Penguin Random House is bringing school libraries back from the brink of extinction

Penguin Random House won the ‘Best in Community Engagement' category at The Drum Social Purpose Awards 2019 for its ‘Puffin World of Stories’ campaign. In this case study, the team behind the project reveals the challenges faced and the strategies used along the way.

The challenge

Reading for enjoyment is vital to success at school and in life. Research shows that 14-year-olds who enjoy reading have a reading ability 3.3 years higher than their peers, and enjoyment of reading improves children’s’ mental wellbeing. School libraries are key to boosting a love of reading – and much more. National Literacy Trust research shows that school libraries have a positive impact on pupils’ reading enjoyment and skills, on their self-esteem, sense of accomplishment and academic attainment across a range of subjects.

At Puffin we believe that stories can inspire a child to feel that they can be, and do, anything. However, not every child in the UK has access to books and stories. Libraries are suffering from a chronic lack of investment – 53% of teachers say they don’t have a library in their school.

There is no legal requirement for schools to have libraries. England’s 20,000 primary schools are estimated to have fewer than 50 professional librarians between them. In a recent survey, 60% of primary schools, even if they had a library, didn’t know which member of staff was managing it. Yet primary school libraries are expected to provide the first experience of reading and literature for our children.

Working with 58 primary schools between September 2018 and July 2019, our aim was to develop and pilot a new and scalable approach to transforming primary school libraries. Each participating school received for free:

• Bespoke training, online and face-to-face

• 500 free books – new voices and classics

• Audiobook downloads

• Resources including posters, bookmarks and bunting.

The objectives of the campaign were:

• To equip teachers with the tools they need to revitalize reading for pleasure in their school.

• To pilot an approach with the potential to be rolled out nationwide.

• To introduce pupils to the Puffin brand and authors.

• To gain insights into how schools operate, informing Puffin’s wider commercial and brand strategy.

• To engage colleagues in project delivery and activation.

The strategy

Puffin World of Stories is the flagship project as part of a wider two-year partnership between Penguin Random House and the National Literacy Trust, which includes staff fundraising, volunteering and book donations.

To manage the project we set up a small agile group of colleagues from both organisations, working to these principles:

• Acting like a start-up, testing and learning throughout.

• Ensuring the project was accessible for all schools, whether a big inner-city, a tiny rural school, or a school with no formal library space.

• Committing to leaving a sustainable legacy.

• Focusing where the need was greatest – schools with a higher-than-average percentage of pupils receiving free school meals (a proxy for deprivation).

Our initial 58 schools were based in four communities: across South London, near Penguin Random House offices, and Essex, local to our warehouse, plus Tyne & Wear and Middlesbrough in the North-East, an area of low literacy.

The campaign

Working with the pilot primary schools between September 2018 and July 2019, our aim was to develop and pilot a new and scalable approach to transforming primary school libraries. Each participating school received for free:

• Bespoke training, online and face-to-face.

• 500 free books – new voices and classics.

• Audiobook downloads.

• Resources including posters, bookmarks and bunting.

When registering, we asked every school to complete a ‘pre-survey’, letting us know what they most needed. We shaped our offer around these needs from the beginning. Schools were able to self-select 200 of their 500 free books to meet their specific needs (e.g. requesting more non-fiction).

Each participating school received colourful posters, stickers, bookmarks and bunting to bring their reading spaces to life – also giving us the opportunity to build the Puffin brand a school environment.

Due to budget constraints, a teaching assistant or even a parent volunteer might manage the school library. It was therefore vital to create a practical training programme which would equip any staff members, regardless of their prior knowledge of children’s literature.

Teachers participated in an online training course and attended two training days delivered by an expert former school librarian. Training included practical tips on how to organize a school library, improving knowledge of children’s books, and how to create a reading-for-pleasure strategy involving pupils, parents and teachers.

We also created a ‘Pupil Librarian’ programme for students which empowered them to help ‘run’ the library and educate fellow pupils on choosing books. Regular project newsletter with ideas for encouraging reading and sharing best practice.

The donated books were all story books and fun non-fiction, with a diverse range appealing to different backgrounds and interests. Audiobooks are increasingly popular among the public, but are rarely used in schools. This was an opportunity to experiment, by giving each school access to a free library of audiobook downloads.

Experts from our audio team joined teacher training, showcasing how audio can be used in the classroom to boost pupils’ creativity, make reading accessible to less able readers and support pupils with learning needs.

On World Book Day, 557 colleagues (a quarter of our workforce) volunteered in local schools and communities, including ten Puffin World of Stories schools. Over 500 colleagues visited five participating schools as part of our annual charity walk. The activity gave colleagues the chance to interact directly with children and teachers, creating colourful murals and giving out books for pupils to take home.

We also used our annual staff event, Penguin Presents, to bring to life the impact of Puffin World of Stories to 1,200 colleagues in attendance. Three children from participating school Jubilee Primary in London joined comedian and author Humza Arshad on stage, followed by a video featuring St. Gabriel’s Catholic Primary school in Middlesbrough.

The results

Key outputs:

• 29,000 books donated to 58 schools.

• 101 teachers took part in training.

• 14,500 pupils reached.

Impact on schools:

• 100% of teachers felt better equipped and informed to develop a reading community, and to engage with pupils to inspire reading for pleasure.

• 100% rated their confidence as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ in almost all areas of training.

• 96% felt better informed about how to engage parents (considered one of the most challenging areas.)

• Reading initiatives have increased: reading for pleasure promotion is more frequent (38% to 94% of schools); schools are holding more book groups (36% to 59%); and schools with reading for pleasure displays almost doubled (from 45% to 85%).

Shaping our commercial strategy:

• Insights from the project have helped shape our wider school outreach, including re-launching our Puffin Schools network - recently shortlisted as Best Free Resource in the Teach Primary awards.

• 15 colleagues attended teacher training, with feedback showing this was a valuable opportunity to consider how we could improve the accessibility and visibility of our books and better understand the current school environment.

• We are working with our audio team to use insights gained from the pilot to shape our wider audiobook strategy in schools.

Expansion in year two:

• The positive impact of the pilot has enabled us to successfully pitch for funding to expand the project to a further 80 schools from September 2019, in celebration of Puffin’s 80th anniversary.

• We have also committed to support the 50 pilot schools for a second year, adding a programme of author visits.

“Taking part in Puffin World of Stories has been instrumental in leading Ofsted to state in our recent report that ‘Leaders have revitalized the reading culture to improve standards of reading’” – participant school, London ‘Puffin World of Stories has made more of a difference that I could ever have imagined. Our Library Coordinator is constantly coming to me with new ideas and has already put many of them in place. There is a long queue outside the library most lunchtimes, with children waiting to borrow or swap their choice of the fantastic books we have been given, and the student librarians are enjoying running the system. I am so grateful that we were chosen to take part." – participant school, Essex

“Puffin World of Stories has been a revelation. By giving teachers the knowledge, ideas and resources they need to bring their school libraries and reading spaces to life, the programme has inspired a culture of reading for pleasure to be embedded across whole school communities.” – Jonathan Douglas, Director of the National Literacy Trust.

"Reading for pleasure is the most important gift you can give children. In our schools we teach children to read, but we also need to bring to life the joy of books." – Jacqueline Wilson, Puffin World of Stories Ambassador

This project was commended in The Drum Social Purpose Awards 2019. Click here to register your interest in next year's awards.

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