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Time for Dad

September 5, 2017 | Posted in: literacy, prison, schools, young people

‘Which are the good ones?’ Len gingerly picks through the picture books I’ve placed in front of him. The rest of the group sense a shortcut and stop sifting their own book piles.
‘You just need to look through them. Choose one you like.’ I keep my voice light. I want them to see this as fun, not a chore. To me, choosing a picture book means five or ten minutes max. The group act as if it’s going to take them hours. They fan out the slim books, unsure how to begin.
‘Why don’t you just tell us which are best? That would make it quicker.’ Marco gives me his just-trying-to-help face.
‘You have to decide for yourself.’
They look at me. In truth, they’re not trying to skive, they just want a clear answer. Because there has to be answer. There has to be a ‘best book’.
‘Listen,’ I pick a book from the top of the pile near Len and sit on the floor. The group remain on their chairs, watching me curiously.

I read Fizz the Fire Engine out loud to this group of addicts, thieves, fraudsters, drug dealers, and villains. I read it the way I read it to my son when he was barely walking, and this was his favourite book. It’s a quick story, even with all the sound effects, and as I’m reading I’m aware (because you need to be aware of your audience) of their nervous looks, their smirks and grins at my expense but also that they GOT the story, that they GOT the point of enjoying yourself, of throwing yourself into something as small and as vital as story for your child. Reading with your children isn’t a chore, it’s a gift.

Safeground’s Fathers Inside is a parenting course for men in prison. We cover parental rights, choices, dealing with your children’s schoolwork – everything, which includes reading with your kids. The five-week course is intensive and challenging, made doubly so by the fact that we use drama in every session. The men create scenarios where they tell the truth, where they role-play stories because that’s how we learn. It asks an awful lot of them in a place where honesty is rarely rewarded. They get stick for coming to courses such as this. It’s not a parent-friendly environment. Parenting? What you need that for? What’s wrong with you?
The group appreciate the different space Fathers Inside gives them.
‘We can leave all that shit on the wing,’ they say, despite my often having to cajole them back from discussing ‘wing shit’.
‘Here we can be ourselves. We’re all dads.’ Marco looks around the room. ‘That’s what we have in common. Before this I would have walked on by if he (he nods at Len) were getting trouble. Now I’ve got his back.’ He grins ‘We’d even help you, Davo.’
In the class they can see themselves and each other as fathers and individuals rather than other men caught in the same trap. Part of the value of the course is to remind the men of that other identity, help them strengthen it as only then will they be able to resist the offender label, and all its harmful negativity, which is the bedrock of prison life.

The big carrot for the course is a family day where they put on a performance for their families. There is much excitement that they will get five hours with their families, twice as long as a normal visit. This is also a source of stress. Knowing that your family and your relationship with them will be on view: this can unravel some of the stories the men tell about themselves. One man, right from the start, tells us just what a fabulous dad he is, how much he loves his kids, how much he does for them but as we get closer to the performance he has to acknowledge that nobody is coming to see him. To his credit he carries on playing his part so the performance can continue. Len, who has a three-month-old son, tells me that he would also like to contact his children from a previous relationship.

The men’s wives and partners rarely work. This can appear conservative, for all their wild drug tales the men want to keep traditional male and female roles. And yet they have never, not a single one, raised a hand to their children. Partly this is because so much of the childcare is left to their partners; they prefer to be the one who brings fun and toys. It is also because so many remember being beaten by their fathers (and mothers). Traditional, and yet they can confound my expectations. When one man said he would never read to his children as that was ‘a woman’s job’, the group freeze him out.

The group discuss how hard it is to keep family contact going. ‘Sometimes you just don’t want to see them, you know.’
‘Gotta do your own time’ – nods Zen-Bobby who misses one session a week to attend meditation. This helps with his temper though Zen-Bobby is adamant that he has no problem dealing with prison. ‘Sleep your way through. 23hr bang-up? Lovely. You go into a kind of trance. When they let you out of the cell properly a whole week might have gone by.’
For these men it is one thing to do your time. Most accept this. It is something that must be got through, slept through, something to drug yourself through, fight and paranoia yourself through. Being conscious of your family on the outside, of being helpless to help them, of not being the provider: that is hard. Too hard for many. Fathers Inside offers different ways in which they can maintain relationships.

Back to the books. ‘This is a bit near.’ Marco holds up When Dad was Away (Liz Weir/Karin Littlewood). Len has got Visiting Day (Jacqueline Woodson/James E Ransome).


