The Butterfly Saturday Reading School is defiantly old-fashioned. The children sit at individual desks, facing the front. They don’t chat to each other. They constantly interact with the teacher, answering questions and doing exercises. They work from a textbook with no illustrations, not much colour and long lists of words to learn by heart.
The funny thing is that they love it. The school, in Paddington, West London, gives literacy classes on Saturday mornings to children from the local Mozart Estate, one of the most deprived in the country. It is the flagship project of Real Action, which also runs adult literacy and English language classes.
When I visited the Butterfly School, children really did come running into class and rushed back to it after their break. They paid rapt attention and vied with one another to answer the teacher’s questions. Some are as young as five and their feet don’t reach the floor in front of their full-sized chairs, used during the week by City of Westminster college students. Some of the older ones, aged 12 or 13, look almost threatening from a distance, dressed in the street uniform of low-slung tracksuit bottoms and hoodies. But they all talk enthusiastically about Butterfly and how it is “better than normal school”.
Katie Ivens, the school’s co-founder, explains that this is because Butterfly doesn’t patronise its students. “Children love authority, they love structure, they love ordered classes and they love being tested,” she says. She rejects the idea that children should be left to their own devices. “There is an idea that the teacher is not a teacher in a didactic sense but an enabler, that the child will somehow discover everything for themselves. This has been fashionable for a long time and has done a great deal of damage.” This attitude to teaching, which condemns primary school children to “play all day”, is partly to blame for Britain’s literacy crisis. Eight per cent of children start secondary school barely able to read, with the figure rising to almost 50 per cent in some of the local schools that Butterfly’s students attend.
Most of Butterfly’s students are first- or second-generation immigrants, reflecting the population of the Mozart Estate. According to Mrs Ivens, the high levels of illiteracy and underachievement are the fault, simply, of bad education. “It is nothing to do with the socio-economic background of the children or the fact that they’re immigrants. It’s all to do with teaching. If you teach them well, they learn well.” It is this that gave Real Action its name. Parents were unhappy with their children’s education, telling Mrs Ivens: “What we want is real action.”
And real action is what they got: the Butterfly School is a demonstrable success. On average, over the 10 years it has been in existence, its students’ reading ages improve by 13 months after 30 hours of teaching. All its teachers are volunteers and Real Action has only three paid members of staff. Mrs Ivens thinks that this small size works best. “The big charities may sometimes forget about the charity. An act of charity is an act of kindness and we should get back to that basic principle.”