For a school so committed to reading, the library for the youngest learners at Longwood Primary in Tamworth, near Birmingham, is woefully inadequate. Sharing corridor space with the lockers where the children store their clothes for outdoor activities, it’s an uninviting environment in which to discover the joy in reading.
Crammed in a corner between the lockers is a small, bin-style bookcase on the floor – smaller than a supermarket trolley. Inside, are a handful of picture books. There are phonics posters on the walls above, but the bright red lockers dominate everything. There’s no seating at all, making it hard to see how young children – many of whom live on the nearby council estate – could discover the pleasure of books here.
Amazingly, it is not compulsory for a primary school to have a library – and many schools working in deprived areas lack the funds to create one, focused as they are on helping their children in other ways. A library is, however, mandatory in prisons.
But now, thanks to the generosity of Daily Express readers and the far-sighted vision of the committed teaching staff at Longwood School, this is about to change.
Following our Christmas campaign last year, in conjunction with reading charity Give A Book, Longwood – which is an area of high deprivation and where 45 per cent of children receive free school lunches – has been chosen as the recipient of a brand new, custom-built Key Stage One library.
“There will be no wellies, soggy shoes and spare glue sticks stored in here but a proper reading space,” says teacher Vanessa Ranch, the school’s Reading Lead who has been the charity’s contact at the school. And the children are already full of anticipation, especially as they had a say in the forthcoming library’s design.
With colourful ‘toad-stool’ style seating, reading nooks, tree-shaped shelving, and with the woodland theme continued into the bright green archway that demarcates the space as a reading area – “like a portal into another world” as Vanessa describes it – this is a reading space that will have the power to inspire generations of children when it is built later this month.
The Daily Express will be providing a full update to show you how your donation has been spent and the difference it is making to the children.
“We feel reading opens the door to all education,” says headteacher Pauline James. “So I’m speechless about this project. I just want to say thank you for this amazing opportunity for the children.”
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When her colleague Vanessa first told her that the school, rated Good by Ofsted, had been chosen to receive a new library, Pauline wondered how they would fund the books to fill it.
“It was a bit worrying as we have no books’ budget. Then we found out that the provision of the library includes 1,200 books. I kept wondering what the catch was. We never seem to get anything, so I really couldn’t believe it.”
Her deputy, Rachel Matthews, who is also the school’s Special Needs coordinator adds: “We just want to give the children the best possible start. This project makes that possible.”
A school vote revealed that the children most wanted books about outer space, insects (known universally in primary school parlance as ‘mini beasts’) and crocodiles.
“Most of them have never been to a zoo, so they want to know more,” says Pauline, who has made reading central to the school’s mission.
“When I arrived here 14 years ago, the PTA kindly put all the money they raised into Christmas and each child received a selection box of chocolates on Christmas Eve. Now they each receive a book and they treasure them.”
On World Book Day – which the school celebrates over a full week – the school takes the children to WH Smith to use their free book coupon, to further support their parents who may lack the resources to do this. All costumes are also made at school for the same reason.
“We understand the pressures at home, and we don’t blame them,” says Pauline. “We always have volunteers to hear the children read because that can be challenging when you have six children.”
After lunch, the children read before going outside to play. And Vanessa explains that the playground contains a ‘reading shed’ “For children who prefer to read at break, rather than rushing around”.
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At the Friday morning school assembly at this warm and friendly school, reading is central. After a song which Pauline declares will bring “sunshine into the school” on a rather soggy morning, she asks her cohort of 142 pupils: “Who’s been doing extra reading this week?”
Most hands shoot up. Charlotte receives a prize from her form teacher for “having her head in a book at every opportunity this week”. Pippa is commended by hers for “always asking for extra reading books for two weeks”. The little ones, who are all extremely well behaved and attentive, absorb everything.
And it is paying dividends. Sienna arrived in Year 5 in September, and this intelligent girl quickly discovered a love of reading. “It is really lovely to be able to read here; it’s peaceful and relaxing,” she says.
“I would have thought it would be good for children to have more books,” says Summer, 10. Her friend Jessica eagerly endorses this. “If I’m stressed it can take me to a new world,” she enthuses. And Kai, also 10, agrees. “Books matter,” he says. “Especially if somebody is stressed. They take you places you could never travel.”
Pauline, a former nursery nurse, has risen steadily up the teaching profession to this, her first headship, due to her deep commitment to the welfare and wellbeing of the children she is responsible for educating. During the pandemic she went over and beyond to help local families with the school food bank, and when the older children go onto secondary school she keeps on caring – sometimes going into battle at the new school when the careful notes she has provided on some of the children’s complex needs are overlooked in the rush to educate large numbers.
This is a school that cares, and it is the perfect recipient of such a wonderful new facility.
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“We deal with quite a lot of social issues, and some parents do not speak English as a first language,” adds Pauline. The school also runs a food and hygiene bank, and employs catering staff who run an immaculate professional kitchen, where they whip up delicious meals, including wholesome salads.
Every day each child can select a home-made pudding; chocolate chip cookies on the day that photographer Andy Stenning and I visited. They are served toast at 10am as many do not eat breakfast at home.
“For some children our school lunch is the only meal they will have each day,” says Pauline.
To support the children further, the school runs Inspire Workshops. “There is a lot of unemployment among our families, and a high percentage of one parent families,” she explains.
“We want to show their parents how to support learning at home.” They are also taught computer skills, and the school offers a support service for parents who struggle to read important communications, including legal documents.
Since 2015, Give A Book, founded by Victoria Gray, whose late husband Simon was a playwright and diarist, has been working with one lucky primary school every year on its Whole School Reading Project.
“I’ve seen what a library space can do both in prisons and in primary schools,” says Shamima Edye-Lindner, project manager with the reading charity.
“They are more than just a place to choose a book, they are a space where children can spend some time quietly discovering new books and authors.
“The children at the primary schools we work with don’t have books at home. If they’re coming to school and there are no books, then becoming a reader is even harder. We don’t want any child to miss out on developing a love of reading.
“That is why our Whole School Reading Project exists; to build a school library but overall to cultivate and foster a reading-for-pleasure environment, and to generate excitement around books.”
Most of the schools the charity works with receive a library or reading space as part of the year-long partnership. “But we call it a ‘reading’ rather than a ‘library’ project,” adds Shamima, explaining how the charity works with each school to find out what will work best for their unique circumstances.
“When it comes to reading, there is no ‘one size fits all’,” she adds. Watch this space for the next chapter…
Give A Book puts books into the hands of those who need them most. To donate to the charity you can send a cheque to Give a Book, 112-114 Holland Park Avenue, London W11 4UA. To donate online visit giveabook.org.uk or email [email protected]
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