Community Outreach – Making a positive impact

This week, Mrs Axford (Assistant Head – Co-Curriculum and Experiential Learning) guest writes on the Headmistress blog about the positive impact of our community outreach programme in Bedford. 

Listening to a primary school child read a book may not sound like a big deal. But we hope that sustained engagement by Bedford Girls’ School (BGS) with local primary schools is helping to enhance the life chances of children in our borough.

Over the weekend I met up with an old friend and we got talking about her experiences as a volunteer at a local primary school, helping young children with their reading. My friend spends two hours each week at the school, where she listens to the young children read, providing them with caring, one-on-one support. My friend has a busy full-time job, but she said that working from home meant she now had more time to dedicate to other activities. She clearly loves her volunteer work, and enjoys seeing how the children grow in ability and confidence, as they giggle their way through Captain Underpants or follow Gobbolino, the Witch’s Cat, as he goes on adventures and chases his dreams. This free one-to-one reading support is organised by Bedford charity, “Schoolreaders”, which matches volunteers to local primary schools across the country.

This conversation led on to a discussion of similar outreach activities that we’ve been doing at BGS for some time.  Back in 2019, we began working with Shackleton Primary School here in Bedford. Fifteen Lower Sixth students began going into Shackleton once a week to help the children with reading. Despite some stop-start through Covid, the activity has grown, and this year, since the start of this autumn term we have had sixty BGS Sixth Formers involved, going into two local schools each week. In addition to Shackleton we are also working with Marston Vale School. The BGS students provide 1:1 reading support to children from reception right through to Year 6. Our students are out of school for 90 minutes each session, making use of the lunch break, giving at least one hour of dedicated reading support time each visit.

Before they start, we provide training to the BGS students to ensure that they have the appropriate strategies and tools at their finger-tips to maximise the benefit to the children. Fluency of reading affects future life chances. If a child cannot read English easily, they cannot access the rest of the school curriculum easily, or access many aspects of the wider world. And a young person who leaves school with poor literacy they might struggle to read a medicine packet, or fill out an application form, and at an extreme, the ability to read has a positive impact on keeping young adults out of the criminal justice system, as a BGS governor who works in that system highlighted to me recently. 

BGS is nestled in a borough where many families face significant daily challenges.  Even before the pandemic, research showed that in our borough, children receiving free school meals had literacy attainments on average over a year behind the general cohort by the age of 11. Post pandemic it is highly likely that that gap will have widened. Schools across the borough face a variety of challenges. At Shackleton Primary, over 60% of the school children’s first language is not English. The OFSTED inspectors commented in 2021 that ‘Shackleton Primary is in a deprived area where many families live in poverty’. The report continued that. ‘Shackleton’s leaders refuse to accept this as an excuse for underachievement, and have created a “buzz” at the school, a feeling that “something interesting is going on from the moment you walk through the door”. We are so proud that BGS students are playing their own small part in supporting the work of this school and their students.

I see the reading support we provide to local primary schools as a ‘marathon rather than a sprint’, with each cohort of BGS students passing the baton on to fellow-students in the years below; each year building on the support that the BGS students have given in the years before.  By the time we break up for the summer holidays this year, we will have provided 1,800 hours of one-to-one reading support to children at local primary schools across the school year.  We have already been working with local schools for three years. If we can sustain this for seven years, we will have seen primary school children from Reception all the way through to the end of Year 6, providing 12,600 hours of 1:1 reading support.

The sustainability of the project is key. I hope our current BGS community is building a legacy of service that will last long into the future. I hope that the sustained intervention of our BGS students at local primary schools – a decade of Captain Underpants and Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat and hundreds of other books – will help to transform the reading ability of thousands of children in our borough, helping local children get the most out of their education, enhancing life chances.

And enhancing life.  

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