The Reading Agency: Keeping the nation reading in 2020

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World Book Night
Summer Reading Challenge
Teachers’ Reading Challenge
Costa Coffee Christmas Campaign
Read, Talk, Share
Reading Sparks
Looking forward…

Looking back…

In April 2020, the nation was firmly in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, struggling to adapt to unforeseen challenges. Covid-19 was not only a causing a health pandemic but a loneliness, mental health – and with children being out of education and having limited access to reading materials and in many cases suffering digital disadvantage – a learning deficit epidemic as well. With a mission to tackle life’s big challenges through the proven power of reading, The Reading Agency was compelled to respond by amplifying our commitment to bring its learning, wellbeing and social connectivity benefits to those who need them most. As the nation went into lockdown, with libraries and other social spaces closed and everyone at home, we found new and innovative ways of working, pivoting our programmes and campaigns to digital and virtual models to reach and engage more people across the UK than ever before.

Despite the challenges of 2020/2021, we were able to reach over 1.9 million children, young people, and adults through our work. Over 2 million books were read by children for the Summer Reading Challenge, and over 50,000 books were read by young people through our Reading Ahead programme. We also embraced digital training and virtual events, introducing our winter webinar series for reading professionals and the public and adapting our publisher’s annual Roadshow bringing publishers and the library sector together. Nearly 3,000 people were trained through virtual learning events and webinars, and over 300,000 children, young people and adults attended events and activities run by The Reading Agency and our partners.

“Like many charities, The Reading Agency has faced a multitude of challenges this year. The pandemic forced us to rethink our programme models and engagement strategies, whilst throwing into even sharper relief just how vital the proven power of reading can be in difficult times. In the last year, we have seen just how much people turn to reading for support, respite and restoration – and it has further strengthened our resolve to continue working tirelessly towards a world where everyone is reading their way to a better life.

From launching new digital platforms, to pivoting to virtual events, I am immensely proud of and thankful to our team, for demonstrating such positivity, commitment, and adaptability throughout the year. Despite the pandemic, we managed to increase our reach in the past year to share the proven power of reading with over 1.9 million people. We were hugely fortunate to receive an unprecedented level of funding from DCMS allowing us to expand our Reading Friends and Reading Well programmes across the country – at a time when tackling social isolation and loneliness and supporting mental health had never been more important. In addition, we also benefited from Arts Council England’s Emergency Funds and Covid Recovery Funding allowing us to maintain core functions as well as adapt our programmes to suit the new climate.

As we look forward to next year, and take tentative steps into a post-pandemic recovery, we are even more committed to our values and mission of tackling life’s big challenges spreading the joy and benefits of reading to as many people as possible, and to those who need it most. We are looking forward to collaborating with our fantastic partners, working alongside the libraries as they reopen, and expanding our reach even further.”
Karen Napier, CEO, The Reading Agency banners-2.png

Almost exactly a month before World Book Night 2020, the first national lockdown was announced. Despite this huge obstacle, cancellation was not an option and instead we sprang into action to ensure the celebration of books and reading would go ahead. Our national book giveaway was moved to October during Libraries week, when we hoped that organisations would have re-opened. We were able to deliver 50,000 books to people who don’t regularly read for pleasure or have access to books along with 5,100 audiobooks.

To find out how lockdown was impacting reading habits, we commissioned a survey and discovered that many people were turning to reading to help cope with the challenges of the pandemic. Our efforts were focused on what we could do to encourage even more people to read. One outcome was the launch of the #ReadingHour – a social media movement encouraging everyone to dedicate time to reading, whether that be 10 minutes or an hour, engaging adults and families alike. The estimated collective social media reach of both the #ReadingHour and our #WorldBookNight hashtag was over 14 million.

We were grateful to be supported by a host of organisations across the UK, including the BBC, as well as high-profile authors such as Margaret Atwood, Bernardine Evaristo and Matt Haig. Although the lockdown moved everything online, we were still able to help the nation stay connected through reading.

