Read With Me is a Community Interest Company (“CIC”) founded in 2020 with the objective of ensuring that every child in Gloucestershire is able to read well when they go to secondary school.
Children who are unable to read well by the age of 7 can face severe lifelong disadvantage, doing less well at school, having reduced employment choices and earning opportunities, and an increased risk of offending. But every year, 200,000 children in the UK leave primary school unable to read well and 96% of primary school teachers are concerned about pupils’ speech and language. The Covid pandemic has only increased barriers to education and support for those children who struggle to learn to read.
Read With Me volunteers hear each child read for 15 minutes twice a week, providing support to over 1,000 children each week. But for Founder and Director, Linda Cohen, it was becoming all too easy to be consumed by the daily priorities of managing business and volunteer admin, especially during the pandemic, and not enough time was being devoted to the organisation’s longer-term strategy, creating a plan to enable Read With Me to generate the pipeline of volunteers and funding that will sustain the business well into the future.
In March 2021, Linda successfully applied for Cranfield Trust mentoring support under the INVEST 2021 leadership programme supported by Gloucestershire Community Foundation (“GCF”) and the Honourable Company of Gloucestershire (“HonCo”) and delivered by Cranfield Trust. The programme provides participants with facilitated Peer to Peer support with a group of other charity and social enterprise leaders in the county, and also one-to-one mentoring support from volunteers who are members of HonCo. Linda was keen to have a fresh perspective on her business issues from an external mentor.
In Linda’s own words:
“I had extensive business experience including clients in the third sector, but I had never run a charity or CIC. I’m a great believer in learning from the experience of others and also benefiting from fresh perspective, which can improve your thinking and help you achieve greater clarity and success.”
Linda was matched with Black Robertson, a volunteer mentor who could provide the right support and guidance, and was a writer himself and passionate about the importance of literacy.
The relationship was designed to develop over six sessions and mentors are given support and guidance by Cranfield Trust as needed to ensure that their input is effective.
The summer of 2021 was difficult with lots of operational challenges due to volunteers and school classes isolating, but Linda and her mentor kept up their regular meetings so that Linda could keep one step ahead. This included being flexible about meeting times and dates and meeting by phone where necessary! Linda appreciated her mentor keeping her accountable through a tough period. She also enjoyed the fact that the support was regional as she is keen to "build back better" by creating a local network which allows her to connect with people she can work with later.
Black was only too happy to support and add value wherever possible, adding that he enjoyed “encouraging my mentee to organise her time and priorities to best effect - she has colossal drive and energy!” Black added: “Linda provides a service that Gloucestershire schools desperately need. As news of Read With Me’s success spread, the demands on her arrived thick and fast. She therefore valued the ability to talk issues through with me – and I was more than willing to continue to help in this way at this critical stage of her organisation’s development.”
In her feedback to Cranfield Trust, Linda was very satisfied with the mentoring assignment and rated the learning, increase in confidence and improvement in her own capabilities all as ‘Excellent’. The project exceeded her expectations and the match was excellent too.
As Linda explained:
“It was a terrific experience and it has been essential for problem solving and clarity. Launching a third sector organisation can be a daunting and lonely business where you often doubt your own ability and experience. My mentor has given me a touchpoint every month to work through issues, prioritise and re-set. He's also given me such a boost which when you're working round the clock is really something. Our one-hour power hours have been transforming.”
This year, Read With Me has seen outstanding results, for example: in a Year 1 class where only 45% were achieving the expected standard in Reception, by the end of Year 1, 80% had reached the standard. Linda says: “Most people would have regarded it as the worst time to start a social enterprise, but I believe that it actually gave us an opportunity to get stuck in and make a real difference when it mattered most.”
Linda and Black intend to keep in touch beyond the completion of the formal project, and both look forward to scaling up Read With Me’s activities to have a positive impact on even more schoolchildren in the county. These activities include the hugely popular Not So Secret Book Club, which takes place in outdoor spaces every school holiday including Christmas, where children enjoy games, activities, story time, and there are of course free books to take home.
The INVEST programme is taking place again in 2022 and GCF is looking for new third sector leaders to take part. If you lead a charity, CIC or social enterprise in Gloucestershire with the welfare of people at its heart, check here on the GCF website for details of how to apply for this completely free of charge leadership development programme.