The opening of a new chapter for care leavers

leavers often lack qualifications. Nevertheless, in Derbyshire they are being
set to work helping younger children to read – a project that spells benefits
for both sides, writes Natalie Valios.

than two-thirds of looked-after children leave care at 16 with no
qualifications, compared with only 6 per cent of all children. Care leavers’
lack of educational achievement is the subject of targets in Quality Protects
as well as more recently becoming the focus of a social exclusion unit
consultation exercise.

both Derbyshire and Derby Councils an independent partnership organisation
called Read On – Write Away! is gently re-introducing care leavers to education
through one of its schemes, the Buddy Reading Project.

project trains young people in shared reading skills so they can then work as
volunteers in supervised placements where they partner younger children to help
them with their reading. The buddy scheme originally worked with sixth-formers,
who then went into primary schools to help children with reading difficulties.

years ago, the project’s remit was expanded to include work with care leavers.
To this end, it teamed up with local voluntary organisations running after care
projects, such as Barnardo’s and NCH. Selling the idea of buddy reading to care
leavers, for whom school will often be a distant or bad memory, sounds like a
tough call. But the project hasn’t found it difficult to engage their
enthusiasm, says Carol Taylor, director of Read On – Write Away!

project starts by taking books for care leavers to look at. "It’s amazing
how many haven’t looked at books for a long time, particularly if they have
been in residential care," says Taylor. "We work on a model that they
can do this, and tell them that they are absolutely brilliant."

leavers who want to become a buddy volunteer go through a two-day training
process where they are taught how to help children with poor literacy. They are
also taught about confidentiality and how they should act when in a school.

don’t need very high literacy skills, but they do need personal skills. Most
can read well enough to help six and seven year olds. It’s very much about
confidence and fun," says Taylor.

any adult who wants to work with children is given a police check, buddy
volunteers are gently asked during their training about their background and
past experiences. Information is treated confidentially, and schools are told
that they will have to trust the project on whom it sends in as volunteers,
says Taylor. Buddies are never left alone with children – they read with them
in the school library or staff room in the company of a project worker.

leavers commit to a certain number of weeks – generally between six weeks and a
term – as a buddy volunteer, working with several children for about 30 minutes
at a time. Overall, the project has worked with more than 100 young people in
13 projects, helping more than 300 children from primary and junior schools with
their reading.

leavers who have taken part have found it a rewarding experience. In many
cases, it is the first time somebody has believed in them or told them they
have done something well, says Taylor. Their past experiences of school have
generally been poor. Many left school at 13, were kicked out of care at 16 and
then became homeless.

about making them realise that they can take part in society and that they have
a role to play," she says. "We never work on a deficit model – it is
all about telling them they’re great."

leavers’ self-esteem is also boosted by working with younger children who look
up to them and can’t wait for them to come into school and spend time with

couple of care leavers have gone on to become volunteers in schools, another
has started to help train buddies, while others have gone on to train as
nursery nurses.

key aim behind the project is to encourage care leavers back into education.
They are offered help onto further education and training courses, and many
have gone on to do computer and basic skills courses. The project has also
obtained Open College accreditation so that buddies can gain formal recognition
for their work as volunteers.

on – Write Away! works with all 500 schools in the Derbyshire and Derby local
authorities. The organisation chose eight schools that it knew would support
its plans for care leavers and would treat them as adults, not children.

two or three buddy reading schemes are run each term so at any one time three
or four schools are involved. As the two councils cover a wide area, schemes
work in one locality for one term and another the next.

it is, project co-ordinator Terry Smith spends a lot of time driving around
picking care leavers up from various venues and taking them to their schools,
says Taylor.

school decides which pupils would benefit from help with their reading, and
then the head teacher asks the parents’ permission to use the buddy project. So
far, it has had a 100 per cent positive response from parents.

buddies has changed the way that these schools work with their pupils in
personal and social education classes. By asking their buddy volunteers about
their lives, the children can raise concerns that arise when people don’t have,
or don’t live at home with, birth parents, says Taylor.

1999, the project won a Community Care award for its inter-agency work.
It used the award money to set up two multi-agency conferences highlighting
care leaver issues. Several initiatives sprang from these, including buddy book
boxes. These are boxes of books distributed to family and children’s centres
and foster carers that are swapped on a regular basis.

scheme to emerge from the project is story sacks. Buddies make up a sack of goodies
to go along with a book. So, for example, if the book is The Hungry
, this book will go in the sack, along with maybe a furry
caterpillar toy and some of the items it is described as eating. The buddy
reads the story onto a tape and works through the items in the sack with the

long-term aim of the project is for care leavers to work as buddies with
children in care after school or in holidays, so that they can act as mentors
and share their care experiences.

project shows that, with good support, many care leavers are committed,
reliable and skilful in helping children struggling with their reading.

benefits the project has brought to both groups of young people – the
volunteers and the partners – are considerable. Everyone involved in the
project believes that these benefits provide a firmer foundation from which
children and young adults can move forward and avoid the
"disaffection" label.


History: The project was set up in early 1999 by independent partnership
organisation Read On – Write Away! It is a partnership of Derbyshire Council,
Derby Council, North Derbyshire Training and Enterprise Council, Southern
Derbyshire Chamber, the Basic Skills Agency, the National Literacy Trust,
Derbyshire Libraries and Heritage and Derbyshire Learning and Skills Council.
Young people known as buddy volunteers are recruited and supported through
partner organisations. They are trained in shared reading techniques. Buddies
work for several weeks for an hour each week helping buddy partners with their

Funding: Initially the Adult and Community Learning Fund financed the project.
This ran out in March 2001 and the project is funded for the next two years by
Read On – Write Away!, Derbyshire social services department and the Paul
Hamlyn Foundation. The projects costs about £40,000 annually to run.

Staff: Project co-ordinator Terry Smith with support from project workers from
the partner organisations and staff from the eight partner schools.

Clients: Care leavers in Derbyshire and Derby aged between 15 and 25.

Contact: Terry Smith, project co-ordinator, The Buddy Reading Project, Read On
– Write Away, County Hall, Matlock, Derbyshire DE4 3AG. Tel: 01629 585603.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.