Jayne Dowle: Why it is vital that we engage with the written word

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ONE of my most prized possessions is a marriage certificate belonging to my great-great grandmother. In the space where her name should be, it’s signed with an X. I was shocked to realise that Sarah couldn’t read or write. Sarah, however, was signing with a cross more than a century ago. She grew up in poverty and she would have left school when she was 12. What has shocked me even more is to hear that nearly half of poor children in Britain today are unable to read and understand books, newspapers and websites by the time they leave primary school.

A new report by Save the Children outlines the terrifying – there is no other word for it – truth about the state of illiteracy in this country. It finds that disadvantaged 11-year-olds are as much as seven years behind their more able peers when it comes to reading and writing. In the European Union, only Romania fares worse than us. We’re behind France, Germany, the Netherlands and a lot of other countries we regard as equals.

To tackle this, the charity is launching a major campaign to encourage politicians, schools, authors and celebrities to get children engaged with the written word. It is a step in the right direction, but let’s not assume this perilous situation can be solved with publicity stunts. The support of luminaries such as Sir John Major, who says that literacy is “vital for social mobility and our future prosperity as a nation”, is welcome. However, when a problem is as endemic as this, it needs everyone who has anything to do with children to recognise the scale of failure and do something about it.

What is going wrong in our primary schools if so many children are graduating without a grasp of the basics? I am not blaming the teachers. They can only teach what they are told to teach. Far be it from me to suggest yet another wave of reforms, but can I just make a suggestion from a parent? Too many children are put off reading because they see it as a chore. Rather than welcoming it as the key to opening up other worlds, all too often it’s regarded as yet another box to tick.

My daughter Lizzie, who is eight, loves reading. She reads anything and everything, from this newspaper to every road sign when we are going anywhere. Yet she stresses about her “performance” at school because she is not on the “top level” for her year despite her enthusiasm and aptitude. When I spoke to her teacher about it, she looked weary and showed me the official strictures by which she is obliged to grade the children in her class. I understood her position, but still, it’s ridiculous that a bright and curious child should have her confidence dented like this.

What hope for other, less-able children if Lizzie feels undermined? They switch off entirely and decide that reading and writing is not for them. And then they move up to secondary school without the basic tools for learning. No wonder there are so many problems with discipline and disorder in the classroom. These young people are entirely ill-equipped to even begin to engage with their work. And they may not have any support at home.

As they move up through the system, not only do they fail themselves but they disrupt others around them. At my son’s Year Seven parents evening, his English teacher openly admitted that there are youngsters in his class who he can’t even begin to teach because they lack the fundamentals. It is not his job to play catch-up. It is his job, however, to enrich their learning and prepare his students for the 
adult world.

For a start then, I would ask for less obsession over grading children at an early age and more emphasis on encouraging them. Turning a child off reading before they leave primary school sets them up for failure in later life, as another new report has found. MPs on the Business Innovation and Skills Select Committee are warning that there are too many adults in Britain with low levels of literacy and numeracy, trying to live their lives “without the skills that many people take for granted”. Imagine going through life without being able to read a newspaper, without being able to decipher a train timetable or comprehend the instructions for opening a bank account. Imagine a bill coming through the letterbox and not being able to work out what you owed, and then imagine having children of your own and being unable to help them with even the simplest of story books. We call ourselves a civilised country. We send aid abroad to help build schools in developing nations, but we ignore what is happening in front of us.

Yet illiteracy is the challenge which countless children – and adults – face, in this country, today. Not a more than a century ago when my great-great-grandmother was struggling to sign her own name, but right here, right now. That’s why we must all support the campaigners spelling it out on behalf of those who can’t even find the words to begin.