The Reading Agency's Founder and Creative Director, Debbie Hicks, reflects on the successes and learnings of the 2021 cross-authority pilot of the Summer Reading Challenge. Download the summary evaluation report here.
I am sure many of you reading this will already be familiar with the Summer Reading Challenge. For those who have not come across it before, it's a free annual scheme encouraging primary school children to read at least six books from their local library over the summer months. It's a vital motivator for children to keep reading when schools are shut, helping to prevent the loss in reading development often referred to as 'the summer slide'. This year we hope that over a million children - especially those most in need of the benefits of reading - will take part. But we need your help to reach this target.
Covid lockdowns have exacerbated the problem of lost reading time: as of summer 2021, primary school-aged children were still not performing as well in reading as pre-pandemic cohorts, with the attainment gap for those from disadvantaged backgrounds having grown (EEF, 2022). In addition to the impact on learning, children have also experienced damaging effects on their mental health and wellbeing. As a direct response to this, The Reading Agency piloted a new cross-authority partnership model of the Summer Reading Challenge last year in ten areas. Working through cross-local authority partnerships, the model was designed to support public libraries to broaden the reach of the Challenge; levelling up opportunity by making it accessible to more children living with disadvantage or who had not accessed the library before.
Working with education, children's services and public health, children were reached through schools, early years and other community settings. The ten pilot areas employed two engagement strategies: a universal approach, enrolling all primary-age children in the area, as well as targeting specific areas and schools where children are more likely to experience disadvantage or had lower average literacy levels. I'm pleased to say that the outcomes are incredibly encouraging.
Across the whole of the UK in 2021 we delivered the Summer Reading Challenge in 193 UK local authorities, reaching a total of over half a million children. In the ten pilot areas, almost 100,000 children participated and libraries in those areas gained over 60,000 new members - a 684% increase compared to 2019; an increase partly driven by the offer of automatic library membership, tested in some of the pilot areas. In the London Borough of Newham, for example, all primary aged children received a Summer Reading Challenge starter pack along with a library card so that they could borrow books over the summer.
Analysis of the children who participated in the Challenge versus those who did not, found statistically significant increases in reading frequency, reading enjoyment and reading confidence for those who took part. There were also positive impacts on children's wellbeing: many children reported feeling happier and calmer when reading over the summer, and feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment in completing the Challenge. What's more, library authorities across the ten pilot areas forged stronger relationships with both local schools and other branches of their local authority through their delivery of the cross-authority pilot.
Because the experience across these local authorities was so positive, we're delighted that a total of 30 local authorities will be using the cross-authority model this summer.
We're delighted to be working with pilot authorities to build new reading partnerships, to increase engagement in what at £1 a child is an incredibly cost-effective investment to support learning catch up whilst also providing fun activity for children and families over the summer. For those of you who are not taking part in the pilot this year, we encourage you to support your library service to run the Challenge and signpost it to your local schools.