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If you’re reading this blog on your laptop or tablet, it’s probably difficult to imagine not being able to access or share information in this way. Written communication has become integral to modern life. To be illiterate is to be unable to fully participate in contemporary political, economic or cultural life. 

Whilst illiteracy was the norm for most people in most places for most of history, the UK led the way in reversing this trend from the beginning of the early modern period. During the Enlightenment, the aspiration for universal literacy was born and legislation instituting compulsory education followed in the nineteenth century.

Consequently, in the UK today, we tend to think of illiteracy as a problem of a bygone era. When politicians discuss education and skills, they are more likely to talk about training the computer programmers, engineers and medical professionals of the future, rather than aiding the almost nine million people in our country who are functionally illiterate; that being a person who can effectively engage in literacy which is required to function in their society. 

Detecting a neglected injustice, Jeremy Hunt rightly placed this issue at the heart of his leadership campaign during the summer. Illiteracy costs the UK £37 billion a year. The OECD has found a correlation between literacy proficiency levels and a country’s GDP per capita. With the UK ranked 17th amongst 34 OECD countries for literacy, failure to properly address this issue is having a detrimental impact on our prosperity and international competitiveness. With another OECD report revealing that England is the only developed country in which the literacy proficiency of young adults is lower than those approaching retirement, the risk is that the UK falls further behind in the future.

Illiteracy also has a huge individual cost, negatively affecting people’s health and economic prospects. In England, illiterate adults are more likely to be unemployed and three times more likely to report poorer health than those with advanced reading comprehension. A boy born in an area with the most serious literacy challenges such as Stockton Town Centre, is expected to live a quarter of a century shorter than a boy born somewhere with high literacy levels, such as North Oxford. Tackling illiteracy goes to the heart of addressing health inequalities.

Eliminating illiteracy is also integral to improving our mental health. Reading for pleasure can help adults with their mental wellbeing, and just 30 minutes of reading a week makes an individual 20% more likely to report greater life satisfaction. In our schools, children performing above the expected standard for reading are three times more likely to have high levels of mental wellbeing than their underperforming peers. Books can be an important tool in tackling the mental health crisis.

Equipping people with the reading and writing skills they need to fulfil their potential will also extend opportunity to the most disadvantaged in our society. Socioeconomic background has a profound impact on an individual’s standard of literacy. This trend can be detected from an early age, with 16% fewer disadvantaged pupils passing their phonics screening check in year 1 compared to all other students. Tackling illiteracy is integral to equalising opportunity and improving social mobility.

It is important to note that recent education reforms have had a positive impact on literacy standards in our schools. In 2018, 82% of 5 to 6-year olds met the expected standard in their phonics screening check, an increase of 25 percent since the introduction of the check in 2012. However, we still have a long way to go in ensuring that all young people leave school with the literacy skills they need to get on in life. Whilst illiteracy amongst teenagers in the UK is below the OECD average, it remains higher than in many of our international competitors.

In spring next year, the University of Oxford will once again play host to the World Literacy Summit. The UK should seize this opportunity to rediscover its historic role as a world leader in tackling illiteracy. The next government should focus investment in early intervention and improve access to books for children from deprived backgrounds. Meanwhile, we cannot forget the nine  million adults suffering, often in silence, under the scourge of illiteracy. The stigma surrounding illiteracy and a lack of awareness of adult services, prevents many from seeking the support they need. Promoting adult education can improve their job prospects and enable them to participate more fully in civil and political life. 

Improvements in literacy rates have long been a sign of socioeconomic progress. The success of the next government should be measured using this tried and tested metric.

James Cullimore is undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.