By Nick Travis, partner at Smith & Williamson
This article was originally published in Smith & Williamson's Enterprise magazine, a thought leadership publication for entrepreneurs and growth companies.
Kitty Higgins and Sharon Pindar want to help every child to read. It’s a huge problem, but with a growing army of volunteers, their charity Bookmark is starting to make a real difference.The UK has a literacy problem. Around 200,000 children each year leave primary school unable to read to the expected level. According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), that means the UK has one of the lowest literacy rates of any developed nation. Poor levels of literacy have real consequences for individuals: teenagers without basic literacy skills are significantly more likely to be excluded from school, commit crime, and to spend time in prison. It inhibits their learning, dents their self-esteem and limits their life chances.
For Sharon Pindar, Chair and Founder of Trustees at Bookmark, this was a problem close to home. She had grown up on a council estate in Wrexham and her mother couldn’t read. Two friendly local librarians nurtured Sharon’s early interest in reading. It provided the foundation for her to excel at school.
She, and Bookmark’s CEO Kitty Higgins, wanted to use this experience to help solve the UK’s literacy problem. The pair reasoned that if they could match supportive volunteers with children who were struggling to meet reading targets, they could make an impact on UK literacy standards. This was the germination of Bookmark, which was built with the single aim of ensuring every child can read.
It was a big problem, but Sharon and Kitty believed they could make a difference. The charity had an immediate boost with funding from investment trust Literacy Capital plc. The £54m trust was set up by Paul Pindar, Sharon’s husband, who is best- known for his 23-year tenure as Managing Director and Chief Executive of business processing outsourcing group Capita, but has also been involved with influential start- ups Eve Sleep, Purplebricks and ITC Luxury Travel.
The trust aims to support small businesses, but also donates 0.9% of its net assets to literacy causes, of which Bookmark was one. This helped them get off the ground with a secure, stable pool of capital. “With this sustainable funding, we could build the technology that other charities find it hard to develop,” says Sharon.
The consequences of poor literacy are also felt by society: “the economic cost of poor literacy is estimated at around £36 billion per year. It costs around £40,000 to keep one person in prison for a year and around half of the prison population has literacy skills no higher than those expected from an 11-year- old. Improving literacy makes sense on a social, political and economic level.”
Technology has been the key in matching volunteers with the children that needed support. Kitty says: “The technology allows volunteers to pick their session. They need to commit to visit a local primary school twice a week for one-to-one, 30-minute reading sessions. Sessions are easy to organise – the volunteers simply select when they are free on our Bookmark app.
“They work with the same child each time, so they can get to know their interests and see the progress they are making. Volunteers have the freedom to use their creativity to inspire the children, exploring a range of books, games and activities that help them to gain confidence and find enjoyment in reading.”
The group built a training programme, also technology- based, designed to help equip volunteers with the tools to build a love of reading in children. Kitty said: “It is all about what is interesting and what is exciting, whether that be different books or literacy- based games and activities.”
The programme is all evidence-based and volunteers can complete their training in short, bite-size chunks. This goes beyond simply reading with a child.
Volunteers are encouraged to have a conversation about the book, to help the child understand it. Children need to feel that someone is interested in what they are saying.
The volunteers come from a broad variety of backgrounds. The youngest is 18 and the oldest is 86. There is real diversity. For Sharon and Kitty, this is important, because they bring a variety of different cultures and different backgrounds. It gives children the space to explore and learn different things.
The pair started in Camden, piloting in three schools in 2018. It now works across 20 schools in London. It plans to step outside London this year. Sharon says: “It was important that the technology should work in London, where there is the maximum supply and demand.”
Nevertheless, they see other areas of real need – Blackburn or Blackpool, for example. However, it’s important to ensure that they don’t get into an area where there are lots of needy schools but no volunteers or vice versa. Service delivery is important and they don’t want to promise help to schools before they have the volunteers in place.
The results are measurable. Bookmark looks at reading attainment data at the start of each academic year to see if their volunteers are making a difference.
They also measure attitude to reading, whether their programme sparks a love of reading. In this way, they can adapt their programme to achieve maximum results.
The biggest challenge is getting the technology right. Kitty says: “There is a lot of pressure on teachers and it is important not to add to their administrative burden. We make it easy for them to access additional reading support for their pupils.”
The next challenge is to build scale: “That means not just recruiting one or two volunteers but large populations – from corporates, universities, network groups, and other communities,” says Sharon.
They believe they can make a significant difference.
“When a child likes reading, they are more likely to be good at it. Reading for pleasure increases a child’s confidence. It can be transformational. We are really excited to grow and bring it to more children.”