Lawyers went back to school in Sheffield last term to help fight the slipping levels of literacy. "I find it shocking that, although we might be the fourth-biggest economy on earth, according to research there are 3.5 million people who go to work who can't read," says Adrian Budgen, the Irwin Mitchell partner who has just launched the firm's 'Right to Read' scheme. "In the UK, one in four adults are illiterate and there are some seven million who fall below the literacy levels of an 11-year-old."
A recent Confederation of British Industry employment trends survey found that half of employers are unhappy with the literacy and numeracy levels among school-leavers and that a third of companies are forced to offer remedial training to compensate for shortcomings in the state education system.
Irwin Mitchell is running a new scheme that enables its staff to volunteer to read with primary school children in Sheffield. It is open to both fee-earners and non-fee-earners at all levels and currently involves 35 people from the Sheffield office placed in six local primary schools. "The great thing about a scheme like this is it's something any member of the firm can take part in. I felt very strongly that it should be inclusive," says Budgen, who is responsible for pro bono in the firm's Sheffield office and in its personal injury department nationwide. There are another 16 volunteers who have signed up to a similar project in Leeds.
Right to Read, which is overseen by the Business in the Community organisation, means the Irwin Mitchell volunteers travel to their selected school either en route to work in the morning or during lunchtime. They spend 45 minutes with a child, reading with them and improving their literacy generally. "We've specifically chosen primary schools in disadvantaged areas and where there's a desperate need for assistance," Budgen explains. "What's particularly struck me is that the average primary school child gets on average eight minutes a week one-to-one reading, and that's not always with a teacher, but often a classroom assistant." Volunteers have to commit for at least one term and are expected to make one visit to the school every two weeks. Volunteers are encouraged to pair up so that two employees will be working with one particular child over a long period.
"Giving each pupil reading support and that level of attention allows them to improve their reading skills, but also it raises their confidence and their self-esteem," Budgen continues. As well as the children, the firm's workers also benefit. "I think it's a morale booster for them and the scheme helps them improve their communication skills as well," he says. "But it isn't always going to be rosy and there are always some children who are reluctant to get involved or who don't get any support at home and are totally disengaged." He hopes the exercise, besides teaching the children how to read, will promote "interaction with positive role models for working life".