Both books are about families who have a father in prison
‘Fuck. I never knew there were books like this.’
Freddie takes the book. Freddie copies out the whole book and adds drawings of his own for his own children. One of the drug dealers reveals a life long love of Dr Seuss. We show them books that help dyslexics, books that deal with all kinds of issues such as loss, moving house, worries etc.

‘I never realised books were more than stories. That when I read to my kids we’re also learning about each other,’ says John with genuine wonder.

John loves Dinkin Dings (Guy Bass). ‘Can I borrow it? ‘John is a habitual thief: sellatape, pens, paper vanish when he’s in the room. I never see him do it. But if I ask for items to be returned he will unashamedly bring them back. ‘Didn’t think they were important.’
Dinkin Dings will not come back but I want to believe he will read it down the phone to his son. The phones, the over-expensive, non-private phones where everyone’s family drama is broadcast down the wing.

On the day of the performance the group are excited. It’s the big day and they are also terrified.
‘You have no idea how scary this is for us.’
It goes well. Each family get a gift bag with books from Give A Book, a charity that supports many book-gifting projects inside and outside prison

That’s a long time they say with both apprehension and satisfaction. ‘I don’t think I spent that long with my kids before.’ If you’re out working or dealing it tends to take you away from your families. On the day the families love the performance, and mingle. They sit in couples, hands in hand (forbidden on usual visits) baby asleep on a blanket.

A long visit is something that they have all looked forward to but it’s also a long time to sit with people who inhabit a different world. Families also have long journeys. One family arrive hours early because of the trains. Others have to start back with tired and hungry children.

At the end only two of our group are still sitting with their families.
I’m enjoying watching Len and Marco with their babies. Len will be back on building sites soon, minding his temper. He seems happy and when his girlfriend goes to get a cup of tea, he is looking after his three-month-old baby. The baby isn’t immediately impressed and keeps looking around for his mother. I watch Len to see if he will wait for his girlfriend to return. The baby is grizzling now but Len’s still smiling as he reaches into the book bag and pulls out a book. His baby son looks curious before resuming his grizzling, twisting round in the direction his mother took. Len picks up his son, places him on his knee, balances the book and begins to read.

* All names have been changed

Reading Headlines

September 27, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, Reading, schools, young people


Let’s get every child reading widely and well

Another year, another literacy drive. The Daily Telegraph article rather contradicts its message of ‘widely and well’ by giving a list of 50 books that all children should have read by the time they are 16. An inevitably bizarre list offers little to teenagers except The Hunger Games. What fuels these periodic drives to improve literacy in the UK is the need to be seen to be doing something. The more visible the better, and if you can hitch yourself to some celebrity wattage even better.

There have already been two National Years of Reading (1998 & 2008); there is the annual World Book Day, the Read On Get On campaign, and at least a dozen other national and local schemes. It is a cause that no one can argue with. Literacy is going to make a difference in someone’s life, a love of reading does make a difference, and yet there is something that makes my skin crawl when politicians leap on this particular bandwagon – isn’t it their job to put in place the institutions that enable a culture of literacy to thrive in the first place?


Between the two NYOR there was BiblioBraz in Moscow. First Ladies Cherie Blair, Lyudmila Putin, and Laura Bush all attended to showcase their support. The result was world-famous UK children’s authors reading to a room packed with bodyguards, PAs, hangers on, and a couple of rows of children.


Russia has produced a great body of literature, and enjoyed a high literacy rate. In fact at the time of BiblioBraz (2005) the government was trying to persuade fewer young people to go to university (it used to be 80% of young people went to university).

And yet, that high literacy rate and all those university graduates didn’t always give the expected results.

‘Students were notorious for their lack of interest in how to solve intellectual problems – they only cared what the answer was’
Just before the present UK literacy drive we had another headline. The Observer:
‘Fathers not reading enough to their children, says Book Trust
’ ‘Alarming’ new research says 50% more mothers read to children than fathers, and one in five students leaves primary school with poor reading skills.

At least they put quote marks around ‘alarming’. I’m all for reading more with your kids, but it doesn’t really help to throw around statistics that on closer examination show something else. The headline figures only apply to children below the age of one. After that the figures, though still unbalanced, are hardly headline worthy. At age three it’s71% 62% for mothers and fathers respectively. At five years 75% 65%, still a significant gap but enough to point the finger? Digging a little deeper we find that the actually question fathers were asked was ‘Do you take the lead in reading to your children?’ Not, Do you read with your children.


