‘We received thousands of new books to create a library

Nightingale Primary School now has a full library thanks to a £10,000 donation

‘When I got a letter about the Reading Oasis programme, offering to equip our primary school with a library of new books at no cost, I couldn’t believe it. But there really isn’t a catch.

The programme, run by the charity United Way UK, puts new books into the hands of disadvantaged children to help them develop a love of reading, and to improve literacy. United Way matches private donors and organisations with schools to fund a Reading Oasis – whether that’s setting up a school library or providing extensive reading resources.

At our East London one-form-entry school, the children come from a great diversity of backgrounds. Around 60% are EAL and 40% have free school meals. Many of our pupils are bilingual but don’t speak English at home, so school is where we need to develop their English vocabulary. Reading is key to that, but in the past we have struggled to get children to engage with books.

As a new-build school, we had a lovely space we could use as a library, but no budget for books. United Way matched us with a philanthropist couple, Gary and Kathleen von Lehmden. Gary is head of investment firm EMEA Capital and a trustee at United Way. He and Kathleen are strong supporters of the Reading Oasis programme and they donated £10,000 to provide us with new books for our library over three years.

I spent an incredible afternoon talking with staff about the kind of books that might pique our children’s interest. We knew that pupils would identify more with stories where they saw their own lives reflected, so our ideas were about books set in urban environments and diverse communities. The list went to Scholastic, which publishes and sells children’s books, and they put together a really beautiful collection that includes fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and features some classics.

We talked to the children about the books being a gift to us and they were very excited when the first year’s delivery arrived. Gary and Kathleen came in to help us unpack, which was lovely. We also got help from our local library, who showed us how to set up a cataloguing and lending system with barcodes.

Many of our children are from homes where there are very few books, while others have loads, so the library has been a great leveller for equality of access. Each class has timetabled library time every week; the pupils love this time and take a lot of care with the new books.

  • Abigail Hopper, headteacher, Nightingale Primary School, Hackney, London (240 pupils)

United Way UK was established as a charity in 2014. The Reading Oasis initiative is available to schools where at least 30% of pupils are eligible for free school meals.

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