S. Anselm’s School lies tucked away above the quiet medieval market town of Bakewell yet it is no stranger to innovation.  This year, the school has created a twenty-minute reading period for all its students up to the age of sixteen.  Richard Mace, Head of English at the school, explains how stories provide a much-needed remedy for a range of modern ailments.

Like many, I find the great works of JRR Tolkien inspirational. Last year, after a twenty-year hiatus, I returned to his epic fantasy novels and revisited Middle Earth disappearing into a seemingly endless world of goblins, orcs, hobbits and elves. It was a much-needed break from the realities of lockdown and the restrictions imposed on us all. I’m probably not alone in choosing Samwise Gamgee, the steadfast companion to Frodo, as my favourite character in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  He is an endearing, resilient and good-hearted hobbit upon whom the success of the whole adventure relies. I learnt a great deal from Samwise last year, not least to hold onto hope when global affairs seem so bleak. For me, Samwise, his companions and Tolkien’s fantasy landscape provided vital respite from the woes of living in lockdown.

Quite simply, great stories act as a gateway.  They allow us to safely roam, wander and experience the trials and tribulations of worlds far beyond our front doors.  It is no co-incidence that two-hundred million books were sold in the UK in 2020, a rise of over five percent on pre-pandemic levels.  I was one of these consumers and, having demolished Lord of the Rings, this summer I read A Gentleman in Moscow, The Beekeeper of Aleppo and The Miniaturist.  This meant that, despite the countless restrictions on my freedoms, I have travelled to Moscow after the Russian Revolution; I have travelled with Syrian refugees through Europe and have meandered through the streets of 17th century Amsterdam . Such journeys were simply impossible …except in the pages of books!

The decision to institute a reading period for all children above the age of five at S. Anselm’s has been partly driven by a desire to reduce these recent limitations and to ensure our children retain their sense of adventure and their natural inclination to tour beyond borders and seek challenge. We learn through play of course and a book offers a safe environment to experience peril and voyages of discovery.  In short, we want the children to move outside their comfort zones, have fun, surprises and unique cultural experiences.  We want them to grapple with the unpredictable and consider perplexing decisions. They can travel in time and space in the pages of a story and meet a myriad of complex characters that challenge their assumptions. Therefore, this emphasis on reading supports every child’s development. It helps forge well-rounded outward looking individuals who are ready for an ever-changing world with all its quirks. We may have been physically confined, but our children’s imaginations have been free to travel!

The recent restrictions of lockdown have also provoked much debilitating anxiety. Unsurprisingly, this impact has been particularly pronounced in the young. Last year, the Mental Health Foundation reported that ten percent of five to sixteen year olds in the UK have clinically diagnosed mental health problems.  To suggest reading for twenty minutes a day would be a panacea is to underestimate the gravity of this modern affliction but there is no doubt that reading can relieve anxiety and enable a mindfulness that builds resilience and a sense of self, particularly in the young. Moreover, in 2018, the National Literacy Trust stated that, “Children who engage with reading are three times more likely to have high levels of mental wellbeing than those who do not”.  This emphatic statement certainly deserves our attention.  If twenty minutes of quiet reading allows a child to briefly escape from the demands of the day then this is something forward thinking schools should embrace.

At S. Anselm’s, we are now proud that a visitor at the end of the day will see calm, engaged and mindful students travelling through the pages of the books they are reading.  Some have gone back in time; some have trekked to far-flung lands, many have met characters that inspire or act as a warning. Importantly, all the children have found a moment of peace, a chance to be calm and to centre themselves.  Their resilience grows and so does their life experience, confidence, compassion and empathy. They also gain an essential sense of liberty as they have chosen their books and engaged with the stories in an independent way that is meaningful to them.  They go on personal journeys of discovery whether they are five, ten or fifteen years of age.

Of course, there are many other important side-effects prompted by the regular reading of great tales.  These twenty-minute sessions add up to over an hour an half a week so literacy levels go up, vocabularies broaden and exams become more accessible. However, the new reading regime at S. Anselm’s is about far more than that.  It is about instilling in our children a sense of joy and adventure while also training the children to be centred and reflective.

Without endangering ourselves, we learn vital life-lessons from the triumphs and failures of the characters we encounter within the narrative arc of a good story.  For this reason, I feel I should leave the last word to Samwise.

 “It’s like the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered.  Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? … But in the end, it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass.  A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer.”

Like Galadriel’s crystal phial, this message of inspirational hope resonates perhaps more now than ever. Such shining pearls of wisdom as Sam’s are frequently found in the tales we read and can enlighten young minds searching for answers and seeking meaning.

Thus, a pantheon of delights lie within the oasis of this newly discovered twenty-minute reading period.  Long may it last!

Richard is married with two sons and describes himself as a southerner who has fallen for the wonders of the Peak District. He has worked across a range of schools as Head of English and History.  Many years ago, he oversaw both Senior and Prep boarding houses.  He is a keen reader of fiction and is currently attempting (and failing) to complete a book entitled “The Fortress of Novels”.  

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