Lift your head from the relentless succession of crises, run along the timeline, and those children who enjoyed the first National Year of Reading are now adults. Whisper it. One in six people struggles to read.

A crisis? Or a result of a culture that perpetuates inequality? Finland has a more equal society by most estimates (though by no means a utopia), and regularly tops the world charts for literacy. Is it that the Finnish language is so much easier, that the teachers get so much more training, the long dark nights, or a culture that enforces and promotes equality? Discuss.


The successive governments who support one drive or another have also cut adult education; have reduced prison education to 4-week courses. I had an interest in children’s reading and education even before becoming a parent but it’s adult education that pricks my skin. I left school with one O level in English (grade C). I recently went through my old school books and was struck by how appalling my writing was at secondary school. Essay after essay riddled with spelling mistakes, and yet there were no comments by teachers. The thing about being an adult learner is you remember your learning. You remember your tutor at Poly asking why you couldn’t use commas, why you persisted in misspelling ‘challenge’. You remember reading and rereading novels, copying out paragraph after paragraph to drive in the punctuation habits and rules into your thick head. You remember being content reading a tabloid, and it being sneered at by both students and tutors. And you remember the first time you stumbled across a book that articulated your experience of education, and you remember the first time, the very first time, you nailed your thoughts to the page and they stuck. And then what went before no longer mattered.


A World Without Libraries

March 28, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, Reading, schools, young people


This week we got the news that Shropshire are going the way of so many authorities and sliding their public funded libraries into volunteer control. I don’t think my son would be so much of a reader without access to public libraries. Sure, he would be able to read, and read well, but I’m not sure the compulsion to read for pleasure would be there. I know some kids who will pick up a dog-eared Enid Blyton just to have something to read but I don’t think he’s like that. He’s been brought up in a world where the presentation of narrative and knowledge is constantly updating. My childhood world was of repeats, rigid schedules, and limited choice; rereading books and comics came as naturally as watching TV repeats. Now the narrative world presents endless choices, and being able to select 10 new titles a week from the local library was a gift. No other word for it. It was a beautiful, heady, absorbing, and delightful gift. Ten titles every week for the first decade of his life. Hundreds of books every year – that experience would never have been possible without a public library.
Sometimes we got the same book out again and again. We went through whole series: Elmer, The Little Princess, Amazing Machines, Blue Kangaroo, Horrid Henry, Beast Quest, Scream Street, Harry Potter, Alex Rider, Skulduggery, and many that I have forgotten until I see them in a bookshop or sale and I smile when the words slip into my head. Round the Corner, Not Far Away. Bing begins another Day.

I remember the delight on his face when he saw Fizz the Fire Engine, the book he knew so well from the library, in a bookshop, and we had to buy it because he wouldn’t let it go. Not just endless storybooks; in those pre literate years, we had ‘looking at books,’ generally of vehicles; emergency, space and military being the most popular. So much knowledge that you absorb at your own pace, as your own mind grew, without fear of being monitored.

Public libraries should be more than branded coffee and free Wi-Fi. At our beloved library in Bishops Castle, we were always made welcome. Generally we had ordered our books online beforehand, and after a while it became normal for my son to rush in, drop off the books he’d finished with, and dart behind the library counter to see if any books for him had arrived. We would go in the early evenings, so we could go to the pub afterwards to look/read at our books. Another family would often come in at the same time. They would drive down in a mud-spattered Landy; Dad still in wellies and work clothes, the little one in pyjamas complete with teddy bear, and the two other children in school uniform. The Dad would usher them in, it was never a long stop, they knew what they wanted: books for bedtime, books for school, books for adventure and books for reading together. The nearest bookshop was an hour drive away and might as well have been on the moon. We all knew the library was the place we could dip into knowledge and dreams. Choose ten. Every week.

337 public libraries have closed since 2010

Read Write Imagine Part II

February 28, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, schools, young people

For older students something would have to change. They were unlikely to be impressed with creating small picture books yet the task had to fit the skills they already had. I recently spoke to some young offenders to encourage them to take part in the excellent PEN writing competition but they were intimidated by the quality of what other prisoners had produced. They switched off. The gap was too great.

Working with young people in Pupil Referral Units, I needed to find a structure that would engage students – and these were often profoundly disengaged young people who would walk in and out of my workshop declaring “this is shit, this is shit” before finally settling. They needed a quality result. Most were wary of their lack of skills in the tasks I was setting them. They’re not stupid; they know where their skills are in deficit.