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With the pandemic still affecting day to day life and forcing closures, The Reading Agency was also forced to swiftly re-think the Summer Reading Challenge and pivot to a digital model going live 4 weeks earlier than usual at the beginning of June. The Challenge takes place in partnership with public libraries across the country – but as they closed due to lockdown restrictions, we had to create a new model to ensure children were still able to take part, engage in fun reading activities and avoid the summer reading dip’.
We wanted to ensure that despite the pandemic, we would work to reach the families who needed the Summer Reading Challenge the most and ensure that no one was left behind. We remained acutely aware of the ‘digital divide’ and knowing that not all households would have the resources to access digital platforms, we set to work on a plan to arrange physical donations.

We partnered with HarperCollins publishers, who agreed to donate over 260,000 books from Collins, their educational imprint. We added the books to 500,000 printed Summer Reading Challenge activity packs and then worked closely with our funder, Arts Council England, to get the packs out to families across the country.
The packs and books were distributed nationwide by Arts Council England as part of their Let’s Create packs, made possible thanks to National Lottery players. Arts Council England also worked with Bridge organisations to connect with food banks, community hubs and charities across the country – and we also ensured that 240,000 Summer Reading Challenge packs were sent out to other organisations such as Magic Breakfast and Civic.

Despite the challenges faced, the 2020 Summer Reading Challenge was a huge success, with our evaluation showing the impact of the programme. We reached a total of 527,354 children and families through public libraries, schools, community partners and our digital platform and over 2.2 million library books were borrowed! In a family survey commissioned following the Challenge, we found that 100% of respondents said their child maintained or increased their enjoyment of reading and just under 60% said that taking part helped their family cope better during lockdown and social distancing.

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The summer of 2020 also saw the inaugural year of the Teachers’ Reading Challenge, launched by The Reading Agency in partnership with the Open University. The new Challenge was created with the aim to support teachers and librarians in expanding their repertoire of children’s literature outside of the regular curriculum, exploring more contemporary and diverse children’s books. The Challenge also sought to equip them with the materials to actively promote reading for pleasure in their classrooms.

Given the stresses of the recent lockdown and school closures, the Teachers’ Reading Challenge was also a way of refocusing teachers on reading for pleasure for themselves and using the proven power of reading to support their own mental wellbeing.

A bespoke website was built for the programme, modelled on the Summer Reading Challenge. The online platform aimed to create a reading community for teachers and other education professionals, supporting them to deepen their knowledge of children’s books and reading, access resources and share recommendations and advice on encouraging their students to read more. Our expectations for the number of people who would sign up to the Challenge through the website during this pilot year were greatly exceeded. Our target for the summer was 500 sign ups, we received 2,430.

At the beginning of the new school term in September of 2020, The Reading Agency hosted a sell-out webinar on children’s reading for pleasure and how teachers can encourage it: Reading for Pleasure: The Nectar of Imagination. It was chaired by Hayley Butler, Head of Marketing and Communications at The Reading Agency, and the panel included: Professor of Education at the Open University, Teresa Cremin, teacher and blogger, Matthew Courtney, headteacher, Sonia Thomson and children’s author, Joseph Coelho. The webinar was attended by nearly 300 people on the night and the response to it was overwhelmingly positive.

“It was an excellent webinar and it really renewed my love for reading. Since lockdown it’s been hard trying to concentrate during reading. Instead of staring at the walls whilst eating lunch at school today I read a book & a pupil saw me read and we started a conversation around it. Later on, she chose a similar book because apparently she likes the same books as me!” – Survey respondent

The introduction of the Teachers’ Reading Challenge was a success: 95% of survey respondents said it increased their confidence in promoting reading for pleasure, 94% said it widened their knowledge of children’s literature, and 89% were introduced to at least one new author or poet because of it.

