A childhood on one of Britain’s most deprived and drug-riddled estates left 20-year-old Joseph Poola unable to read and badly equipped to make his way in the world

Avoiding gangs, crime and years in jail was a question of A-B-C for Joseph Poola. A childhood on one of Britain’s most deprived and drug-riddled estates left him unable to read and badly equipped to make his way in the world. But today he is at university studying computer systems engineering and looking forward to a life of freedom.

Joseph, 20, saw his chance and seized it. Luckily he grasped that learning to read would be really exciting. Hanging around in gangs without a clue about all the fantastic things going on in the world is boring. And it feels great to have a sense of direction and discipline.

He will always be grateful to two people who set up a no-nonsense and strict Saturday school on his estate to teach youngsters to read and write.

Joseph said: “When I was younger I was not interested in learning but the school changed all of that for me.

“So instead of sitting at home on a Saturday morning watching television or roaming the streets causing trouble, I was learning to read properly.”

Joseph, who got three A-levels and a place at the University of Kent, attended the voluntary sessions for two years up to the age of 10.  The Butterfly Saturday Reading School is run on a shoestring by volunteers in a converted shop in the heart of the Mozart Estate, once dubbed crack city, in Queen’s Park, North West London.  The area has double the national rate of free school meal entitlement. Many children on the estate come from homes where one or even both parents cannot read or write.

The school is the brainchild of musician Roger Diamond, and former local councillor Katie Ivens.  Since it started in 1999 it has benefited more than 2,000 children. Dozens have gone on to university.  Joseph said: “Most of the time my friends were on the streets messing about. I didn’t want that. Many were involved in gangs. But I was never interested in all that either.”

Joseph added: “I could have easily slipped into a life of trouble. I didn’t, thanks to the help I got from Roger and Katie.”

Roger recalled how it all began: “We got fed up with the number of kids roaming the streets committing petty crime and generally being a nuisance.

“The council brought in security guards to go on patrols and after a while the boys started to talk to them. One day a guard asked the boys, ‘What do you want to do? Shall we set up a football team for you?’ “I was staggered by the answer. They said what they really wanted was to learn to read and to have help with their homework.”

Roger and Katie set up the charity Real Action, and launched the school.  The atmosphere is strict.  Children are disciplined if they step out of line. Katie said: “The teacher is authority and takes the class standing at the front. Children sit at desks and look at the teacher. Many of them tell their parents they prefer this to their normal school.”

Roger added: “Children like discipline – in the right context. They realise they need a direction.

“For years we have had people who were extremely challenging but they would still come every Saturday.

“And we are not shy to put them under heavy manners.”

The school asks parents for a £5 voluntary donation for each pupil but no child will ever be turned away.  Every week nearly 100 come along, some aged three, divided into several classes. They are taught to read using a phonic method, where sounds are represented by letters, and how to blend the sounds to make up words.

Successes include a six-year-old Mongolian boy who went from being illiterate to achieving a reading age of eight within nine months.  A boy of 10 from Ghana was struggling to make out words on a page before his Saturday classes but is now devouring Harry Potter books.  A brother and sister, 18 and 14, arrived with limited reading skills but he now has a place at Brunel University and the girl is writing a novel.  Both returned to join the ranks of volunteer teachers – like Patrick Ighodaro, 23, who grew up in the area. He said: “I was just looking for a volunteering job and I love children so this is perfect for me.”

Katie said: “The children gain an average of 14 months’ reading age in just 20 hours’ teaching. It’s a very powerful programme. Lots of parents said it made a big impact.”

Education Secretary Michael Gove said: “I’m a huge admirer. Kate Ivens’s approach to teaching is inspirational and secures great results.”

A second Butterfly school has been opened in nearby Notting Hill and more are planned nationwide.

Article by Pamela Owen, published in The People on 7 October 2012