Activism

A Tower Hamlets teacher's book donation network for cash-strapped schools

Lauren Manister wants other struggling schools to get involved with her school's online book donation drive

Last week, Big Issue editor Paul McNamee drew attention to a Tower Hamlets school which received nearly 200 new books after a proactive teacher set up an Amazon wishlist for her class.

Now, she wants to extend the project – dubbed BookLoop – to other struggling schools and get the local community involved too.

Lauren Manister, a year 3 teacher at Clara Grant School in Bow, explained that it had been so long since the school could invest in class books that those still available were in bad shape and of no interest to the pupils.

“I guess the final straw came when I discovered that one of the girls in my class had written her name in the ‘this book belongs to…’ page of a really old and not very exciting book,” she said. “I spoke to her about it and it made me sad because really she just wanted to own a book. She didn’t have any at home and books are something that her parents can’t afford to invest in.

“I thought we needed to give her better books to aspire to than the book she had chosen where half the pages were missing.”

Nearly 770,000 children in the UK do not own a single book of their own.

She pointed out that Clara Grant has historically been well-funded because of a high number of EAL (English as an additional language) pupils and those on free school meals.

But the school’s budget is estimated to be cut by £411 per pupil between 2015 and 2020. As external funding continues to shrink, the school has been ‘future-proofing’ and making cuts as a preventative measure, the impact of which has been felt across the school.

Deciding enough was enough, Manister teamed up with friend Laura Whateley, a journalist and author, to take action. They put together an Amazon wishlist of “award-winning, diverse and contemporary” books and promoted it both online and to local parents. Within 10 days, members of the public had gifted 180 books to the Clara Grant class.

The majority of books were sent alongside “lovely” messages explaining how important reading was to the senders as children. “The children adore the books,” Manister said. “We found that people have been really willing to donate because they’re able to pick exactly which book they would like to send. It feels very personal.”

“We are not yet in dire straits,” she continued, “although we fully expect to be there soon enough. But I don’t want to give the impression that we are a fair reflection of all schools. I think many are far worse off.”

That is why Manister and Whateley have decided to offer the wishlist to other schools short of time and cash. They will help them promote it and try to get the support of larger organisations.

“We also want to begin collecting secondhand children’s books from drop-off points and people’s homes,” Manister explains. “Then we’ll pass them on to children in schools to take home and keep. This is something we’ll need funding for, plus the help of local business who could act as drop-off points.”

The teacher revealed that support is growing already – a Tower Hamlets council worker read about her project in the Big Issue and offered to collect books for the project.

In the meantime, the pupils will contribute to an Instagram page set up for reviews of the books gifted to the class.

“It’s a way of saying thank you,” Manister said, “but it also might help us build the programme and get more books to places where they’re needed.

“People who donate can see that the children are enjoying the stories too and get a bit of feedback from their donation.

“Plus, it means the children can reflect on what they enjoy or don’t enjoy about a story and become more discerning readers.”

The school is still collecting to replenish its book corner via the Amazon wishlist.

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