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Our awareness that digital is not accessible to all meant we were acutely aware of the need to get physical reading materials out to hard to reach and disadvantaged communities. Throughout the year, we worked closely with publishers and other partner organisations to implement several other book gifting initiatives. Over the Christmas period, we partnered with Costa Coffee on a Gift-A-Book campaign, inspired by Jolabokaflod, the Icelandic tradition of exchanging books with loved ones on Christmas Eve. Loosely translated, Jolabokaflod means ‘Christmas Book Flood’: a Christmas Eve tradition dating back to World War Two, where Icelanders give and receive books and read them through the night with chocolate and a hot drink.

For the campaign, 50,000 book-and-coffee care packages – containing one adult book, one children’s book, and a range of festive Costa Coffee treats – were distributed to food banks, community hubs, hospitals, and care homes across the UK, in time for Christmas Eve. The books in each care package were selected from the works of six bestselling authors connected to the Costa Book Awards, including Malorie Blackman, Candice Carty-Williams and Michael Morpurgo.

Several high-profile personalities- including author and actor, Simon Callow; author and TV presenter, Konnie Huq; author and former SAS soldier, Andy McNab; writer and mathematician, Bobby Seagull, and former Children’s Laureate, Jacqueline Wilson – also lent their support to the campaign by sharing their own favourite book to gift ahead of Christmas Eve, encouraging members of the public to embrace their own Jolabokaflod tradition at home and sharing their top reading choices.

The book care packages were very well received by communities who had been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and organisations gifting packages had wonderful things to say…

“It was wonderful to be able to give every family a gift after such a difficult year. For many children, this will be their only gift as so many families have fallen into real financial hardship.”
Welbourne Primary School, working with key worker and refugee families

“The gift packs went to service users, most of whom will be in hospital over the Christmas holidays. Similarly, the gift packs were a ‘thankyou’ to those NHS staff whose vital work keeps us fed and ensures that our hospitals are kept clean in these challenging times.”
Bradford District Care NHS Foundation Trust

“Oh my word what a total pleasure to be involved in this campaign. I was so very excited to deliver to the children, as were other staff members. I now Know Santa has the most rewarding job ever.”
Provide and Enable East

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The Reading Agency’s mission to use the proven power of reading to tackle life’s big challenges and our close work with public libraries was also recognised as important in Covid recovery. Enabled by a £3.5 million award.html by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), The Reading Agency was delighted to take on the challenge of supporting those most in need during the third lockdown through its Read, Talk, Share campaign focused on the national roll out of key areas of reading and wellbeing programme delivery through public libraries.

By working closely with local library services to reach communities, Read, Talk, Share expanded The Reading Agency’s already successful Reading Well and Reading Friends programmes and represented an unprecedented level of investment in public library services to tackle loneliness and support mental health. We and our library partners quickly mobilised to reach those most in need of social connectivity. We worked together to overcome the challenges of delivery in a pandemic, including the closure of library buildings and the difficulties of distance engagements, due to the flexibility, commitment and support of library staff and management.

Reading Well supports people in their journey towards better mental health by making helpful books recommended by health experts and people with lived experience easily accessible to readers of all ages. The Reading Agency worked closely with every library service across England to provide access in every library to our three Reading Well mental health lists for adults, young people, and children. Through the funding, a total of 311,783 books, ebooks and e-audiobooks were provided to 2,975 public and community branch libraries, making digital content available immediately through e-lending services with physical collections on library shelves to support click and collect and ready for when building re-opened.

Reading Friends is a befriending programme that starts conversations though reading to tackle the big life challenges of loneliness and social isolation. It brings people together to read, share stories, meet new friends, and have fun. Through the award, The Reading Agency was able to provide funding, training, and resources for 102 library authorities in England to deliver Reading Friends after receiving overwhelming interest from the sector. The programme proved its flexibility by reaching a broad and diverse range of audiences including new and expectant parents, young carers, older people, and those living with dementia.

