• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Wednesday 17th October, 2007

Reading, writing and IT – all in good time

More resources are being made available this week to support a community effort to improve Northern Ireland primary school children's academic and computer skills. The 'Time to' series of programs, which places volunteers from local businesses into primary schools, has launched a website to provide schools, businesses, volunteers, children and parents with online resources.‘Time To’ is in the vanguard of new thinking about children's health and development on the island of Ireland and is one of 30 programs designed and evaluated as part of The Atlantic Philanthropies' Disadvantaged Children and Youth initiative. [ See:Lurgan comes together for Together 4 All ]The prime movers are Business in the Community, Northern Ireland, who represent the combined energies of over 700 companies with the common purpose of inspiring, challenging, engaging and supporting private and public sector organizations to make a positive impact on society.‘Time to’ builds on strong epidemiology and consultation with school principals, teachers, parents, children and volunteers. The potential supply of volunteers in Northern Ireland was identified during the service design phase and taps into a previously underused source of support for children in society.Each ‘Time to’ volunteer spends half an hour a week one-to-one with students who have difficulty with reading, writing or information technology. Participating schools are given books and other resources.The program reflects growing concern in UK that, compared to EU neighbors, the country is performing badly in terms of the skills base of the workforce. A campaign was launched last year to get business to invest more in boosting workers’ literacy, numeracy and basic IT skills. Although business-led, the 'Time to' programs adopt a preventative approach by tackling the issue in primary schools.The logic underpinning the approach runs this way: businesses become better connected to schools; more books and other learning materials are made available to all students; the volunteers lift the burden on the class teacher; the relationship between volunteer and selected student leads to increased self-esteem and more enjoyment in learning, which in time translates into improved educational skills. Finally, by letting the target pupils see the workplace, their aspirations for adult life and employment are raised.Reasonable evidence to support the theory behind the model has come from a systematic review of volunteer tutoring programs for the Campbell Collaboration by Gary Ritter and colleagues from the University of Arkansas. Of 21 models the Arkansas team evaluated using experimental methods, overall reading measures of students improved by about a third of a standard deviation. There were also benefits in relation to other academic skills, such as literacy, oral fluency and writing. Effect sizes ranged from 0.26 to 0.45. The authors came to the conclusion that programs did not have to be highly structured to have positive effects, nor did the type of person tutoring appear to matter much.The 'Time to Read' component of the program is being evaluated by randomized controlled trial led by Paul Connolly and Sarah Allen from the School of Education at Queens University. Their evaluation of 790 pupils in 50 primary schools is due to report in the summer of 2008.Welcoming the website initiative Donna Magee, a volunteer from the Northern Ireland engineering company F G Wilson said: "As someone who has been a Time to Read volunteer for five years, and speaking for all other business volunteers involved in the Time to Read, Time 2 Count and Time to Compute mentoring programs, it will be wonderful have all the program resources easily available. "It will also be a boon to be able to communicate with other mentors from different parts of the country who have the same interest in supporting children and helping to make their lives better.”ReferencesRitter G, Denny G, Albin G, Barnett J, and Blankenship V. "The effectiveness of volunteer tutoring programs: A systematic review" The Campbell Collaboration

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