As the end of school year is looming, there is no better time to think about the scandalous fact that, in modern Britain, i.e. one of the richest country on the planet, more than a fifth of 11-year-olds will still be leaving primary school without reaching the basic level in reading. Before the last General election, former Deputy PM Nick Clegg had called the figure "a national scandal" (1).
What is the problem with literacy, and why does it matter anyway? Illiteracy always lead "to limited opportunities for employment or income generation, propensity towards crime or dependence on social welfare or charity,"according to the World Literacy Fund (2).
The impact of bad literacy can be traced back to decades ago when failing children were not deemed worth the effort by either teachers, school authorities or governments. About 8 million adults (Up to 40% of the adult population in the UK's most deprived areas, according to the National Literacy Trust) (3), who are now struggling in their daily life because they have not been given a proper chance to learn how to read at a young age and now lack the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old, are indeed the direct consequence of such a blank mentality. They are today the victims of a heartless and archaic Victorian society that did not want to bother understanding IT was actually failing THEM.
A new report by the National Literacy Trust released today, "Understanding the role of literacy in public health" (4), shows that these people with low literacy are "up to 18 times more likely to take their prescriptions incorrectly, are significantly less likely to understand the symptoms of a medical condition such as diabetes or asthma and are more likely to rate their health as 'very poor' than people with better literacy skills."
The impact of bad literacy skills has been proven to have an impact on the whole of the society through health inequality and it now puts direct pressure on public services across the country, because people don't understand the general guidelines and information about health, which eventually prevents them from treating their health effectively and ultimately causes them to catch diseases.
Whereas people with good literacy skills "are more likely to have higher self-esteem, better health, better jobs and higher wages than those with poor literacy skills. They are more able to take advantage of the opportunities that life may offer them," the report continues.
Today, we live in a more mature society, in which we want to believe - foolishly, maybe - that we care sensibly more for the weaker and the poorer than ever before in history, without patronising them or being over-idealistic about it. This modern society we live in indeed needs to realise all individuals are interconnected, and that what happens to the poorer will eventually affect the wealthier.
Public health strategies in the UK should now definitely include improving families' literacy to make them healthier. An essential part of these strategies should be about the promotion of a daily family routine including home learning and home reading. Promoting the importance of bedtime stories and library visits for children, for instance, is paramount. (According to the National Literacy Trust's "State of the Nation and Impact Report", only half of children look at print-based stories every day with their parents. And only 67.1% of children aged five to 10 had visited a library in the last year.) (3)
The National Literacy Trust generally defines literacy as being "the ability to read, write, speak and listen well," and adds that "a literate person is able to communicate effectively with others and to understand written information."
Shouldn't the government make eliminating child illiteracy one of its priorities in order to achieve just that and to create a fairer modern society for all?
1. No child illiteracy by 2025, Nick Clegg pledges (BBC News, 18 January 2015)
2. Illiteracy Statistics, Information Sheet (World Literacy Fund, 2015)
3. State of the Nation and Impact Report 2013/2014 (National Literacy Trust, 2014)
4. Understanding the role of literacy in public health (National Literacy Trust, July 2015)