Bookmark Reading: Camden-based literacy charity rolled out in 20 inner-London schools

PUBLISHED: 14:40 28 August 2019

Bookmark Reading supports children in 20 inner-London schools. Picture: Bookmark Reading.

Bookmark Reading supports children in 20 inner-London schools. Picture: Bookmark Reading.

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Sharon Pindar is recalling her early years living on a council estate just outside of Wrexham, North Wales. "I grew up in a community where education wasn't top of the list - survival was," she says.

The charity launched in Camden last year. Picture: Bookmark Reading.The charity launched in Camden last year. Picture: Bookmark Reading.

"My mum couldn't read, but I learnt to do so at the local library with two friendly librarians. I would walk there when I was six or seven. It was a quiet, safe space, and these women encouraged me to read all the books in the children's section. With their help, I moved on to others and embraced literature."

Pindar would go on to excel at school. Her Matilda-like academic talents laid a foundation for her to build a career; firstly as an accountant, and now as the Chair of Trustees for a fledgling charity called Bookmark Reading. Much like those two librarians had given structure and support to a young Pindar, Bookmark was formed in Camden last year to help children develop their reading skills.

It's a service that's needed, too. According to schoolsweek.co.uk, 27 per cent of children left primary school having fallen short of the government's 'expected standard' in reading at the end of the last school year. So how exactly does Bookmark Reading operate?

"Our volunteers go in to primary schools and deliver one-to-one support," explains Kitty Higgins, Bookmark's CEO.

Two Bookmark Reading members - Millie Connor and Jess Trollope - at the Islington Volunteer Fair. Picture: Bookmark Reading.Two Bookmark Reading members - Millie Connor and Jess Trollope - at the Islington Volunteer Fair. Picture: Bookmark Reading.

"They are there to read with the child, [but also to] actually have a conversation about the book and to discover what they found interesting. It's there for an adult to sit with them, to be interested in what they are saying, and to work through the book at the child's own pace."

Bookmark Reading is still finding its feet as a charity but the response from local schools has been encouraging thus far. After piloting in three Camden schools in 2018, the charity will support 20 across inner London from September, including nine partner schools in its founding borough and neighbouring Islington.

Such rapid growth has meant a need to 1) develop their digital platform and 2) expand their network of volunteers around London.

"We've spent a lot of energy on developing our tech," continues Higgins. "It can match schools with volunteers so that they both have more flexibility. Volunteers can complete their training in short, bite-size chunks and then provide reading support in two 30-minute sessions per week, so they can fit it around their busy lives. Someone working in the corporate world could volunteer at 9am, then be at their desk for 10."

Kitty Higgins is Bookmark Reading's CEO.Kitty Higgins is Bookmark Reading's CEO.

Bookmark's training programme takes three-and-a-half hours to complete (the entire on-boarding process lasts one month) after which their volunteers - who are thoroughly vetted, of course - can visit schools local to them to help children in need of some extra practice. Each session involves games, discussions about books and guided reading.

Using the Bookmark app, volunteers are able to match with schools close to home (or work), give feedback on progress, and arrange sessions at times that suit their schedule. Training is spread across six chapters, covering everything from the basics of helping early readers to safeguarding.

For Safae - one of Bookmark's existing volunteers - part of the satisfaction comes from working with children who aren't that interested in picking up a book, at least to start with.

"It has been really great engaging with reluctant readers," she says, "as it has reminded me of how far I have come and the transformative impact reading has had on my education.

"I used to hate reading as a kid, which is ironic considering that it is now one of my favourite things to do. I am excited to be able to give something back by helping kids to develop a keen interest in books."

So who exactly is a typical Bookmark Reading volunteer, then? "We're thrilled to say it's a real mix," replies Pindar. "It's important that we encourage and celebrate that. We have university students, we have an MD of a recruitment agency, we have writers [and] we have some of the more elderly. They all bring something different.

"Their motivations can be different, but they all have a passion for literacy and supporting children. For some people they want to engage with their community; perhaps others want to go in to teaching or childcare."

Higgins joined Bookmark in February of last year, and while she's got plenty of responsibilities spreading awareness and overseeing the roll-out to an increasing pool of London schools, she's also a Bookmark volunteer herself.

"To see a child's confidence and interest increase as you progress through the programme is incredibly rewarding.

"It may be that you unlocked a new genre they hadn't explored before, that they were able to tackle that 'tricky' word, or you simply spent some time working at their pace. Our time - just one hour a week - is invaluable in supporting these children.

"It's very easy to go in to work each day. I'm looking out the window now at the team, and we all have that same end goal.

"[Volunteering gives] a sense of wellbeing and mental health benefits. There's nothing quite like having a busy to-do list and realising that none of that really matters. To see the impact you're having on a child - learning and growing in confidence - it's really powerful for helping work-related stresses, actually."

So as another summer holiday draws to a close and that back-to-school feeling starts to sink in for parents and children around the city, there's a tangible sense of anticipation for this growing charity, which is supported by an investment trust called Literacy Capital PLC. The long-term aim is to transform Bookmark in to a national outfit with community managers across the UK, but Pindar knows "we're obviously at the very early stages" right now.

Significantly, Pindar and Higgins hope to spread Bookmark's influence to a broad spectrum of different schools; large and small, north and south, successful and struggling.

"Even at schools that are performing well, there are a significant number (of pupils) that are not meeting expected standards. We're not just focusing on the worst; we want to focus on all of the schools."

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