asked, 'What is a patron of reading?' I admitted that I didn't really know but we thrashed out some ideas.

"I didn't want it to be author-led, though, it needed to be school-led; it is too much to ask an author to do. What I wanted to happen was for us to say to the school, 'Here's an author, she's our patron of reading, go and seek her books and if you like one, there are more to read'.

Pielichaty, who has been brought in to the project under a professional agreement, has visited the school a couple of times and the school has regular contact with her through emails and Skype sessions are planned.

The benefits, says Redgrave, are already becoming apparent. "All our reluctant readers are reading more. One lad has gone from being shy and not reading to becoming an avid reader with strong views about what he is reading, and that has happened since May. I know it's working because I can see children reading all over the school and you can't find Helena's books in the local library because they are all being borrowed."

Some 120 children have so far come into direct contact with Pielichaty and every class has a Patron of Reading display so she's never forgotten. She writes the school a regular newsletter, talks about the books she's writing and other authors the pupils might want to try, and she endorses other kinds of reading such as comics.

"Because the children have met her, now when she suggests these things there's an emotional attachment to try that and they are willing to do so," says Redgrave. On the back of the increased interest in reading for pleasure, the school has also committed to extend the library and it will be doubled in size.

The focus on reading also meant that 100% of its children took part in the Summer Reading Challenge during the holidays, something the school was already backing. "We already had a high level of involvement from our pupils but the incentive this year was that Helena was going to present the cup to the class that got the highest number of pupils in the Reading Challenge," Redgrave explains.

Other activities have includes a staff and governors' book quiz, based on Pielichaty's books, in front of the author and the children; they also had a quiz.

Redgrave emphasises that for the relationship between an author and a school to work, the person responsible for the project and the author have to work well together. "I had only met Helena a couple of times but I knew we would get on well. The project will be led by the personalities of the person behind the project and the author. In a big school, the best person to lead this would be the school librarian."

In Ysgol Esgob Morgan, everyone is on board and it has pushed reading to the fore – the Secretary of State for Wales will visit the school to see how it is working.

Their next step will be to branch out and get the parents on board, says Redgrave. "We are now working with a generation of adults who have been turned off reading and so we will get them as involved with the author as we can. People have heard about Helena and want to meet her and put a face to the name and we are considering another quiz involving the parents as well as pupils and staff."

Redgrave believes that by the summer, there will be more tangible evidence of the impact an author patron has had on the school. "We can look at things like increased book borrowing from the library but also look at attainment in reading over a longer period. When it's been running for a year we will do a survey of our readers."

Ysgol Esgob Morgan intends to run Helena Pielichaty's term for about three years and then possibly approach someone else, a non-fiction writer or a poet. Whatever the tangible outcomes, the benefits so far have convinced Redgrave that "Every school should have a patron of reading. It is someone who just keeps that whole idea of reading for pleasure flowing."

What the author says:

November 2012

Helena Pielichaty says, "I can't begin to tell you how delighted I was to have been asked to be Patron of Reading at Ysgol Esgob Morgan. Not only is it an honour for me personally it is also an innovative way for schools to forge links with children’s writers.

"It means the children have their own, designated author with whom they can communicate. They can ask questions, talk about books and find out all about the writing process. For the writer, it means they are valued and cherished. Everyone feels special. A bond like this can have a long lasting impact on everyone. I’m so proud to be part of this initiative

"I've been 'in-post' for six months now and the role is gathering momentum all the time. When Tim first mooted the idea I said yes straight away. I thought it was a fabulous idea, for all the reasons I've listed above. However, having an idea is one thing, putting it in to practice is another. What if it just fizzled out?

"When I first met the school back in May 2012, Tim introduced me in assembly, giving me a big build up and talking about what an exciting adventure it was having their very own 'patron of reading'. The children listened politely and the staff stared at me with curiosity and then it was business as usual. I did my bit with each class then left. To all intents and purposes it was like any other one-off author visit.

"It was afterwards things started to happen. First of all I set up a designated page on my website with a space for children to leave comments. The understanding was this gave them a means of communicating with me between visits. The school reciprocated so that they have a link on their website, too.

