We face a huge literacy challenge in England which is preventing many of our children and young people from being able to thrive and lead successful lives. Gender, socio-economic background and where children live are all at the heart of our literacy challenge. Boys in England are nearly twice as likely as girls to fall behind in early language and communication; and children at all ages from the lowest income groups are likely to be less literate than their counterparts from higher income groups.
Poor literacy skills reinforce social and ethnic inequalities and hold our economy back. If every child left primary school with the reading skills they need, our economy could be more than £32 billion bigger by 2025. However, last year 35% of children leaving primary school in England weren't able to read well, which shows us just how far we have to go.
An international comparison of school systems was published by the OECD this week as a result of their sixth Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). 15-year-old pupils from across 72 countries and economies around the world took a test which looked at how well they can apply what they learn in the classroom - in terms of reading, mathematics and science - to real life situations.
The latest PISA findings show that little has changed in England in terms of reading since 2006. As a country, levels have stagnated. Also, while overall the difference between boys and girls in reading is in line with the OECD average, the gender gap in reading is wider in England than it is in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Schools, families, local communities and businesses all have a part to play if we are to deliver the step change we need to ensure that England's schools support each and every pupil - regardless of their age, gender, social status, where they live and family income - to develop the skills they need to thrive at school, in further education and in the workplace.
We must identify the local areas which have the greatest literacy needs and develop solutions with the local community to address them. This is something the National Literacy Trust has been doing for many years, developing Hubs across the UK to create long-term change in communities where low levels of literacy are entrenched, intergenerational and seriously impacting on people's lives. Between 2013-2015, around 200 families took part in our early years programme in Middlesbrough. As a result of taking part in the programme, more children in Middlesbrough are achieving a Good Level of Development at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage, closing the gap with the national average from 22.6% in 2013 to 6.3% in 2015.
Businesses also have a vital role to play in raising UK literacy levels. Last year, as part of the National Literacy Forum, we launched the Vision for Literacy Business Pledge 2016. 44 businesses, including KPMG, Sainsbury's, Costa and Boots Opticians, signed up to the Pledge and ran a number of literacy initiatives within their workforces and communities.
It's important that we maintain a clear, comprehensive and consistent picture of the reading skills, behaviours and attitudes of our children. We need to know how well we are serving them and the challenges they are likely to face in secondary school and in life. Good data and evaluation, produced on a collaborative basis, will be absolutely vital in achieving our aims. We have a long way to go, so we must start now.
As a member of the Fair Education Alliance, an article by Jonathan Douglas has been included in a collection of essays titled 'Building a World Leading Education System that is Fair'. The essays were published on Monday 5 December, ahead of the OECD's PISA results for 2015.