The fear that 1.5 million British children will reach the age of 11 unable to “read well” by 2025 has prompted the launch on Monday of a new campaign backed by a coalition of businesses, charities, bestselling authors and teaching professionals.
The Read On. Get On campaign is aimed at making a radical improvement in reading standards one of the central goals of politics and education in the next decade. It is being spearheaded by Save the Children, the CBI and the Teach First charity and is unusual in the diversity of its supporters – they include authors JK Rowling and Michael Morpurgo plus a host of book publishers, the Sun newspaper and the Premier League.
One aim is to get the main political parties to include in their 2015 manifestos a commitment to improving the reading of the most disadvantaged.
The campaign, chaired by Dame Julia Cleverdon, defines “reading well” as being able to read, understand and discuss books such as Harry Potter and Treasure Island.
A specially commissioned report says England is one of the most unequal countries for children’s reading levels, second in the EU only to Romania. The gap between the strongest and weakest readers is equivalent to seven years of schooling. The report calls for a concerted effort from all corners of society.
The report is claimed to be the “most comprehensive study of pre-school and primary school-aged children in a generation” and has found disadvantaged children are the worst affected, with 40% not reading well by the age of 11 – almost double the rate of their better off peers.
Research commissioned for this report, including by Newcastle University, CentreForum, National Foundation for Educational Research and the National Literacy Trust, also finds:
• GDP in 2025 could be £32bn higher if action had been taken to ensure all children were reading well by the age of 11.
• A wide “book gap” in Britain has emerged, with almost a quarter of 11-year-olds in the poorest families having fewer than 10 books in their home.
• While books remain popular, the most commonly read material by children is now text messages with websites and ebooks also growing in popularity.
Cleverdon said: “It is tragic and unfair that children from the poorest families and the most deprived communities are least likely to read well at the age of 11 in the UK – one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
“Four out of 10 children on free school meals who struggle to read will also struggle to gain the educational opportunities and life chances that they need to flourish.”
She added: “The UK has the strongest link among developed nations between poor literacy and unemployment. This is a ticking timebomb for our long-term competitiveness. We know too that the die is cast early. By the age of three we can already see the clearest correlation between family income and the vital language development that leads to reading. This is not just a task for our schools – vital as they are.”
The problems of reading are deepest among the poor, boys, coastal town dwellers and ethnic minorities.
Other research for the campaign shows while just three years earlier, in 2010, children were most likely to be reading books if they were reading outside of school hours, by 2013, while books remain popular, the most commonly read material was text messages.
The campaign defines reading well as achieving, in educationalists’ terms, an equivalent to a current level 4b, a significant step up from the current expected level. The group has set interim targets of all children achieving good early language development by the age of five by 2020, and to be at least halfway to achieving the 2025 goal for 11-year-olds by 2020.
One in six adults in Britain now has a literacy level below that expected of an 11-year-old. In 2013 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that England’s 16–24-year-olds have literacy levels no better than their grandparents’ generation.
Read On. Get On aims to create a nation of strong readers by supporting parents to read with young children for 10 minutes a day and urging the public to volunteer to help disadvantaged children improve their reading. It will also seek to build a powerful coalition of the UK’s most influential public, private and charitable organisations to pledge support.
Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children, said: “Read On. Get On is not just about teachers, charities and politicians – it’s about galvanising the nation so parents, grandparents and volunteers play their part in teaching children to read.
“We want every child to be given a fair and equal chance to learn to read well, regardless of their background.”
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) – part of the coalition – said: “This new campaign has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of Britain’s youngest readers. Recent results for key stage 2 are impressive and show that 79% of 5-11-year-olds are now reading well. This gives us a strong foundation but there’s also evidence that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are still struggling.”