An earlier project in HMYOI Reading had encouraged students to create their own superheroes. It was fun but I have no particular drawing skills and so, even though we had some excellent support from comic artist, Ilya, we were all a little embarrassed by the results. This all took place before comics got their own laureate in 2014.

A better way, which we used in the PRUs, was to work up the students’ ideas into a script, and then commission Ilya to draw up a page. Some teachers were wary of this. They wanted the young people to draw the comics themselves. I managed to persuade them that commissioning would be a better approach. In a short project it just isn’t possible to get students’ drawing skills up to the level that they would be comfortable with. Using Ilya again gave the students the chance to focus on reading other comics, and honing their stories, some of which were done in groups, and some by single students, depending on the particular PRU. The results were great both in terms of the students’ engagement and in the quality of the results.


comics at PRU


“This is the best! I can’t believe he [the artist] did our story!”   PRU student


“I didn’t think that the students would like someone else realising their ideas. I was wrong, they loved it.” Teacher at Guildford PRU


“This is good. I’ve never seen them so keen.”   PRU teacher


“[the students gained] collaborative writing skills, and how to develop a coherent story line. [also] speaking and LISTENING to each other’s ideas.” PRU teacher


It wasn’t always plain sailing. Students in some groups could immediately spot a good idea and accept it was better than theirs – others found this more challenging… but all loved the end results. Quality wins every time. Read Write Imagine.


comics at PRU


There were other benefits. Mr Bomb  was unique as it was a complete story on one page. Afterwards the teacher told he was delighted as this student was usually impossible to engage in anything. He was someone who would store up his anger and then go off somewhere and create havoc – exactly as in his story. Having the finished work signed by the artist gave the teacher and the student an opportunity to talk about his anger, and how it could be managed better. Plus he was a star. Everyone in the PRU loved Mr Bomb.

Read Write Imagine Part I

February 27, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, Reading, schools, young people


I stole the title for this post from an essay by Phillip Pullman.


We writers ought to make it clear too that the arts – not just learning about them, but doing them, actually writing and painting and playing music – have a vital part to play in the lives of our children. They have to do with enlarging and clarifying experience, in opening new worlds of possibility and delight and understanding and emotion.


Pullman talks eloquently about the need to keep books and the arts around children because you don’t really know when their imagination, as opposed to their skill level, will take off.


In workshops I aim for100% participation, and so I often need a structure to coax in the more reluctant students. With disaffected students, they’re generally bored, and the longer I take before we get to the actual content the less chance I have of getting anything out of them. Sure, I can go into my groups of able and willing students, run a few ice-breakers, riff on what they’re currently reading and off we go. Some will produce excellent writing, some middling, and some very little but what to do with the less able, the less willing?


When I was at school we would be given a choice of titles and then told to get on with writing a story. The creativity was in pulling an innocuous looking title around to what you wanted it to be. But you had to want to write in the first place. The structure has to offer scaffolding, but also an invitation to play and experiment within/on/outside the given boundaries. I look at my son’s planning notes for his stories written at school; the mind maps, the drilling on punctuation, the push for complex sentences etc. All of which are useful but I wonder how he summons up the energy to write anything in the tiny bit of time left.



I find that the structure of making a book works well with primary school age students. The book is a simple folded construction but on every page there was a different shaped flap cut into the paper. The challenge was for the young people to incorporate those shapes into their stories.   The books shown come from a class of years 3-6 of differing abilities but all managed to complete the exercise. Planning was 5 minutes explaining the idea and showing an example I’d prepared earlier. The ideal structure is one that all can use. They only have to Read Write Imagine.




“They loved this. Really got into it. I let them carry on through afternoon so they could finish their books to show you.” Richard Langford, Head teacher.


But what would work with older students?

Pick A Book – Any Book

January 23, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, schools, young people

The sceptical teacher asks how I’m going to get her Year Nines to read. I could see the doubt on her face when I arrived at the school. How is he going to get them interested in books? They hate reading. Would do anything rather than pick up a book. It’s most often Year Nine or Year Five that I’m asked to work with in schools. Young Offenders and/or NEETS outside of school.


