Alan Johnson: Gift of words can open up a new future for children

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MY mother, who came from a family of ten, hadn’t been allowed to progress her education because her father wouldn’t pay for the school uniform. Even though she had no evidence to back it up, as none of her family had been readers or progressed to university, she had an instinctive feeling that books were a good thing.

So she dragged me and my sister to the Ladbroke Grove library in London as soon as we were old enough to turn a page. I believe my love of reading stemmed from those visits to the library and is what I would classify as being a salvation through a difficult childhood, and my sister, Linda, would agree.

But there was something about having to take those books back. Luckily, a working men’s club in pre-gentrified Notting Hill held a Christmas party every year, which for some reason was in January, and they would give us a book. I remember getting Robinson Crusoe one year and my sister receiving Little Women, which I read too. But what was great about it was that these were our own books, our little library.

Fast forward to the time when I became Education Secretary and I was given a book to read called The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease, which included a landmark study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley called Meaningful Differences. It showed that affluent children heard 45 million words by age four, children in working class families had heard 26 million, and a welfare child heard just 13 million – that’s a 32 million-word gap between rich and poor nursery-aged children.

How do we end up in a situation, which I am sure everybody wants to achieve, where your future is not defined by where you were born?

It turns out that the best, most important thing you can give to a child is not toys or electronic gadgets but words. It’s also the cheapest.

When I was Secretary of State for Education, we launched the national Every Child a Reader (ECAR) programme, designed to help five and six year-old children with severe literacy difficulties learn to read. We realised that it was important for us to help parents as well as the child, particularly as reading helps drive social mobility and being read to is crucially important for a child’s development.

The most vulnerable group are children in care and the statistics are incredibly depressing: only 13 per cent of children in care will get five GCSEs compared to 58 per cent of all children; only six per cent of children in care will go to university compared with 38 per cent of all young people and worst of all, looked after children are half a per cent of the child population but 23 per cent of the adult prison population has been in care and almost 40 per cent of prisoners under 21 were in care as children.

There is no one to replicate the love of a parent but there is help out there for looked-after children to have a successful future. These come in the form of foster carers, virtual heads, local authorities, teachers and Booktrust’s Letterbox Club.

The Letterbox Club, of which I am delighted to have recently become patron, is a reading programme for children in care who don’t have access to books or someone like my mother to take them to the library.

The project was initiated by Rose Griffiths at the University of Leicester’s School of Education and is managed by Booktrust, Britain’s leading reading charity .

It focuses on improving the educational outlook for children aged five to 13 years in foster families by providing them with books, maths games and educational materials in personally addressed parcels, delivered to their homes. Over a six-month period each Letterbox Club parcel arrives in a brightly coloured package addressed to the child. The child will receive a letter and a range of books that have been carefully selected for their age.

The parcels also include other items such information about how to join a library and letters from children’s authors.

After being a member of the Letterbox Club for six months, the child will have built up their own small library of books, which is something I feel very strongly about children having.

The idea of Letterbox Club is such a simple one but extremely effective, the parcel addressed to the child gives them a sense of belonging and the books inside open up opportunities.

What’s great about Letterbox is that it helps vulnerable children feel special, increase their confidence and improve their literacy and numeracy, which in turn helps them to transform their lives.

More than 7,000 looked-after children received Letterbox Club parcels in 2014, signed up via local authorities and schools, and during my time as patron I will be making sure lots more children in care are signed up.

There is a huge cross-party support for Booktrust’s Letterbox Club, as it is the key to giving children in care a better future.

• Alan Johnson is a Hull MP, former Cabinet minister, bestselling author and patron to Booktrust’s targeted reading programme called Letterbox Club.