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The Importance of Reading Matters

by Naz Shah, Member of Parliament for Bradford West
by Naz Shah, Member of Parliament for Bradford West
Last month I attended the 20th anniversary charity ball of Bradford based charity Reading Matters. The evening, attended by educationalists, luminaries from the world of literature, and politicians both national and local was a celebration of a project that began in 1997 from the humblest of beginnings.

Originally providing reading mentors to pupils in Bradford struggling with the transition to secondary school the charity now provides support to pupils across both primary and secondary phases and programmes to train training parents and school staff. Since 2008 almost 34,000 children have benefited from the interventions of reading mentors and volunteers across West and South Yorkshire.

But why, despite twenty years of work by organisations like Reading Matters are the problems of child and adult literacy so widespread when the consequences of poor literacy are so well evidenced and so stark.

These figures reveal the alarming extent of the problem:

  • Last year in England over 63,000 children left primary school unable to read to the expected level.
  • Around 5.2 million adults in England have literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old.
  • 60% of the prison population is said to have difficulties in basic literacy skills
  • 70% of pupils permanently excluded from school have difficulties with basic literacy
  • As many as 1 in 3 children do not have their own book at home
  • 25% of young offenders have reading skills below that of the average 7 year old
  • Poor literacy skills cost the UK economy £81 billion every year

207c4d88-4c05-4f30-93ba-302b35e44071Literacy levels correlate with improved employment prospects in an economy where the number of jobs requiring a degree now outnumber those that don’t. Health outcomes and the risk of criminal lifestyles all strongly correspond to the ability to obtain, process and understand the written word.

Poor literacy is not only a disadvantage in its own right it is also driver of further disadvantage. The relationship between poverty and poor literacy skills are more embedded in Britain than almost anywhere else in the world and the inter-generational impact is irrefutable. Low literacy negatively impacts a households earnings, and low earnings impact on literacy through a lack of access to resources. This relationship produces a depressing and self-perpetuating cycle.

The 2008 financial crisis has had a profound effect on the British economy and the impact has been hardest on the poor and vulnerable. A government policy of public spending cuts and austerity has exposed many to the insecurity of precarious and insecure work or an increasingly punitive benefits system.

There is a real danger that if the literacy-poverty link is not broken the number of children educationally disadvantaged will increase and a new generation of young people will be condemned to a life of entrenched inequality, with little or no opportunity for social mobility.

The consequences of this are not just a life of economic hardship and wasted opportunities for the individuals involved. It represents a disaster for wider society too. Recent studies have shown that, unique to Britain, improvements in literacy levels have plateaued and that standards amongst the youngest now only match those of the eldest generation. In other words the continuous improvements enjoyed by other modern global economies are simply not occurring in the UK.

The skills gap predicted by 80% of business leaders threatens the competitiveness and productivity of an economy already unnerved by the Brexit decision. Without freedom of movement amongst EU citizens the UK cannot simply rely on tempting the brightest from abroad as it has done in the past.

Britain needs to face up to a historical pattern of cultural and political complacency about the poor and the causes of poverty, a disdain and ideological atrophy that has written off generations of working class children. It was the historical mission of the Labour Party to break the inter-generational cycles of poverty and disadvantage and the work of organisations like Reading Matters is integral to achieving this. But it will require policy reversals at the highest levels to avoid the educational car crash that this government has steered us into. A class biased, Conservative and shire centric school funding formula threatens to compound the economic disadvantages faced by children and young people in constituencies like mine. I will fight to my last breath to oppose this latest, class based attempt to ‘right off’ another generation.

For further information about how you can help please do visit readingmatters.org.uk

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