Down With the Kids

In September 2009, the Nottingham University Samworth Academy (NUSA) will open its doors to pupils aged 11-19 from Bilborough and the surrounding area. It has been described as ‘the biggest leap forward for schooling for Bilborough for generations’, and as the name suggests, the University plays a vital role as sponsor.

The University is lending its expertise and experience in education as a way of helping the community achieve success, both in English and across all subjects. This process has already begun with staff and students from the University helping with the development of literacy in William Sharp (the existing secondary comprehensive school, which will be replaced by NUSA), and its feeder schools Brocklewood Junior, Firbeck Primary, Melbury Primary and Portland Primary. Students assist in a variety of ways, including one-to-one reading with the children or after-school reading groups with the most able pupils in each year.

Bilborough is a deprived area of the city where literacy levels are low and education support is limited. The University takes its responsibilities to the promotion of learning and the development of the community very seriously, and continuing support in the form of volunteers at the Academy and the feeder schools will be needed for this long-term project to prosper.

For those who want to get involved, visit the Academy website at nusa.org.uk or contact Jenny Denton, the Community Strategy Manager at [email protected].

What They Think…

“You’re making a change over quite a long period of time in communities where kids just don’t read that much”
– Ron Carter, School of English

“Children never usually have the chance to have the level of individual attention that the volunteers provide, it’s definitely had a positive effect and we’re predicting the quantitative data at the end of the year will prove this”
– Stephanie Pearson, Literacy Co-ordinator at Melbury Primary

“It’s nice to read books we don’t normally read in class”
“The people are really nice and friendly”
“I’m glad we were picked for it, it makes you feel kinda special”
– Comments from pupils at Melbury Primary

“It’s part of the University’s role”
– Jenny Denton, Community Strategy Manager

“It’s really motivating to see the children’s interest in reading grow, and it’s reinforced my thoughts about going into teaching”
– Louise Nuttall, one-to-one reading volunteer
‘Never work with children or animals.’

Whoever first came up with this piece of advice clearly never had to live in University Park. These two elements of society are distinctly lacking in the lives of anyone living in halls, and Lenton is hardly any better. The place is completely dominated by students, as indicated by the forest of ‘To Let’ boards adorning most of the houses.

If we are going to contemplate escape into the big wide world and interacting with human beings outside of student-dom, it makes sense to do something worthwhile that will benefit the community. Nottingham is our adopted home now – if you’re not originally from the area, obviously – and a lot of the time it can feel like we students do nothing but invade the city and take from it. Any form of volunteering is an opportunity to alter this balance a little, but it is satisfying to be able to do so in such an exciting and variable environment. So when the School of English asked for volunteers for a Literacy scheme, the chance seemed too tempting to ignore.

On one level, the project provides a certain amount of escapism from work; nobody can accuse you of pointless procrastination if you are helping children to read, and going into school makes a really nice break from a less-than-productive afternoon in Hallward. Furthermore, there is less pressure for a school visit than a seminar, at least in terms of what you have to prepare. If any effort is required in advance, it will involve reading a children’s storybook, which is still a pleasant alternative to most of the reading matter you’ll be ploughing through for your course.

So, once a week, we make the journey by bus into NG8. Primary school interiors seem to have shrunk in the last decade. Everything is in miniature: the corridors, the tables, the chairs – not to mention the people. The whole experience is a bit of a trip down memory lane – remember that school dinner smell? The no-jeans dress code in place in some of the schools (yes, it has posed a challenge) prevents us from looking too much like students, but it also means the kids have little idea what we do. Judging by the way they try to address us as ‘Miss’, they seem to view us as teacher figures, surprising to many students who still see themselves as too young to be in a position of such responsibility!

There are many interesting characters to encounter when you go into a school; every child has his or her own quirky habits. The boy who expressed the view that he wished school uniform was not obligatory so that he could wear his High School Musical outfit and pink shoes instead gave us some entertainment, and it can be amusing to speculate on what they might be like when they are older.

The children’s enthusiasm is rather reassuring; they spot us when we arrive and they are generally keen to read. It is often hard to tell the extent of the effect you can have on the attitudes and achievements of another person. However, the appreciative comments from the teachers who tell us how the pupils’ reading has improved are very gratifying. It is difficult to see the bigger picture when trying to give a definition of a tricky word (how would you describe what ‘frills’ are, without a visual aid?) – or when attempting to teach distracted 7-year-olds how to read italics out loud, with accompanying hand gestures (‘put weight on it’).

The hour a week is not just something for the CV, although there is no denying that it does give valuable experience in dealing with a range of people and situations (and increases my admiration for teachers!). What is more rewarding (at least on a week by week basis) is the chance to have contact with the real world, and to spend time with people whose lives involve something other than the library, their bed and Oceana. And, as cheesy as it may sound, it is satisfying to know that we are encouraging literacy in the next generation. After all, in 10 years’ time, they could be us.

By Kate Gilks and Ailsa Mitchell

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