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The struggle for literacy

7 March 2011

World Book Night was brilliant and World Book Day its usual effective self. But what about the literacy campaign which lies behind the whole operation?

It is a shocking statistic that one in six people in the UK struggle with literacy. The figure is better in many European countries and worse in the US and many others. What is clear is what a terrible loss this is for them, how it reduces their life chances in every way, barring them from decent jobs and sapping their self-confidence.

Speaking at the launch of the latest Quick Reads last week Random House CEO Gail Rebuck, Chair of Quick Reads, proudly rolled off the stats: 60 titles now available, 3m books distributed, 2m loaned by libraries, 86% of those who'd acquired literacy skills as adults reporting increased confidence, 50% better job prospects. "But adult literacy in the UK is still a serious problem - one in six adults struggles with reading. How did we get to this point?" Rebuck asked. "Is it a failure of education, a failure of aspiration or a generational failure?"

Rebuck spoke of her grandfather: a tailor, he had come to Britain alone, aged 15, fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe. He established a highly successful tailoring business, yet he could neither read or write. "He died in 1952, the year I was born, so I was never able to ask him why. But I've often wondered how much more successful he'd have been if he'd acquired those skills."

In this difficult economic time, it is nonetheless a shock to find that the Big Society seems to mean so little in terms of supporting the crucial issue of literacy. All across the UK local councils are closing libraries, as they react to the swingeing cuts they have suffered from local government, even though the connection between libraries and literacy is clear. Their defence is that they would rather cut libraries than services to the elderly, or other frontline services, and it is a hard choice, but there's a widespread feeling that local authorities pay their senior staff too much and have become too much like big bureaucracies, squandering their council tax income. Surely a way could be found to keep these libraries open?

The National Literacy TrustUK-based organisation which has campaigned since 1993 to improve literacy standards across all age groups. Excellent research information and details of the many initiatives the charity is currently involved in. It also has a useful page of news stories on UK literacy, which links to newsletter, which campaigns for literacy across the country and which successfully ran the National Year of Reading not long ago, hugely increasing the number of children's library memberships, has just had its funding cut by 40%, a whole £1 million, which must surely be irreplaceable, even with the appeal they have just launched. And this is vital work.

Anthony Horowitz, who gave the Simon Hornby memorial lecture last week said: "One in six people in the UK struggle with literacy - which is to say that they have the reading level of an eleven-year old. A quarter of young people don't recognise the link between reading and success even though men and women with poor literacy are least likely to be in full-time employment by the time they are thirty. These are all NLT findings and you might add to them a survey by the Reader's Digest last year that found that one in twenty children have never actually read a book at all - a figure which, in this golden age of children's literature, the age of JK Rowling, I found incomprehensible."

Quick Reads

National Literacy Trust appeal