04 April 2023

How can business and civil society work together to boost literacy and make every child a reader?

Two professionals involved with Chapter One - a headteacher and a business leader - describe their experiences of working with us and the impact our partnership has had on their communities and colleagues

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The cost-of-living crisis and the pandemic has heightened our awareness of the challenges we face as a society. The evidence of the past clearly tells us that nothing beats a cross-sector approach to tackling the problems that hold people back in life. "No single agency, however heroic, can by itself address the themes that we're looking at," says Jonathan Douglas, Chief Executive of the National Literacy Trust. “We need to bring the business community together with the charitable community, with schools and the public sector.”

We invited two professionals involved with Chapter One's online reading volunteers programme - a headteacher and a business leader - to describe their experiences of working with us and the impact our partnership has had on their communities and colleagues.

“The difference you make is real. It's almost immediate.”

HINA SHAH is a headteacher at Earlsmead Primary School in Tottenham, north London. Hina has taught in schools in London for nearly 30 years and has been a headteacher for six of them.

We have always known that the more you read, the better you'll read and the better you read the better you become. The challenge has always been how to meet that need with all the other demands and finite resources.

Working with Chapter One, we have ten children in each Year 1 class who have been identified as needing some further support with their reading. These are children who you just know as a teacher that if they read more, they'd be better. They read one-to-one remotely with their Chapter One online reading volunteer once a week. They read together, they play fun word games together, and they have really lovely, chatty relationships with their volunteers. Year 1 is the perfect year group to start with because you can't let gaps widen. The quicker you close them, the better for children.

There's empirical evidence to really support the brilliant work that Chapter One is doing. Teachers have reported that enthusiasm for reading has very much increased and there have been some other really unexpected boons. There was a little girl who didn't usually talk to the adults in the school but she was overheard having a really lovely conversation online with her Chapter One volunteer. It’s not just the technicalities of decoding and phonics that our children need. It is the consistency and the reliability of the volunteers and, really, the connectivity that they experience with them that encourages them.

As well as fulfilling a civic duty, which always feels good to the soul, I think experiencing the tangible difference that you make [as a Chapter One volunteer] is a very powerful feeling for any human being. And now more than ever, I think initiatives such as Chapter One are invaluable for schools.

I urge businesses to support their staff to volunteer. The difference you make is real. It's almost immediate, especially with Year 1, and it is transformative to a child's educational experience and, ultimately - and I don't say this with any exaggeration - to their life chances.

We have always known that the more you read, the better you'll read and the better you read the better you become.

Hina Shah, headteacher, Earlsmead Primary School, Tottenham

A collective will from business and civil society to step together and drive change

CHRISTINE HEWSON leads KPMG's business across the north of England and is a chartered accountant with more than 30 years’ experience. KPMG's Chapter One online reading volunteers currently support Year 1 pupils with their literacy skills across three primary schools in Bradford.

I grew up in a very poor area of north Manchester, but I had a very rich family from a literacy perspective. We probably called at the library most days on the way home from school. My mum had a love of reading and she brought that to both me and my sister. I think it's that background that's made me passionate about helping people develop and achieve their potential, both amongst my colleagues but also in our local communities.

Why is literacy such a business issue? Literacy is one of the fundamental building blocks for social mobility, which lies right at the heart of our corporate responsibility agenda at KPMG. We want to help improve social mobility in areas where people traditionally have had much fewer opportunities because it's really clear that poor literacy has a significant effect on individuals ranging from unemployment right down to reduced life expectancy.

But it also affects businesses and the economy. Did you know that one-third of businesses report they're not satisfied with their own young employees' literacy skills? This is a problem that's estimated to cost the UK economy £80 billion per annum. Getting businesses behind these efforts has been absolutely central to what we've been trying to do from a responsibility perspective. Working together with the team at the National Literacy Trust, we now have 83 leading businesses signed up to the Vision for Literacy Business Pledge. This is real evidence that there's a collective will from business and the third sector to step together and drive this change together.

Chapter One's online reading volunteers programme is a great example of cross-sector collaboration. Chapter One has always been a really popular programme amongst my colleagues even before the Covid-19 pandemic. But now, with more remote working, it's our most oversubscribed volunteer programme. Colleagues can volunteer on this programme no matter where they're based in the country.

We've seen a range of benefits to business for being involved in these literacy activities - the business case if you like - everything from improved links to schools, organisations and charities in those communities in which we're operating to improved wellbeing and a real sense of pride amongst our colleagues because they know that they're using their skills to make a difference in the places that they live in, the places that are really important to them. In fact, 75% of my own colleagues have reported improved wellbeing as a direct result of their volunteering and over 92% have agreed that they've all developed their own communication skills too.


Our virtual, time-efficient, flexible model for volunteering will enhance your company’s employee value proposition, whilst fulfilling CSR or social value commitments around education, social mobility and inclusion. Employees can:

- volunteer online directly from their desks with no travel

- make a direct impact on the lives of disadvantaged children

- support local communities across the UK

- improve their own well-being by helping others

- reconnect with your company’s social purpose

If you’re interested in joining us, we’d love to hear from you! You’ll find out who we currently work with on our partners’ page. You can contact us by emailing sarah.taylor@chapterone.org