"Certain year groups contribute to this more than others. It tends to get used straight after a visit but not in between. What has been brilliant is staff have used my general blog as a stimulus for creative writing. For example, I wrote about Mesostic Poems and Jenny Ritchie, the Lit Co, got her class to write some. Mrs Foulkes, the Y5 teacher, joined in with some poems they'd been working on (Cloud Busting by Malorie Blackman).

"What was great for me was I wasn't expected to do anything with the poems other than read them. I hadn't had to run a creative writing class or judge anything. We were simply sharing poetry and using my website as a platform for it. It was great having comments to respond to, as well. Often my blogs don't have any. This one had over 70.

"There was then a discussion between myself and Jenny about what we should do on my next visit (October Book Week). Jen came up with the fabulous idea of a Staff Quiz based exclusively on my books. The idea was that not only would it familiarise the staff (and by staff we included lunchtime supervisors, governors, TAs as well as the teachers) with my books but also to do something different.

"My titles were divvied up between the various teams and I was designated the task of coming up with the questions. Knowing the children watching would get a bit restless, I included 'bonus' rounds for them on books in general. It worked a treat, despite the blatant attempt at cheating by certain staff members who shall remain nameless (Mr Hatwood).

"We also decided I'd work with a small group of Year 5 boys, to build up a rapport with them. I had already started writing a short play and I offered to bring this, finished or unfinished, to 'try out'. The idea being they’d not only read it but criticise it, too. What worked, what didn't work etc.

"Result: I got invaluable feedback and the boys enjoyed the task of being drama critics. They made suggestions of word changes I could make (I’d got my nerds mixed up with geeks). They also enjoyed reading in play format. Better still, they wanted to dramatise the play. The last I heard they were holding auditions for the roles!

"What have I done, as patron (so far)...

• I've used my contacts with other writers to support the school in their bid to develop a reading culture. For example, Y5s were reading Tom Palmer’s Foul Play book so I contacted Tom and he’s offered to do a Skype interview with the class. Tom also sent a signed copy to one boy who’s a particular fan of Tom's books.

• I forward any new studies/initiatives on reading etc I think might be of interest to Tim and his staff. I also recommend books if I know the class are covering certain topics.

• I write a letter once a term that is displayed on the library wall. I also write to individual classes if something crops up eg The Y3s were reading 'Do Goalkeepers Wear Tiaras?' so I sent them some posters etc to use.

• I presented the school with a Summer Reading Challenge Trophy. The aim was that it went to the class who had the highest participation rate in the challenge. Incredibly, every class had 100% so no-one got to keep it. How many schools have 100% participation rate? Very few. As this was so impressive I contacted the Reading Agency, who run the SRC and they blogged about it. Good publicity for the school and me!

• Donated my new titles to the library

Teething problems:

"Sustaining interest between visits. This isn't necessarily a bad thing and doesn't mean nothing is happening but, because I'm not local, I can't just 'pop by'. It would be good to visit once a term rather than twice a year but finances prohibit this. One of the things Tim and I agreed upon was that the Patron wasn't expected to do visits for free. What Tim and I tend to do is email or have 'catch-up' conversations. I'm in e-mail contact with Jenny, too.

Advice to anyone (writer/poet etc) thinking of becoming a POR:

"Being a POR has given me such a boost. It's a real honour knowing I've been chosen, out of the thousands of names possible, to be Ysgol Esgob Morgan's patron. It's been a genuine pleasure building up a relationship with the children and staff.

"Beyond that, it allows a special bridge to be built between writer and reader. That's rare and yet it's so vital. If we, as a nation, are really serious about creating a generation of children who read for pleasure, then this is one fun and easy way of doing it.

"However, writers need to be clear how much they are prepared or not prepared to give. Like anything worth doing, there's no point being patron if you're not going to go the extra mile. Simply being a figurehead is a wee bit pointless, in my opinion. However, it's important not to try to do too much. What I won't do, because I simply don't have time, is judge creative writing competitions or anything like that. Reading is the key here - reading books, reading for pleasure, reading for meaning. "

09/11/2012Patron of Reading
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