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Unlocking the keys to learning

I expect people that know me well are thinking I would use this blog to make some comments around the government response to the Care Review or the family justice system, but that would be far too predictable …

Now well into 2023, I wanted to share with you my reflections on one of the initiatives my colleagues and I at Essex County Council have been working on – the Essex Year of Reading. Like all local authorities when the pandemic hit, we were forced to adapt our approach, innovating as we went. We were in a position where we had to continue the day-to-day but also consider how we would support children and their families, who may otherwise have not had any contact with our services before. Something I know has been a learning curve for us all in our role as a Director of Children’s Services (DCS). During the pandemic, as DCSs, we all felt concerned about the second period of school closures in the winter / spring of 2021 and the impact this would have on all children and young people’s education and wellbeing. The negative impact has now unfortunately been well realised and reported on nationally, I’m sure it has been seen by us all across all levels of our education systems. While we have worked with colleagues in schools to ensure effective use of the government’s Covid catch up funding we also recognised that short term and underfunded responses were not going to be the answer and that locally we would need to consider how we could grasp opportunities to embed a long-term strategy and approach to educational improvement utilising all the levers at our disposal. In direct response to this concern, we established the Essex Education Task Force, with a clear remit to oversee the recovery of children’s education and for the first time ever, the sector, from early years to post 16, came together to lead this incredibly important work. Through the work of the Task Force, the Essex Year of Reading was borne.

Our aim has been to not only engage families in reading and help them discover a lifelong love of it, but to also help them understand how it is the key to unlocking other areas of learning and wellbeing. We want every child in Essex to leave school and be able to read at their actual age level or higher. I have reflected on the success of this initiative and how this has been based not on a narrow focus on results and the continual introduction of new initiatives but instead drawing on community resources, children and young people’s own enthusiasms and interests, and the aspirations of our parents and teachers for their young people. Nationally we must work together to help the recovery of our young people through similar approaches.

The Essex Year of Reading was launched in February 2022 and has seen incredible successes including support from famous authors and public figures who have acted as ambassadors. The whole local authority has been engaged with our adult services using it as an opportunity to extend intergenerational work in schools and through Dementia Cafés, where children and older people have enjoyed reading together, further cementing the community bonds forged during the pandemic. In addition, our Adult Community Learning service have used Parent Ambassadors to engage 600 parents in literacy programmes. Support has also been targeted to schools, including extensive training around reading fluency. Evaluation has shown this has already resulted in increases in both comprehension and fluency ages. I strongly believe that success has been brought about by not tackling the issue in isolation but instead by viewing it through a community lens.

Our Year of Reading has truly captured the imaginations of families across Essex. To see how we, alongside partners, have been able to break down silos and engage pupils and families in reading in new ways has made me extremely proud. I know many of you have also considered your own approaches to increasing engagement in reading locally and I believe learning from this is applicable not only to other areas of learning but to education policy generally, where there is a need to work across government to firmly embed education as a central plank to the levelling up agenda. As we continue to understand the true impact of the pandemic as a system, I hope we can continue to learn from each other, share best practice and support each other with taking innovative approaches. I’m also looking forward to seeing the legacy of initiatives like the Year of Reading continue for a long time to come and to this influencing the approach we take nationally.


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EDUCATION 225 CORONAVIRUS 101 EASTERN 14

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