Ability is without doubt important but with the Year Nines much will reflect attitudes to reading rather than simply ability. The school has given me two groups. The first are considered ‘good’ readers, the other group ‘non readers’. The stares that greet me from the two groups are quite different. The first group is curious at why they’re there – but they’re happy to chat and joke amongst themselves. They enjoy reading, or at least enough to argue which authors are the best. The second group is spread out more in the room; they’re quieter, as if waiting to see what hoops I’m going to ask them to jump through. When I place the bag of books on the table in front of them I can see them sink into themselves, wondering how little they can get away with. How they can let the next 45 minutes wash over them and leave them untouched.


When friends ask what I use to engage people I tell them: speed, visuals, chatter and confidence. Curiosity too. I’m interested in what people have to say about books and reading. Meeting these Year Nines helped me to work through something that had bugged me for a while. Why don’t award- winning popular books attract ‘non-readers’? It’s not that all books are a turn-off to them, but many that are held up as the brightest and best of the UK’s glittering YA fiction often are.


The first group of Year Nines, when faced with a pile of books on the table, immediately started handling them and talking about them. They were familiar with the technology, confident they were in control. The second group eyed the books on the table with the same distrust my octogenarian father gives my laptop – as if it could tip him into ridicule at any moment if he fumbled a key.


I include an exercise on book covers in the session with the non-readers. There is no point in asking them about the content at this point. How can I expect them to talk about something unfamiliar to them? Covers are how the book reaches out to their audience.


What becomes clear is that most, if not all, books are aimed at readers. They nod and wink with their covers to indicate what other books they are like. The covers are full of clues and ‘tells’ – using that acquired knowledge that an experienced reader would have to link to other books. To my non-readers this was just noise – shouting in an unfamiliar language. And the books with the most innovative, odd, creative, or beautiful covers were the worst offenders.


So what did make them choose one book over another? Firstly, they admitted they would go for the thinnest book they could find. They’d stay right away from all those puffed up fantasy/adventure thrillers. I bring out a selection of 5 slim books and lay them in a line across the table. I invite them to choose the one with the best cover. They cluster around. Perk up. Everyone suddenly has an opinion. They each get to vote which cover they think is best – I place the ‘winner’ to one side and lay out another five. They really get into now. I’m laying the books out quickly asking them to respond, encouraging them to argue for their favourites. We do this four times.


The books they choose tend to have a single image on the cover. There is argument but a consensus is pretty easily reached on each cover. We look at one book for which there are two different covers – discuss which one is best and why? We arrive at four ‘winners’. They wait to see what I do next. I read out the first page of each, and we judge which has the best beginning, which one grips and why. There is some surprise that the one with the best cover doesn’t have the best first page. We sit and chat about the other books, what kind of stories we like. At the end of the session, not all students take books away but all the books we’ve talked about or read the first pages of are taken


I learnt something important about those who see themselves as non-readers, and they got to see what books could offer. Everyone’s happy. In the weeks after, I use the exercise in lots of different sessions – always with similar results. Books that are aimed at keen readers will not be immediately attractive to non-readers. Books that show exactly what they offer inside are more likely to find an audience with ‘non readers’. ‘I can see what it is,’ said one of the boys. And that is where we all need to start.


Remember to look up

October 25, 2014 | Posted in: Reading, schools, young people


I love picture books. They’re often stunningly beautiful, creative and laugh-out -loud hilarious but also nothing else is so quick and effective at mainlining the story-vein in our brains. The telling is short though you can play it out if you wish: tease out the rhymes, study the images, and savour the enjoyment. Books such as Colin Thompson’s How to Live Forever: I’ve read this with children aged 5-10 years old as well as adults. It has beautiful images but it also allows you to load up in the audience’s mind the question/concept of what you would miss in living forever. Change.



The Ancient Child who is ‘frozen in time.’ “I keep saying that I had everything, but all I had was endless tomorrows. To live forever is not to live at all.” Teasing out the possible meanings of these words has led to more questions and more knowledge of ourselves.

Anthony Browne’s Look what I’ve got – the joy is in the pictures, in what is just out of view, and which you will miss if you just follow the words. I remember Y3 children reading the book and the experienced readers racing through missing 75% of the book as they gobbled up the words, never looking up at the amazing things going on in the pictures, in the margins. Back as a group we talked about the pictures, how they linked with the story, and this released the not so confident readers into giving their opinions and then we were all in the story, challenging each other, throwing ideas around without fear because it wasn’t just about the words anymore, it was the pictures and the story and we each felt we could add something.


Talking about the pictures brought out the curiosity in the children, delighted with what they found, unable to stop themselves shouting to their friends. And when we finally went back and read the book together we all felt the story had got bigger, more complete.