Coram has a long history of supporting children, and its Beanstalk volunteer reading programme celebrates its 50th birthday this year

Coram has long been a champion of children. From the foundling hospital established by Thomas Coram in 1739 and the unique Coram’s Fields children’s park opened in 1936 to its vital education work today, via three charities. While Coram’s Life Education & SCARF programmes deliver brilliant PHSE and Shakespeare Schools Foundation brings the bard into young people’s lives in relevant and refreshing ways, Coram Beanstalk builds readers and improves educational and life outcomes.

The overall approach of Coram Beanstalk remains the same as the day it was founded. “The beauty of it is it’s absolutely the same model,” says Events and Social Media Manager Kate Loynes. She has been working with Beanstalk for around 17 years and is closely involved with the network of “amazing” volunteers who bring the joy of reading into young lives. “The volunteers are quite extraordinary at adapting to the child – they themselves are just incredible because they persevere and work wonders,” she adds.

“There is evidence that being a confident and committed reader has greater impact on a child’s future life success than their background”

The charity was founded as Volunteer Reading Help by Susan Belgrave, who enlisted a small group of friends as volunteers. Susan Belgrave had seen the impact of literacy issues in the 1960s as a School Care Worker, and she was also influenced by her time abroad – especially by volunteer reading schemes in New York. She persuaded the powers that be to let her train up volunteers to go into schools and provide 1:1 reading support. Initially it was just two schools in North Kensington, but its impact meant word spread and the charity and its volunteers grew. It adopted the name Beanstalk on its 40th birthday and joined the Coram family in 2019.

Today, Coram Beanstalk works in around 2,500 schools and it estimates that it has supported some 220,000 young readers over the years. While its model remains the same, there are subtle differences in approach, informed by research. “Now we have a slightly different approach because all the evidence supports the fact that if a child is choosing to read, not just having the ability to read, their brain does something remarkable,” says Kate Loynes. In other words, it is about wanting to pick up a book and wanting to read.

Coram: 50 years as reading champions
The most important element in fostering successful readers is sparking their enthusiasm – helping them find a book they want to read

“When you go from being able to decode words and read them in a slightly stilted way to being able to read fluently and wanting to devour books, something changes in the way you can deal with everything,” she says. Indeed, there is evidence that being a confident and committed reader has greater impact on a child’s future life success than their socioeconomic background. “So, the way our volunteers work is very much encouraging children to find the value and the joy of reading, rather than necessarily teaching them to read.”

This in itself can be a challenge – but a rewarding one. Perhaps the biggest testament to the persistence and ingenuity of volunteers at Coram Beanstalk (and to the many librarians who are their rock) is that they go the extra mile to track down the perfect book to turn a reluctant child into a keen reader. There’s the child who only wants books with trains or the one who has to have the precise balance of words to pictures. But the Damascene conversions happen and then light up the chat groups and social media feeds where volunteers support each other and share successes. “They can’t wait to tell you all these tiny little breakthrough moments – a child who won’t pick a book for weeks and then suddenly walks in and says, ‘I think I’d like to read this one’.”

“Volunteers can’t wait to tell you these breakthrough moments – a child who won’t pick a book for weeks and then walks in and says, ‘I think I’d like to read this one'”

These magic moments work for both sides. Volunteers come from all walks of life and span all ages. Recently more young people have come on board, perhaps due to changing working patterns, more flexibility – and more desire to help others. The majority are 40+ and with a span up to 80+. What unites this diverse group of volunteers is the joy in what they are achieving with each child. “They are all really engaged and enthusiastic, they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t love it.”

Partly due to the pandemic, more training of volunteers happens online, but always with two face-to-face sessions. “We say you can do pretty much all of it in six weeks, assuming you’re available to join sessions,” says Kate Loynes. Once trained and DBS checked, there’s a network of support to ensure trainers are placed within the right school and it’s working out. There’s also a great support network – local volunteers often get together for coffee and there are WhatsApp groups for sharing ideas, plus a Volunteer Portal with resources, ideas and further training opportunities.

Volunteers typically work with children aged from 3 to 11, adapting the programme to age and stage; most children are within the 6-11 age range. Each volunteer commits to at least one session a week and they will be assigned three children for 1:1 sessions within one school. “It’s up to the school, but sometimes they get the same child the following year because the school knows this is becoming incredibly beneficial for a child who perhaps previously would never put their hand up in class,” says Kate Loynes.

Ultimately, building a love of reading turns into something even more inspiring. Volunteers find that a book sparks a wider discussion – they take in an atlas or an interesting article about a whale, sparked by a conversation weeks ago. Kate Loynes says that Coram Beanstalk volunteers help with reading, but also with engagement, as children are inspired to find out about their world and own their interests through books. “It’s not necessarily just about the reading, but the reading can make such a difference in terms of a child’s confidence, their general wellbeing and their whole attitude to school.”

Coram Beanstalk

Further reading: The amazing power of subtitles to boost literacy