The Patron of Reading initiative continues to flourish in schools across the United Kingdom. Since it was last mentioned in this magazine (Summer 2014), it has grown from approximately 50 schools to more than 150. For those currently unaware of the initiative, a Patron of Reading is a school’s special designated author (or poet, illustrator or storyteller) with whom they develop a relationship over a period of time. As well as all the usual benefits to a school from organising an author visit, working with a Patron can offer whole lot more.
John Dougherty, author of the Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face series and Patron of Reading at West Earlham Junior School since 2013, said:
I love visiting schools, and invariably get a great response from the kids; but there’s something different about visiting my Patron of Reading school. I think it’s the sense of connection - even of ownership - that the children feel with me and my work. And I can do things that I don’t normally do on school visits - drop-in visits to classrooms for a bit of a chat about books; assemblies where we challenge and explore preconceptions about reading; even talking shops with parents - where we can get stuck right in, without any need for warm-up or introduction.
Tim Redgrave, headteacher of Ysgol Esgob Morgan in North Wales and the person behind the original idea, reported:
Having a personal link to a ‘famous’ person has helped make reading cool at our school. The interaction is a very personal link between the child and the author. It's opened up a new world of literature for our pupils who now read for pleasure so much more. We’ve had 100% completion of the Summer Reading Challenge three years on the bounce, and have extended the library once and need to do so again! All from having a Patron of Reading!
The second Patron of Reading conference took place in London earlier this year and was attended by almost 100 authors, poets, librarians and teachers. Speakers included Alan MacDonald, author of the Dirty Bertie books, who spoke passionately about the importance of schools with authors; Josh Seigal, who talked about how being a performance poet helped him in his patron role and Gillian Cross, author of Carnegie Medal winner Wolf, who shared her experiences of being a patron at more than one school. There were many other speakers throughout the day and a full write-up of the day can be found on the Patron of Reading website.
Ways that schools and patrons can support each other by sharing good practice have been discussed several times over the past year. Ian Coles, representing Big Green Bookshop Education CIC , has recently helped create the first local ‘chapter’ of patrons in Haringey:We asked to set up the first regional chapter because schools were always asking the Big Green Bookshop to arrange author visits and we knew there was already significant support for the scheme across the borough.
We began by inviting existing patrons to join the cluster and then brokered some additional partnerships and held a launch event in partnership with the library service. The response from schools and authors has been fantastic, with many new partnerships to be announced in the autumn, and schools queuing up for patrons. We are beginning to create opportunities for patrons to share ideas and successes - showcasing activity on our website and encouraging authors to tag Patron of Reading activities on their social media. We are also building our understanding of the barriers to participation for some schools - and exploring exciting ideas such as shared patrons and patrons in branch libraries.
The best thing so far has been the sheer volume of goodwill towards this initiative (which Big Green Bookshop Education has undertaken to support for at least 3 years). Schools, authors, storytellers, community organisations, other bookshops: so many people are supporting us (not forgetting Big Green Bookshop customers who have generously donated money and help). It's early days for us yet but it's up to us all to make this something really special.
The Patron of Reading initiative has also recently started to forge links with Empathy Lab, a new venture from Miranda McKearney OBE, founder of The Reading Agency. Empathy Lab is researching into how a more focused use of stories and books can help children build the foundational skill of empathy, and is beginning to trial their empathy education approach with a small group of schools from September 2015. Miranda says of the Patron of Reading/Empathy Lab partnership:
Wouldn't it be amazing if every single child was putting into practice the empathy skills to respect, value and care for themselves, other people and the world? We're inspired by the power of empathy to make the world a better place, and the power of stories to build empathy.
Liaising with writer Helena Pielichaty, we have begun testing some of our thinking with the Patron of Reading initiative, a wonderful grassroots organisation, which places authors in schools as champions of reading.
We see authors as a powerful catalyst in a drive to help children develop empathy. To create compelling characters, writers use empathy in spades; they're empathy experts. We hope to build an army of authors helping lead a movement to connect literacy and reading for pleasure more closely with social and emotional education. As part of this we are planning to start working with several Patron of Reading schools in the very near future.
As the initiative has been up and running for almost four years, several patrons are now coming to the end of their tenure in schools. Fortismere School in Haringey was one of the very first schools to adopt a patron, Sita Brahamachari, author of Artichoke Hearts, in 2012. In September 2015, Sita is handing over the baton to SF Said, the creator of the Varjak Paw series. Gill Ward, the librarian at Fortismere, gives her view as to why the initiative has been so successful:
The Patron of Reading scheme has worked brilliantly for us; it's wonderful for the students to have their own, dedicated author and to be able to build up a connection with them. Sita inspired many of our students to explore the world of books and even some of our reluctant readers are discovering themselves in books. The great thing about the scheme is that it has allowed Fortismere and Sita to build our own special relationship and way of working. I'm now super-excited and looking forward to working with SF; it's going to be so interesting to see where our Patron of Reading journey will take us next.
SF Said, a passionate advocate of reading for pleasure in schools, added:
I've always believed that reading for pleasure has the power to change people's lives. I'm honoured and thrilled to be Fortismere School's new Patron of Reading. Just seeing the superb school library and hearing librarian Gillian Ward's passion for books, I feel sure that Fortismere children have access to the very best resources. I'm looking forward to inspiring the children to make the most of them, and building on the brilliant work done by Sita.
Why has the Patron of Reading idea been so successful in schools? Michael Rosen, the keynote speaker at the recent launch of the Haringey chapter, summed it up when he said that it was a grassroots initiative, owned directly by schools and writers, for the benefit of children and young people, in direct contrast to many ‘top-down’ interventions and organisations. As the creator of the Patron of Reading website, I am always genuinely delighted when I am contacted by a school who talk about wanting to create a ‘genuine’ or ‘real’ reading culture, and whether there are writers available to become patrons. I am also equally delighted when I am contacted by a writer who has heard from their peers about the impact that having a Patron of Reading can have on children’s attitude to reading.
If there are any schools or colleges who are interested in getting involved, please visit the website - your Patron of Reading is waiting!