Children’s reading levels in Ipswich schools in deprived areas have radically improved over the past year, a report has suggested – with a new literacy project helping drive improvements.

The Let’s Talk Reading project was established last year by Roger Fern and John Helleur in response to research showing half of students start secondary school two years behind their reading age in the areas around Ipswich Academy, Chantry, Stoke, and Whitton. One in five children are over four years behind.

But Key Stage Two interim data for the 2017 reading SATs tests, not expected nationally until next month but published in a report for the project, show results rose by as much as 28% at primary schools in Ipswich, pushing them in line with the national average.

Some 69% of all Suffolk pupils achieved the expected reading standard, up from 63% last year, but below the 71% England average, provisional data show.

Co-founder Roger Fern said: “We wouldn’t want to take away from what the schools are doing to improve, but we are working very much in partnership with schools.

East Anglian Daily Times: James Powell from Suffolk Libraries has said the scheme is helping readers. Picture: GREGG BROWNJames Powell from Suffolk Libraries has said the scheme is helping readers. Picture: GREGG BROWN

“It is really important children have conversations about reading before they come to school, having access to books, being read to, but there was evidence in some parts of Ipswich that parents and adults weren’t able to share books with their children.”

The scheme is a partnership between schools, children’s centres and libraries, and aims to help support existing projects such as Chantry Academy’s Drop Everything and Read (which dedicates 10 minutes to reading for pleasure), and fund books in schools or new literacy projects.

It is due to get £20,000 of grant funding from Ipswich Borough Council’s area committees.

So far 13 schools have been involved, with more being targeted for 2018. For the next 12 months, nurseries and early years providers are also set to join.

East Anglian Daily Times: Chantry Academy's Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) where the whole school (including staff) drop what they are doing and pick up a book for 10 minutes has proven a success. Pictured is David Casuneanu. Picture: GREGG BROWNChantry Academy's Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) where the whole school (including staff) drop what they are doing and pick up a book for 10 minutes has proven a success. Pictured is David Casuneanu. Picture: GREGG BROWN

The scheme’s primary focus is to get children engaged with books they enjoy, which in turn will help encourage them to pick up books in the future.

By having conversations about the books they are reading with parents and peers, the project hopes to foster a lifelong love of reading which will have a positive improvement on literacy levels.

The funding report prepared ahead of the borough council committees said: “The group identifies low literacy levels as the key factor for poor academic achievement in Ipswich.

“It argues that poor academic achievement results in poor economic performance of the community, poor negotiating skills, and difficulties in engaging with statutory bodies.”

East Anglian Daily Times: Roger Fern was one of the founders. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNRoger Fern was one of the founders. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN (Image: Archant)

The report said signs of “aspirational culture change” in the targeted communities and schools are “already evident”, while teachers have hailed the impact it has already had.

Sarah Merchant, English lead at St Helen’s Primary School, said: “It has to be the number one priority of primary schools to get children reading and talking about books. We aspire to hit national averages, even though 40% of our students have English as an additional language, and since we have started the project we have had that.”

Literacy lead at Ipswich Academy Emma Ingate added: “English is now the highest performing core subject across all year groups. The excellent progress in each year group has been underpinned by Let’s Talk Reading contribution.”

But as well as improving literacy for youngsters, the project is also having a wider impact on adults who struggle with reading.

East Anglian Daily Times: Headteacher James Chester. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNHeadteacher James Chester. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN (Image: Archant)

Mr Fern said activities at libraries in Suffolk which encouraged parents to get involved with their children was having a big impact on both generations’ reading ability.

James Powell, a Suffolk Libraries spokesman, added: “Reading is vital to many aspects of people’s lives so it’s important both to encourage children to enjoy it from an early age and to help adults who may struggle with reading but do not know where to go for help.”

Conclusions in the project’s report said: “Early years settings are requesting Let’s Talk Reading volunteers to come and talk to parents who struggle with reading,” adding: “The message is getting out to many support services, particularly in early years, including midwives, health visitors, children’s centres, family support practitioners, and reading is now a key topic of conversation.”

The scheme is continuing to quietly go about its work, but with such significant gains in the first 18 months alone the next chapter is already set to be a page-turner.

Need some reading ideas for your children? Our friends at Suffolk Libraries and Ipswich Waterstones have recommended a host of books to get children engaged.

Case study: Whitton Community Primary School

“We have built a culture of a real love of reading,” says James Chester, headteacher of Whitton Community Primary School.

Some 52% of pupils achieved the expected standard in Key Stage Two SATs reading this year, up 9%.

£7,000 of funding from Let’s Talk Reading has helped the school appoint a reading advocate, hold lunchtime reading clubs, nursery workshops, literacy projects, author talks, and coffee and book reading mornings with parents.

With budgets tight, challenging, age-appropriate books have been bought and classrooms have reading corners.

Mr Chester added: “Key Stage One results are improving too.

“The pattern is really positive. Pupils have greater fluency and expression.

“We’re inspiring their imagination and will continue to push them.

“Research shows how fundamental literacy is to future success.

“Parents who read stories or sing nursery rhymes also give such an advantage.”