Rotherham was recently the focus of the world’s media when it hosted the launch of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library presented by Dolly Parton in person. The venue was the Magna Science and Education Centre and dignitaries, officials and children from across the region were invited to share in the event. It was a fantastic occasion and rather surreal with the Leader of the Council and Dolly Parton sharing a stage and where Dolly sang a couple of her favourite songs to a very impressed audience.But the real surprise was that the scheme that Dolly Parton had launched and funded in her home county of Servier in Tennessee over 10 years ago was now being offered to the young children of Rotherham.Dolly Parton began the Imagination Library in her home county of Servier in Tennessee over 10 years ago to try to address the poor literacy skills of the children and to help children develop the same love of books that had inspired Dolly when she was young.Why Rotherham? Rotherham is very similar to a lot of towns where traditional industries have disappeared and it is now evident that the population does not have the literacy skills necessary to obtain the jobs available. On current analysis about 40% of the adult population in Rotherham have some difficulty with literacy skills. This low literacy level of the adults impacts on the help that a parent can give their child either by reading with them, using the local library, or aspiring for and with the child.Rotherham is launching the Imagination Library to help create a bigger impact on children’s early reading skills and to connect with those families who lack the confidence and skills to use local services such as libraries. Many families have not been introduced to the possibilities that libraries can help them with such as borrowing books, using computers, help with homework or studying for their own personal interest.In Rotherham, like many other towns, the speaking and listening skills of children starting in Foundation stages of early education are low and much earlier interventions are required to improve this. Imagination Library complements other schemes such as Book Start and Book Time ,reaching out to children from birth. and will give an additional platform from which to reach out to the families who are not accessing other early education experiences and who are not aware of how important their role is in encouraging speaking, listening and reading with very small children well before they start school.How does the scheme work? All children resident in Rotherham aged between 0 – 5 years old can register for the Imagination Library. A leaflet with a registration form is available from a variety of settings including the hospital, registrar’s office, children’s centres, schools, libraries and doctors surgeries. The books are addressed to the child and are delivered to their home once a month about 8 – 10 weeks after registering for the scheme. Traditional stories and good quality story books, appropriate to their age, are chosen by a panel of literacy experts and reviewed annually. The funding comes from communities, charities, grants and individuals who sponsor a child or children. The cost per child is the equivalent of 50 pence per week for the 5 years if the child is registered at birth making a total of about £125 per child for the 60 books that make up the Imagination Library.How will another reading scheme make any more of an impact than what is already being funded and provided for families and children? It is difficult to answer that question at this time. What is evident is that for the first time the book will go directly to the child at their family home and because the parents have to enrol and register the child they will be engaged in reading with their child from the start of the Imagination library membership.Rotherham is monitoring and evaluating the impact of the scheme by working with some families to evidence any progress they make in reading with their child , increasing their participation with libraries and any changes to their own reading habits.Activities are already being extended that link to the books being delivered so that different age groups of children can be invited with their families to “Baby Book Clubs” that could run in local libraries or other local community settings. This will build on the many and varied activities that already take place. Story Sacks can be created, again linked to particular books that will have been sent to the children, and parents can come along and join other families in using puppets to retell stories and learn about the language of books. Schools will know which children have already registered and can prepare first steps into school around this knowledge encouraging other families to join the scheme.The Skills for Life agenda will be considered with awareness training taking place for staff across all organisations that support and serve families with young children. Additional opportunities for parents who may wish to improve their own reading skills will have a raised profile and can provide a further improvement to the skills of our community.It is not yet clear what, if any, additional work there will be but we do know that a different approach is necessary. By using the information that connects and gives a link to every family who is registered the ideas are endless. In addition to membership of the Imagination Library, the registration forms will offer membership of their local library and this could also help in informing families when they are eligible for their Book Start packs and how to collect them. We do know that when parents are involved in their children’s learning the impact is huge and children make great strides, whilst their parents often develop their own love of learning and reading. Adults become a more positive role model and, together, the family starts to use more local services and are able to make better choices for themselves.Everyone who is concerned about the literacy skills of our population is constantly searching for new ways to engage adults and children and improve their reading and involvement in learning to help provide a vibrant and successful community.Dolly Parton has a unique, well tried and tested opportunity and our children deserve everything we can do to help them become lifelong readers.
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