The programme, managed by Booktrust, started in Leicester when Rose Griffiths (Letterbox Club founder) wanted to find an enjoyable way of helping children in care, to improve their reading and maths, and to support foster carers who wanted to help the children they looked after.
All over the country, the attainment of looked-after children is much lower than it should be, and it results in very poor educational outcomes for young people at the age of 16, with very few staying on at school after that. We wanted to concentrate on children in Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11) because it is important to provide extra support as soon as it seems children are falling behind, rather than leaving it until they are older. The programme has now been extended to include children in secondary school, in Year 7/8 (ages 11-13).
Several projects in the past have provided books or reading support to young people in care, but this programme is one of the first to combine maths and reading, and to provide that support over a sustained period of time directly to the child.
Children are sent a parcel once a month for six months, starting in the May of school Year 3, again in Year 5 and also in Year 7. This means the child gets the parcels during the summer holiday (which can be a time when children’s reading and maths suffer a decline) and over the time when they are getting settled in a new class at school.
Each parcel has a letter to the child, two books, a maths game at the right level for the child and a mixture of stationery. For many children it is the first time they have had a letter or a parcel through the post, and for many it is the first time they have had books of their own.
Each local authority that is taking part decides which children they will invite to be members of the Letterbox Club. During the pilot stage, we had a limit on how many children we could cater for, but from 2009 authorities could enrol as many children as they wished. Many have said that it would be a help to vulnerable children who are 'on the edge' of being in care.
The programme has a comprehensive system to check on its effectiveness. The children are given a maths assessment and a reading test before and after the six months when they receive their Letterbox parcels, and they are also assessed for their interest in reading and books.
We send out questionnaires to the children and the carers to find out what they think about the contents of each parcel and we also interview a sample of children to get detailed information about how they use the things they are sent.
The results show some very promising improvements in children’s reading and maths and a high level of enthusiasm for the books and games we included.
The feedback from local authority coordinators is extremely positive and Letterbox has grown considerably in the past four years. In 2011, 113 local authorities signed up, with 4,500 children enrolled.
Here are some comments from carers:
Carer of boy aged eight.
He read a lot anyway but it gave him more choice of books to read... storybooks and fact books.
Carer of boy aged nine.
Andy loves the stories that are funny and he enjoys the extra things in the pack, like pens and note books. It helped us do more with him - the maths games were great.
Carer of girl aged nine.
Lottie has all the books on show in her room. We both enjoy reading and playing the games. She loves reading in bed, it helps her drift off to sleep. She keeps her books close to the bed.
The Letterbox Club has the potential to support other vulnerable children and their families.
Letterbox started as a programme catering for looked-after children aged 7-11 but has now been extended to include older children up to the age of 13 and also children with additional educational needs, who are working below National Curriculum Level 1.