How can schools collaborate with their communities to achieve better reading results for their pupils? This e-bulletin encourages SENCOs to consider recruiting and training volunteer helpers as ‘Reading Buddies’

We all know how children enjoy a bit of individual attention. Those with special educational needs can be particularly responsive to one-to-one sessions, especially when the personal dynamics are right and a supportive relationship is created. But where is the time in a busy school day with teachers and TAs so incredibly busy? Reading Buddies are visiting members of the community who can help children get more out of their school day, and strengthen ties between the school and the outside world – with unexpected results.

Support for SENCOs
The concept of Reading Buddies is not a new one and many schools and local authorities have such schemes in place, but if you haven’t got access to this sort of resource, it’s well worth considering setting up your own group of helpers. Most primary schools have parent helpers who are willing to help out with various activities within school, including listening to readers, but this can create awkward situations at times. The sort of scheme we’re considering this week involves recruiting members of the local community who don’t necessarily have children at the school.

They may be:

  • local residents who have some spare time, are unemployed or retired
  • students from a local high school, college or university
  • employees from a local company which is willing to allow them time out during the working day.

The setting up and running of such a scheme involves an investment of time, initially by the SENCO or a member of the senior management team; but once up and running, it is fairly low-maintenance and can be supervised by a TA (or in time an experienced Reading Buddy). If you’re in a secondary school, don’t rule out this idea; it can work equally well, especially in Year 7 and Year 8 and if you can pair up boys with male buddies who act as good role models. In the best and most successful schemes, volunteers may begin as Reading Buddies (reading to and listening to pupils; talking about stories and characters; helping children to use picture cues and phonic skills), but in time they become mentors, confidantes and friends as well. The gains in pupils’ self-esteem, improved behaviour and more positive attitudes are every bit as valuable as the gains in reading scores.

Consider how to:

  • Recruit – advertise in the local free paper, at libraries, local shop windows, health and community centres. Think carefully about the wording and try to establish from the outset that you are looking for a commitment for at least a term or school year, once or twice a week. Remember that all volunteers will need to be CRB checked. Find out if they prefer to pair up with younger or older children.
  • Provide training – plan some half-hour sessions to go through the main principles of teaching reading. This will put the whole scheme on a more professional level and enable volunteers to be more effective. Enlist the help of your literacy coordinator, LA literacy support service or adviser.
  • Manage and monitor – design some simple record-keeping system for Reading Buddies to use and liaise with teachers for regular feedback about the effects on the children paired with a RB. Talking to pupils themselves is also a good idea. Arrange for an occasional ‘gathering’ of RBs where they can share experiences over a cup of tea, seek guidance and continue developing their skills.
  • Bring teaching staff on board and enlist their help and cooperation – explain your rationale for the scheme and start with enthusiastic and willing colleagues: they need to be ‘onside’
  • Inform RBs about school trips and other absences – get the word out before the buddy turns up to find the classroom or school empty.
  • Fit in the sessions – schedule sessions whenever possible: once or twice a week, before school starts, in the lunch break, during literacy or other lessons.
  • Find a suitable venue – hold the sessions somewhere comfortable and attractive, preferably not in a corridor.
  • Introduce children to their Reading Buddy – allow the RB to spend a little time in the classroom and talk to the child or children can be a good idea; always explain to the child the role of the RB and the sessions’ aims.
  • Keep volunteers motivated and feeling that they are appreciated – when I ran an LA scheme like this, I was often impressed by the dedication of the volunteers – some of whom had to travel a fair distance and chose to give up a significant amount of time– and the carelessness of some teachers who failed to learn the RB’s name (let alone ask how their children had got on). ‘Thanks’ could be in short supply. Having invested time and energy in recruiting and training buddies, remember to thank them, offer them a drink, invite them to the school play, etc. We all like to feel that we’re wanted.

SEN News
New regulations for special educational needs coordinators were laid before parliament on 21 November and come into force on 1 September 2009.

The Education (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators) (England) Regulations 2008 (SI 2008/2945) introduce a new requirement for SENCOs to be qualified teachers by September 2011. This ensures that the SENCO ‘has the necessary standing to influence differentiated teaching matched to pupils’ individual needs’. It will be a decision welcomed by the many lobbyists who have been disdainful about the growing trend for SEN matters to be delegated to
‘unqualified’ staff.

The regulations are due to come into effect on 1 September 2009 in order to allow schools time to make any necessary staffing adjustments. The DCSF points out that some of the SENCO functions will continue to be undertaken by other staff, including teaching assistants, who will ‘continue to make a significant and important contribution to improving the achievement and wellbeing of pupils with SEN and disabilities’.

In October 2008, the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) held a consultation on a specification for nationally approved training for SENCOs. DCSF intends to consult again in early 2009 on draft regulations requiring that all SENCOs new to the role should undertake such training.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2008

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.