Why tackling poor literacy helps everyone, from city councils to CEOs

Recent statistics suggest almost 6 million adults in the UK have low levels of literacy. But I'm optimistic for change – after all, who wouldn't want to harness all that potential talent?

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I’ve run out of words and ways to describe the shocking statistics on literacy in the UK. A recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) survey showed that almost 6 million adults in England – 16.4% – are at the lowest level of proficiency in literacy.

What that means is an inability to read and understand the instructions on a medicine bottle. It rarely means not being able to read at all, but it does mean limited engagement in the political process and in the community. It limits the other skills people can learn; it restricts people to some jobs and not others; it prevents people from being promoted; it is strongly linked with poor health; and it can have an inter-generational impact, with children often under-achieving.

The headline figures still shock me. There are too many people unable to realise their talents, ambition and potential due to poor literacy. It is a national scandal.

It’s worth retaining some optimism, though. Every year for the last 25 years, the Learning and Work Institute has been giving adult learning awards to people who have been able to transform their lives through learning.

Karen Woods is a great example. She was an Adult Learner Award winner in 2014. She left school with no qualifications and low literacy levels. Reflecting on her life, Karen remembers that school was simply “a place to go to stay warm and dry” and learning and reading were “not for people like us – it just wasn’t a thing we did”.

She managed in clever ways to hide her literacy problems, both as a mother and while working. Then, in her late 20s, her (probably wise and knowing) boss asked her to go on a course and her life changed direction completely. After a tough first six months she rapidly moved on to learning at higher levels. Now in her late 30s, she is a published author of 13 novels.

So what can be done to help more Karens? Despite weak leadership nationally, I am optimistic about devolution. My optimism is based on the simple premise that local political, civic and business leaders know that success for a city or a region requires more adults to be in productive work. They know that a higher employment rate and higher productivity will make any place more successful. To achieve that, we need more people with good literacy.

On that premise, there are three areas for those leaders to focus on. The first is finding new ways to engage the many adults who lack confidence in their own ability to learn and progress. Offering “a course” or telling people that they lack basic skills and need a qualification just doesn’t motivate many people.

We’ve been piloting a better approach which helps people to do the things they want to do – for instance read to their kids, apply for a job, do some volunteering, or use a computer. The sense of satisfaction from being able to learn something is the hook to learning better literacy. We call this the Citizens’ Curriculum, and we want every part of the country to use it, because it works.

Leaders wanting their region to be more successful also need to break the intergenerational cycle of low achievement through family learning. All of the data shows that poor literacy is strongly associated with parental achievement and that getting parents learning with their children improves both of their chances of achieving.

The third focus has to be on the workplace. There are lots of people, like Karen, who need a manager or a colleague to encourage them to improve their literacy. There are great potential managers and leaders in entry-level jobs who are stuck because of their poor literacy. Just think of the talent that businesses could unleash if that barrier was removed.

So, three simple areas to focus on, with a big prize waiting. More than anything, we need devolved authorities to develop a new culture for their areas; a culture in which learning is the norm and poor literacy is unacceptable to all of us. Achieve that, and the resources will be found, and the support and learning opportunities provided. Maybe then we can move beyond the shocking statistics which haven’t improved for far too long.

David Hughes is CEO of the Learning and Work Institute, a thinktank and research organisation working in the UK and across Europe. 

This post is part of the New Statesman's Literacy Week.

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