The campaign was embraced by library authorities and reached over 3,772,000 people through The Reading Agency’s social media platforms. 70,248 books from the Reading Well collections were borrowed between January and May largely though digital e-lending services, helping to support children, young people, and adults to better understand and manage their mental health and wellbeing and, by extension, reduce their likelihood of experiencing debilitating loneliness. Over 600 partnerships with the library sector have also been delivering Reading Well in local communities: working in schools, Primary Care networks, social prescribing sites and more. Reading Friends formed 69,485 social engagements between 28 January and 31 May for those who felt lonely or who were at risk of experiencing high levels of loneliness — a huge number considering some library staff had been re-deployed, were shielding themselves and library buildings were closed, meaning activities needed to take place over the phone and virtually.

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In March of 2021 we announced the launch of Reading Sparks: a pilot project that would test and pilot new ways of using creative reading to increase STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) engagement. Enabled by funding from Arts Council England and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the innovative pilot project will be delivered between 2021-2023.

Reading Sparks is working with 11 library services serving communities experiencing disadvantage across England; loaning family science and reading activity bags and, in partnership with youth engagement organisations, working with young people aged 14-18 to co-produce new reading and science activities for families with children aged 4 – 11.

We already know that reading can spark enjoyment, greater empathy, academic attainment, and better life chances. This project intends to harness the proven power of reading to engage families with STEM and bridge the gap in science capital for families from lower socio-economic groups, teenage girls and ethnic minority communities. This is part of our organisation-wide focus on skills and learning as well as social mobility and supports our mission to tackle life’s big challenges through the proven power of reading.
Through this pilot we will be putting reading at the heart of the STREAM agenda (Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Arts and Maths) and exploring a new multi-disciplinary approach that introduces new audiences to STEM through activities and methods driven by arts and reading.

In 2021 we are already building on the successes of last year. We celebrated ten years of World Book Night and fifteen years of Quick Reads with high profile authors and ambassadors working with us on the mission to get the nation reading. Our revigorated Reading Partners subscription offer is supporting more independent and small publishers than ever before. The 2021 Summer Reading Challenge returned with a new blended model allowing participation through libraries as they begin to reopen as well as online through our digital platform. This year’s Challenge was in partnership with WWF and followed an environmental theme – Wild World Heroes. This year we are piloting a new cross authority delivery model, working with ten authorities across the UK, to join up the library service’s Summer Reading Challenge offer with other local authority partners such as education, children’s services and public health to increase reach and engagement through schools and other settings. The Teachers’ Reading Challenge has a new Challenge completion model, website upgrades and resources ensuring it will have fantastic benefits for reading teachers across the country.

Our health and wellbeing programme, alongside Health Education England, launched Uplifting resources: for the NHS from the NHS. This crowd-sourced collection of ten books and a supporting list of digital resources, was recommended by NHS staff, for NHS staff to provide inspiration, give hope and promote wellbeing considering the enormous efforts by NHS staff during the pandemic. The Reading Agency is continuing to support the levelling up agenda. The expansion and development of programmes such as the new reading game app for transitional age children, the Family Reading Challenge to support adults with low literacy levels in settings such as prisons to read with their children, Reading Well developments for young people, Reading Friends groups including for new parents, the vulnerable and older people- will be available to support the nation in its recovery. We are looking ahead at The Reading Agency’s own 20th anniversary next year celebrating the importance of libraries, our publishing partners and the other partners and funders who make our essential work possible.

This year, countries, communities, organisations, and individuals are all still navigating the ongoing effects of the pandemic, and slowly beginning to navigate a tentative road to recovery. As libraries begin to reopen, and communities begin to reconnect, we remain focused on our mission to be stronger and more present than ever nationally. We endeavour in everything we do to create a world where no one is left behind; where everyone can read, enjoy reading and can use it to realise their ambitions for themselves, their families, friends, and their communities. We are looking forward to a year of growth, renewed opportunities, and a chance to continue nurturing the new partnerships we have developed. If the last year has shown anything, it is that our work is more vital than ever, and with the help of our partners and dedicated staff, we remain committed to placing the proven power of reading at the centre of the nation’s post-pandemic recovery.

The Reading Agency

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