Literacy and social mobility: doing more for less

6 October 2015

A strong foundation in the basic skills of literacy and numeracy is essential for social mobility. Yet in 2014, 39.5 per cent of pupils did not achieve at least five A*- C GCSEs, including English and maths, which can severely limit employment options. Among students eligible for Free School Meals this increased to 66.5 per cent. Despite taking positive steps to improve literacy through phonics, the Pupil Premium and better teaching, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers remains wide.

The challenge is intergenerational and linked to poverty. In the UK’s most deprived wards, up to 35 per cent of the adult population lack the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old. Disadvantage and low attainment is concentrated in specific areas. Children in the most deprived areas are half as likely to attend an outstanding school, and gaps exist between the best and worst-performing local authorities. Every community faces different challenges and these need to be understood to ensure intervention addresses the issues. Social mobility is a national matter requiring a local solution.

The National Literacy Trust has placed an emphasis on area-based solutions for the last 20 years, with focussed reviews and projects providing the framework for our Hub model. With National Literacy Trust Hubs in Middlesbrough, Bradford and Peterborough, we aim to create long-term change in communities across the UK where low levels of literacy are entrenched, intergenerational and seriously impacting on people’s lives. Extensive scoping activity and data analysis maps existing provision against need and we mobilise schools, public services, businesses, communities, and cultural, faith and voluntary groups behind a campaign to improve literacy in target areas. Just one example is our three year partnership with Middlesbrough Council and a range of partners on a shared public health agenda to provide support and guidance on literacy and communication development to parents of premature babies to improve school readiness. Health visitors and nurses have been trained on key literacy messages and parents are given free packs with tips on sharing stories with children of all ages. Local authorities are buying into the model as it enables them to do more for less.

The literacy gap cannot be narrowed by government or schools alone. It requires action from all sections of society: families, corporates and local communities in particular. The Vision for Literacy Business Pledge launches in the autumn. Developed with KPMG and other partners of the National Literacy Forum (15 child poverty and literacy charities), the Business Pledge will pinpoint the role business plays in addressing the literacy challenge. Business signatories are committed to raising literacy levels and improving social mobility but they need a clear picture of local need and a framework for engaging with – and then working alongside – members from all key organisations in the local area.

Jonathan Douglas, Director, National Literacy Trust

This article was written for the Reform Annual Journal to accompany the Conservative Party Conference event “Words for life: how better literacy improves lives”.



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