Five years ago, on May 4th 2012, I visited Ysgol Esgob Morgan Primary School (now Ysgol Esgob Morgan Church in Wales School) for the first time as its Patron of Reading. This brilliant initiative was first mooted by the dynamic headteacher there, Tim Redgrave. He’d first met me a couple of years earlier when he brought his class to see me at St Asaph Library as part of Denbighshire Libraries Book Week. A man who recognises talent when he sees it, he sounded me out about the idea and wondered what I thought. What I thought was it was a genius way to promote reading for pleasure in schools and I was delighted when he asked me to be his patron.
At the time, neither of us really knew what to expect or what the role entailed. What I do remember was an awareness that this was something different from an ordinary school visit, with the potential to grow into something mega. I wasn’t wrong: there are now over 200 patrons of reading in UK schools. How fantastic is that?
Over the next four years we had some amazing times. I always looked forward to my visits and did my best to pull something extraordinary out of the hat for ‘my’ school every time I went. I remember one assembly where I pretended to be the lame boy who gets left behind in the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I took my grandma’s old walking stick with me, limping slowly between the year groups as I recounted how left out I felt when I couldn’t keep up with my friends as they rushed after the charismatic Pied Piper and how lonely it was being the only child left in Hamelin. The pupils and parents were enthralled. It was one of those special moments when the storyteller and audience are bound together in the magical cocoon of the narrative.
Over the years, being a patron meant that I built a special relationship with children and my dedicated blog gave those who wanted to a way of communicating with me in between visits. I wrote newsletters to each class, recommending reads and telling them what I was up to in my writing. I became that ‘twelfth man’ to their class teachers, adding praise when children did something outstanding and supporting them by writing letters, creating Patron of Reading certificates and attending special occasions such as the North Wales Book Quiz and Y6 leavers’ Services.
I also got to know the teachers in a way I wouldn’t have normally done Although it was Tim who came up with the idea and was always ready to back (and fund) any ideas we had, it was Jenny Ritchie, the Lit Co, who helped put the author/school partnership into practice. She organised a Big Book Quiz (teachers v pupils) and used my blogs on poetry in her classroom. It was Mrs Ritchie’s class who ‘shadowed’ the Nottingham Mega Reads Book Award I was involved in and read the same titles to her class so we could compare results. Unfortunately Jenny left half way through my tenure but her support and enthusiasm was catching and the other teachers were just as keen to keep the momentum going. Although I had said I’d be patron for three years I stayed for four, seeing a whole cohort of children through from Y3 to Y6. My role as a patron of reading remains one of the highlights of my writing career.
Did it make any difference to the school’s reading culture? I hope so. Esgob Morgan remains the only school to have achieved 100% participation in the Summer Reading Challenge for 4 years in a row and the school library needed extending, borrowing had increased so much. When the school was inspected, the inspectors acknowledged the scheme gave an ‘added value’ to literacy at Ysgol Esgob Morgan. I’m sure Tim and the staff would be able to provide further examples.
The Two Steves are the new patrons at Ysgol Esgob Morgan now and I can tell from their tweets they have a ball when they visit. Elsewhere, the movement has been embraced by primary and secondary schools alike. In Haringey, there’s a group of patrons ‘The Haringey Chapter’ who network with each other and have an independent bookshop, Big Green Books, working alongside them. Authors I meet, such as Alan MacDonald, tell me how much they enjoy being patrons of a school. Like with my experience, it makes them feel special and that they’re contributing something important and fun. The PoR movement has been featured in many educational articles and reading websites. We were even on the telly once!
It’s not been plain sailing all the time. A few schools, especially secondary, just don’t get it and either neglect or take their patron for granted. The relationship breaks down and leaves the author feeling disheartened. Some schools question why the author should be paid for the visits which seems strange as no one questions why teachers should be paid for teaching! There are also a few who think the patron is there to fill in gaps in their English curriculum and are aghast when we say we’re there for the opposite reason – to breathe life into reading, not kill it stone dead.
All in all, though, the patron of reading idea has been a roaring success and like all success stories it’s the simplicity of it that works. Of course children and teachers are going to turn into keener readers if they’ve got their own real, live, published and enthusiastic author as their patron in da house. If you don’t believe what difference authors can make, check out studies like this one by Professor of Education Teresa Cremin.
So here’s to the next five years and thank you, Tim, for being such a forward-thinking head teacher. I’m so glad I was your first patron of reading.