24 July 2019

This article has been written by Anne Thompson as featured on her blog. Anne is a librarian with 20 years’ experience in schools and public libraries. She is also Chair of @SLA_UK_Surrey, a blogger and reviewer for @TheBookbag as well as a Coram Beanstalk Story Starter introducing children aged 3-5 to the magic of books.

On Monday evening I attended a screening of H is for Harry - a documentary created by Postcode Films. Through the eyes of an eleven year old boy and his classmates we view what life is like for those children who struggle with literacy.

It was a moving and at times disheartening experience as the issues of educational inequality and inter-generational illiteracy were highlighted. However I ended the evening with a feeling of hope that much is being done to try to correct this situation.

We joined Harry on his first day at secondary school but his story and his educational difficulties had started long before that. His father and his grandfather are unable to read and write and Harry’s dad wants better for his son and hopes that attendance at a new academy will provide Harry with the opportunities he lacked. In the early days of Year 7 the pupils are reminded of the academic path stretching ahead to university and as I watched Harry’s expression as he listened I feared for him. However, despite the challenges the teachers faced as they endeavoured to make a difference, the dedication, commitment and care they showed to Harry was deeply affecting. In particular Harry’s form teacher, who also acted as his one to one support provider, managed to connect with him and we saw glimpses of success as he made progress. His face when he scored ten out of ten in a spelling test was a joy to see. His teacher shared in that joy too.

By the end of Year 7 Harry had made good progress and was praised by all involved with him. Yet the gap between Harry and his classmates in English attainment was still large and as an audience we all noticed and were saddened by the change in Harry as he returned in Year 8. There had been a noticeable slump and despite the fact that Harry was now considered able to re-join the class, albeit with support, he continued to slide. Eventually the academy decided they can no longer cater for Harry’s needs and he subsequently left to attend a special school. Before that there were happy moments along the way including Harry’s interaction with his friends particularly on a residential school trip. Before he left it was heartening to see how he engaged with the younger children in the primary school showing a gentle, kindness and understanding. There was so much more to Harry than his test results and as an audience we were all able witness this.

The producers of the documentary deliberately wanted the issues in the film to be shown from a child’s perspective and therefore there were some unanswered questions about Harry’s circumstances. The co-producer of H is for Harry, Jaime Taylor, was able to fill in some of the gaps in a Q and A session afterwards. She is still in contact with Harry, his father and his former teacher and thankfully his part in the making of this film has had a positive effect on Harry’s life.

One of the most important aspects of this film is that it draws attention to the situation and prompts discussion about what can be done to help and ideally to prevent this from continuing. There is no quick fix and there are many much more qualified than I am to put these ideas in to practice. However it made me think about the various ways in which I am already involved and has encouraged me to share some points that I believe are relevant.

The screening I attended was organised by the charity, Coram Beanstalk, and the film served to highlight the huge importance of the work they do in both Early Years settings and Primary Schools. As we witnessed in H is for Harry if a child is struggling with reading as they start at secondary level it is much harder for that gap to be made up. Coram Beanstalk recruits, trains and supports volunteers to provide one-to-one literacy support in early years settings and primary schools to children who have fallen behind with their reading.

As a new volunteer I have been working in a nursery this term and can already see the difference individual attention has made on the three children I visit. Early intervention is vital to ensure that children go on to become enthusiastic readers and Beanstalk does a great deal to enable this. The charity also now offers training for parent helpers from early years to Year 7 and there is also a pilot Summer Reading Scheme taking place in London. Although some may argue that charitable support should not be required the sad reality is that it is needed.

On the way home after watching this thought provoking film I pondered not only on the role of charities who support schools and educators but of libraries. That we are worrying about our children’s literacy levels while public libraries have been closing around the country makes no sense at all.

According to research from the National Literacy Trust: “1 in 8 disadvantaged children in the UK don’t own a single book, compared to 1 in 11 children nationally” We should not need to explain why public libraries matter, the fact is they do. Particularly to children and those of us who can’t afford to buy the books we want and need and they matter hugely to communities who need support and a provider of reliable information.

There was no mention of a school library in the documentary, so I do not not know if one existed or not, but I would be disappointed if this was not provided for the young people who attended. School libraries, ideally run by a librarian, are great social levellers. They provide a range of books for all tastes, at different levels that will encourage all children, whether or not they have books at home already, to read for pleasure. I can think of a few secondary school librarians who could have found something that would have engaged Harry.

When I worked as a full time school librarian in the independent sector I was once told that I was the ‘fizz on the drink’ that fee paying parents expected. I firmly believe that school libraries and librarians should be a vital part of a child’s daily educational diet not an optional and enjoyable extra. The Great School Libraries campaign was launched last year with the aim of bringing school libraries and librarians back to every school in the UK. Please do try to support this important campaign, it could make a big difference to children like Harry.

Finally, on my long, thoughtful journey home I read an article by Cressida Cowell. If you don’t follow children‘s book news you may not know that this popular author was appointed Children’s Laureate this month. This wonderful woman is already voicing her support for libraries in our communities and in our schools, including primary schools. Hurrah for Cressida! She has also produced a charter of her most important wishes for her two year tenure. These include reading for the joy of it, accessing new books in schools, libraries and bookshops and owning a book of your own. Her charter if followed would help to enable children to start off on the journey to becoming a reader with happy anticipation rather than a fearful dread of something they find difficult. I hope people listen before it is too late.

If you would like to find out more about H is for Harry, attend a screening or possibly organise your own screening there is more information on the official website.

Thank you to Anne for letting us share her blog on this important film and her thoughts on the wider issues surrounding literacy in this country. You can read more of Anne’s blogs on her website or follow Anne on Twitter @Alibrarylady.

You can also read more about becoming a Coram Beanstalk volunteer or about the range of reading programmes we offer to schools.