Making a difference in Gateshead town centre

20 December 2018

By Lucie Glanville, Skills for Life Development Officer with learningSkills (Gateshead Council)

learningSkills is a council learning provider based in the community, aiming to offer excellent education to everyone. We got involved for the first time in 2018 because we are focused on making Gateshead a place where everyone thrives, and World Book Night is a practical and fun way to support that. We had also recently started a reading club at one of our sites using the Reading Ahead scheme, and the club members were keen to share their new-found love of reading with others. Giving away books was a fantastic opportunity to engage people who might need a little bit of light in their lives!

learningSkills received copies of The Beach Wedding by Dorothy Koomson, so tried to bring a beach theme to a grey April day! We took over the reception and café area for the day (most of our classes take place in the daytime), and our in-house catering students kindly whipped up some impressive beach-themed cupcakes.

The club members dressed up as their favourite characters from books. Armed with copies of our World Book Night title and bookmarks with their personal reading recommendations, they spoke to everyone who passed through about reading. This included learners on their way to and from lessons, café visitors who had come in for a low-cost cup of coffee and, when things got quiet, they went out to reach people waiting for buses. They had been nervously practicing how to promote the book in advance, using the helpful prompts for volunteers on the World Book Night website, and soon relaxed into speaking to people. One club member was brave enough to do a book reading from his current read – Slash’s autobiography! He had the costume, electric guitar and the swagger, and since the event staff and learners appear to have forgotten his real name and just refer to him affectionately as ‘Slash’.

We gave away 63 copies of the book that day. The people we engaged with were surprised to be receiving a book for free with no catch, but any encounters that started with suspicions ended with pleasure when we confirmed that they could take both book and cake away with them. Many of the people passing through Gateshead town centre are unemployed, disengaged and have low literacy levels, and many of those learners who are already undertaking some of the learningSkills courses on offer have a lot of barriers to overcome before they get to where they want to be in life. A free gift and a friendly chat might make all the difference to their day. If they find some joy in reading and come back to join some of our literacy classes, it might make all the difference to their future.

The club members also got a lot out of being book-givers. Those who hadn’t finished the book prior to the event continued to read it over the next few weeks. They also discovered they’d gained new skills:
“I’ve never done anything like that before; I wish my mam was still around to have seen me.”
“I enjoyed going out and talking to people.”
“I’m not used to being centre stage but it was good!”
“I think I must have talked to about a hundred people.”

The last few books have also found a good home, boosting the library of a local charity whose clients have English as a second language.

So, what are learningSkills planning for next year? The club members are planning a book quiz and prizes for book-related costumes and I would like to have even more book readings. I think we will also focus on promotion in the run-up to the event and encouraging learners from other courses to get involved. If you’re planning your own event, think of ways to draw in your target audience (food, book readings, competitions) and publicise it as widely as you can!

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