‘Vision, passion, innovation and persistence – they have all played their part.’
It takes a certain type of person to set up a new organisation.
My father retired from teaching to set up a fishery. My mother launched and ran a nursery. My sister developed and led a nannying agency in Italy. And, on 15 March 2014, I launched Wandsworth-based literacy charity Learn to Love to Read.
I have always been proud of the fact that I share that entrepreneurial spirit with my closest family. But without doubt the key attributes it takes to start a new enterprise – which include vision, passion, innovation and persistence - have never been more valuable than during this past year, facing the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As a small local charity, working with pre-schoolers, primary-age children and their parents to support early literacy, all our work took place on school premises. Groups of toddlers and parents sang, chatted and read together. Volunteers sat alongside children sharing books and inspiring a love of reading. Parents came into school to get top tips on supporting reading at home.
Then we were hit by Covid and lockdown and school closures, and that work came to a grinding halt.
We had two options – sit back and wait until normality returned, or rapidly rethink and adapt. We still had that vision and passion to help every child become a confident reader. We know literacy is proven to have enormous impact on children’s life opportunities and outcomes. And it became more and more evident that Covid would have an unequal impact. Education Endowment Foundation projections suggest that school closures will widen the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers by 36%. If correct, this means that all the progress made over the past ten years towards closing that gap will have been reversed in a single year. Obviously the need was greater than ever, so we felt innovation and flexibility were the essential response.
We initially focused on getting books into children’s homes during school closures. 1,350 Reading for Pleasure packs were distributed. More than 6,400 new books plus other reading-based activities headed to homes where resources were likely to be limited. We then worked hard to adapt the three strands of our work for virtual delivery. Our early years classes, designed to help children start school ready to read, now run online with accompanying reading gift packs. Our volunteer support for children finding learning to read challenging, is now offered via Zoom. And our training for parents, to encourage and equip them to support their children’s reading at home, takes place virtually.
We forged new partnerships with other charities. Those local connections built over several years have never been so important. We explored new technology and found it had advantages we will carry forward even when Covid is less of a threat. We experimented with videos and daily text reminders, with very positive results. We commissioned new stories and shared them widely. We have plans to develop story walks and questioning prompts in the next few months. Funders were more flexible, and the application process more joined up. This has been vital in giving us financial security in a volatile situation.
Vision, passion, innovation – they have all played a key role. But as the pandemic restrictions drag on and we are now one year on from when it all began, persistence is what we continue to need most of all.
A typical day involves both highs and lows.
There is excitement when we receive a rush of new volunteer applications from excellent candidates. There is positive energy in collaborating with new partners and developing new ideas. There is huge satisfaction when we hear of children’s progress and families’ increased engagement. And there is the pleasure of knowing we are still able to offer significant support despite the many restrictions.
There are ongoing frustrations when limited technology and Wi-Fi cause problems or the lack of school routine means regular sessions are forgotten, leaving volunteers waiting in limbo online. There are the challenges of not being able to meet as a team and bounce ideas off each other face to face. There are the huge demands on staff members who are also trying to home school. And staff roles have of necessity become more administrative with less chance to see for ourselves the impact of what we are doing.
But highlights are the positive messages from individuals – both families and volunteers – and from partner organisations. These remind us that what we are doing is really making a difference.
‘Mum was singing your praises in our parents meeting. She said his volunteer was amazing. Mum thinks his reading has improved significantly and she said I will be really impressed when he comes back to school so thank you.’ Teacher
‘She was truly engaged and immersed in the reading and conversation around it, which is fantastic! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. These type of interactions have such a positive impact on her confidence.’ Parent
‘I wanted to say what a fabulous job you have all done getting us online. This could so easily have fallen apart and the children would have fallen even further behind, and between you all, you have managed to sort it all out which I can only imagine has been no small feat. I love being able to do my small part in this amazing work you're all doing.’ Volunteer
‘We feel you have responded to restrictions extending your provision on a number of platforms. The new opportunities you are offering to children sound great - what a clever way to engage in a discussion with parents about learning to read and their own level of confidence. Thanks for continuing to develop and offer your service.’ Head Teacher
‘Thank you so much for the session you shared with us yesterday. The feedback I have had from the families has been fantastic. They were all really watching their children engage in the singing and activities. I was particularly moved by the engagement from families I have known for a long time to be quite reserved and shy. The whole session felt very inclusive and I could sense a real feeling between the mums, children and yourselves. The book packs were very special and thoughtfully put together and very well received and appreciated.’ Partner organisation
So, we are determined to push through the challenges and resolve the difficulties. We hold on to all those words of encouragement. We remind ourselves how needed our work always was and how that is even more true now. And we continue to dream of a world where every child is a confident reader with access to ambitious life opportunities.
Vision, passion, innovation and persistence – they have all played their part.
Founder and Trustee
Learn to Love to Read