The earlier children develop good reading and writing skills, the better their chances are of doing well at school, getting a skilled job and living a successful life. But with a quarter (27%) of five-year-olds from better-off families starting school without a good level of development, rising to almost half (46%) of children from poorer families, far too many children are having their futures cut short before they’ve even started.
The Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, has launched the government’s plan for improving social mobility through education at Reform’s social mobility conference. The report, Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential, puts social mobility at the heart of education policy and aspires to ensure that every person and every place in England is fulfilling its potential.
We believe literacy is the key to unlocking every child’s potential and improving the nation’s social mobility. Lacking vital literacy skills holds a person back at every stage of their life. As a child they won’t be able to succeed at school, as a young adult they will be locked out of the job market, and as a parent they won’t be able to support their own child’s learning. This intergenerational cycle makes social mobility and a fairer society more difficult.
The scale of the problem is immense. Not only do children and young people in the UK have some of poorest literacy skills in the world but low literacy is entrenched in local communities across the nation. Far from being restricted to regions with low income, high unemployment and social deprivation, analysis by Experian and the National Literacy Trust shows that serious literacy issues exist in 86% of constituencies in England. This is a challenge recognised by the government in their new Social Mobility Strategy that aims to leave no community behind and target Government efforts and resources at the people and places that need it most.
The National Literacy Trust has developed a local areas Hub model to help address the varying literacy challenges of communities across the UK. Our National Literacy Trust Hubs are currently running in Middlesbrough, Bradford, Peterborough, Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent, with more launching in the new year. We take the very best literacy interventions into these communities, create sustainable partnerships between schools, businesses, the voluntary sector, health and local services, and mobilise MPs and local leaders to champion literacy.
Local strategies work. Between 2013 and 2015, around 200 families took part in our Early Words Together programme in Middlesbrough. More children who participated achieved a Good Level of Development at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage, closing the gap with the national average from 22.6 percentage points in 2013 to 6.27 percentage points in 2015.
In today’s strategy, the government outlined four priorities for improving the nation’s social mobility, starting with closing the ‘word gap’ in the early years and closing the attainment gap in schools. At just five-years-old, our poorest children start primary school 19 months behind their better off peers in language and vocabulary. This is a deficit most children don’t recover from during their school life and one which experts estimate will take 40 years to eradicate at the current rate of change.
Our Early Words Together programme aims to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged under-fives by training nursery staff and volunteers to teach parents the skills they need to support their young child’s reading, writing, speaking and listening at home.
An evaluation of the programme, which has so far been delivered in 30 of the most deprived communities in England, shows that Early Words Together increases school readiness, enables children who are struggling with their understanding of spoken language to catch up with their peers in just four months, and encourages parents from the most deprived backgrounds to talk more often with their child at home (88.1%), as well as boosting their confidence in sharing books (78.3%) with their child.
Improving children’s early literacy, language and communication skills is only one part of the solution. We must also ensure that older children who are nearing the end of their education and about to enter the world of work are given every opportunity to fulfil their potential. The government’s final priority areas seek to address this challenge by emphasising the need to promote high-quality post-16 education choices for young people and provide rewarding careers where everyone can achieve their potential. These are areas where we have a strong track record.
Our Words for Work programme gives secondary school students from disadvantaged backgrounds the communication skills they need to be successful in the workplace. By bringing in volunteers from the local community to work with students to improve their communication skills and share knowledge of employment and the workplace, we help young people understand the link between success at school and later in life, and encourage them to widen their aspirations.
Every business in the country can play an important role in raising our children and young people’s literacy levels and boosting social mobility. In 2015, through the National Literacy Forum and in partnership with KPMG, we created the Vision for Literacy Business Pledge. Businesses who sign the pledge commit to taking practical steps to tackle literacy and social mobility issues within their workforce, the local communities where they work and on a national level. Moving into 2018, the Vision for Literacy Business Pledge will prioritise literacy support for children in the early years to close the skills gap between the least and most disadvantaged people in our society. 51 businesses signed up in 2017 and we’re really pleased to be increasing this number in 2018.
The government’s social mobility strategy is a welcome development at a time of political and economic unrest. It has never been more important for literacy to be at the heart of education and business.