Many primary pupils across Bristol are not getting the additional support they need to reach the levels of literacy expected for secondary school. Ablaze, a Bristol-based independent charity, was founded to tackle this inequality of opportunity in the more disadvantaged areas of the city.

Ablaze’s mission includes helping primary schools raise pupils’ literacy achievement levels to the expected standards needed before they transition to secondary school. They do this by partnering business volunteers with schools, providing an important additional opportunity for pupils to practice and receive feedback on their reading.

Research shows that early interventions can bring a lasting impact on children’s development and perceptions of different occupations, thus enabling them to access them better. In other words, meeting, getting to know, working with and learning from employee volunteers can help to contextualise school and make sense of learning.

Sally Ridley, Primary Partnership Manager at Ablaze said, “Ablaze’s Reading Buddy programme has been our flagship primary programme since 2005. We wholly rely on the support of local businesses, not only to put volunteers on-the-ground in primary schools but also to fund Ablaze’s future growth and success. With recent research carried out by the ‘Read On Get On’ campaign stating that a quarter of 11 year-olds in England, and close to half of disadvantaged children, were unable to read well when they left primary school last year, Ablaze feels it is our duty to help bring businesses and schools together to tackle this growing problem. We see literacy as a fundamental right for every child to achieve across all sectors of our community”.

In February 2017, Ablaze introduced National Friendly to Cabot Primary School, a thriving and successful school in the centre of St Paul’s, Bristol. The school needed help to raise the literacy attainment levels of pupils struggling with their learning/reading.

Cabot Primary School serves a diverse community with nearly 90% of their pupils speaking English as an additional language. Reading Recovery Teacher, Gemma Davies, said “Some of our pupils don’t get the opportunity to read to a parent at home in English (especially as the children read more challenging texts as they progress through school) and it is these children we often select to have a Reading Buddy.” 

Pupils receiving the support of an Ablaze business Reading Buddy not only increase their attainment level but also improve their communication skills and outlook on life. This attention from an adult, who isn’t a teacher or family member gives children a massive boost to their confidence and self-esteem. Ablaze’s 2017-18 annual evaluations showed that 95% of supported pupils are reading with more confidence, 97% of pupils improved in their national curriculum literacy levels and 93% of pupils say they will read more following their Reading Buddy volunteer support.

  “Across the year, a clear progression in the talkativeness and confidence of the children is evident in general conversations with them. It is satisfying and rewarding to see the advancement that the children achieve from reading with us. In addition, the pronunciation of words, understanding of text and reading speed are all developed as part of these sessions.

As part of our ethos, National Friendly is enthusiastic about getting involved in projects which will help the community. All staff members are welcome to get involved in the initiative and any new starters to our company are encouraged to sign up.”

Richard Carroll, Actuarial Analyst and business co-ordinator for the National Friendly Reading Buddy programme

The Reading Buddy programme is best described by one of Cabot Primary School’s Year 5 pupils:

“I like having a reading buddy – it is amazing. I feel confident reading in front of anyone now. I think National Friendly Reading Buddies is a very good thing to encourage children to read more with the kind reading buddies who help to volunteer.

“When we read Matilda, my reading buddy did funny voices for Miss Trunchball, Matilda and Miss Honey. We have read many books on subjects such as governments from around the world and Harriet Tubman, a lady who helped people to escape slavery.”

Research has also shown young people who don’t have access to employers, role models and the world of work are more likely to hold biased assumptions and have narrow aspirations. This can influence the academic effort children exert in certain lessons, the subjects they choose to study and the jobs they end up pursuing.

In March 2019, Kurtis Reece, Digital Marketing Executive at National Friendly wrote an article titled “How Bristol Businesses can help young people’s education”. He said, “Businesses today have the opportunity to help schools shape the future for young people. They can play an integral part in informing children as to why education is so important and also introduce them to what life is like after they leave the education system to begin their working career.”

Jonathan Long, Chief Executive Officer at National Friendly said, “We are keen to help the children continue to improve their literacy skills even further. At National Friendly, we have utilised our recently formed partnerships with the M-Shed and The Bristol Hippodrome and have facilitated trips to the museum and the theatre for some of the children. We look forward to continuing the Reading Buddies programme with Ablaze and Cabot Primary School for many years to come!”