Book scheme set for overseas chapters
The Financial Times 2nd March 2009
Mick Neville had not read a book in 10 years. Now, three years after joining a workplace reading movement, he cannot get enough of books.
Last Thursday he was welcomed at 10 Downing Street as one of a handful of Reading Heroes honoured by Gordon Brown, the British prime minister. And the scheme he is involved with is soon about to spread overseas.
Backed by his employer and in his role as a union learning representative in a government-backed scheme at Fletchers Bakery in the northern English town of Sheffield, Mr Neville turned the company’s redundant smoking room into a library and learning centre where colleagues could improve numeracy and literacy skills.
Central to the initiative at Fletchers are Quick Reads – short, fast-paced books by bestselling authors such as Ian Rankin or the business angels from BBC Television’s Dragons’ Den. Six titles, including one by Kate Mosse, are being published for World Book Day next Thursday.
British publishers launched the Quick Reads series in 2006, and their success at helping adults with reading problems has spawned plans for similar schemes in Canada and mainland Europe.
“Quick Reads have been so popular here that we couldn’t keep up with demand and we had to get Sheffield City Library to bring a mobile library here once a month,” Mr Neville says. As to the benefits for Fletchers Bakery, he says the scheme raised morale among the 200 employees and strengthened relationships between management and staff.
In workplaces across the UK, Quick Reads are being used to raise literacy standards as part of a collaboration between trade unions and companies as diverse as Boots, Tesco and VT Shipbuilders under the government’s Skills for Life scheme. At First UK Bus, which employs 20,300 drivers, Quick Reads are central to literacy programmes operated in 51 learning centres based in bus depots. The centres represent a considerable investment for First UK Bus. As well as giving 100 union learning representatives time to operate the scheme, the centres employ 36 trainers from a vocational training scheme.
Costs for employers in the UK are mitigated by government subsidy.
Dave Kaye, First UK Bus chief operating officer, says the centres opened five years ago to raise literacy and numeracy from low levels among drivers, many of whom had few qualifications. Such has been the success of the centres that they now offer 1,500 courses, which can go up to training at director level.
“Four years ago, our staff turnover among drivers was 32 per cent. Now it is 19.6 per cent,” Mr Kaye says, ascribing part of that to the literacy and numeracy scheme. He also attributes a reduction in collisions to better literacy among drivers.
At VT Shipbuilding, which employs 1,000 people building warships in Portsmouth on the south coast, the total outlay for its workplace learning programme was £109,000. The return on investment, calculated on improvements attributable to training, was 140 per cent, or £153,000, it says.
Part of the literacy scheme’s success derives from its being administered by union learning representatives rather than, say, the human resources department. Employees are reluctant to admit failings in literacy to HR in case it puts their jobs at risk.
In Canada, the ABC Canada Literacy Foundation, Grass Roots Press, a publisher, and the government are commissioning 12 Quick Reads from Canadian authors, although they have not yet been named. Six will be published in about 18 months’ time. “We are just beginning the programme but have secured a few authors and will begin in earnest in April 2009,” says Margaret Eaton, president of ABC Canada Literacy Foundations. Talks with employers are at a very early stage, however, she says.
Government-backed alliances of librarians and publishers in Portugal, the Netherlands and Belgium have held talks with Quick Reads in the UK with a view to launching similar schemes. So far, they seem to be surviving recession-induced cuts. For good reason, says First UK Bus’s Mr Kaye. “Everything comes at a cost, but you have to look at whether it is a cost or an investment and with this so far we are getting a good return on investment.”