Literacy: Life and Death

A blog feature image showing a silhouete of a child reading against a sunset with the title 'Literacy: A Matter of Life and Death' over the top

Literacy ought to be a topic of concern for any author, since – obviously – it goes straight to the heart of what we do, but even we don’t appreciate quite how much it has become a matter of life and death.

Few people do, apparently, but a report from the National Literary Trust (NLT) has opened the book on this largely ‘unread’ aspect of England’s socio-economic divide. It appears that children growing up in areas with the highest literacy problems can expect to die more than a quarter of a century earlier than their more literate counterparts.

Literacy is more than Reading & Writing

A sobering thought for sure, but it’s not the lack of reading and writing skills that’s the killer. No, rather the deficit in literacy skills serves to signal the presence of a cocktail of disadvantage that combine to curtail life expectancy.

In a society such as ours, of course, a lack of reading and writing skills will reinforce deprivation, locking people into a cycle of poverty. It’s no doubt tempting for some to write the illiterate off as ‘stupid’. Well, it’s one way to ‘solve’ the problem – redefine it and shift the blame – but it does little to alleviate deprivation.

Poverty and Learning: A Locked Cycle

Children who are raised in cold and damp homes (of which there are many in England) are going to struggle with education; likewise, when one is hungry and stressed from the insecurities of a life in poverty, the focus required for learning is harder to grasp. None of this is rocket science; those who care about such things have known it for generations.

Still, deprivation is left to fester, shrivelling children’s futures by diminishing the scope for them to learn essential foundation skills such as reading and writing. What’s more, it increases the likelihood that these conditions will be passed on to their children, locking in social exclusion from one generation to the next. It’s a cruel punishment for what is essentially society’s failure to address basic needs.

A father reading a picture book to a baby sitting on his knee

The cycle of illiteracy creates cross-generational poverty.

Breaking cycles of deprivation isn’t easy, of course; even when there’s the political will to make the effort (which has been sadly lacking in England these last years of austerity). It helps to know the symptoms, though, and how they reflect the underlying problems, which is where the NLT’s report comes in.

Literacy & Life Expectancy: NLT Report

Literacy & Life Expectancy is apparently the first research report to ever establish a link between the two through health and socio-economic factors in England. A series of follow-on reports will be released throughout 2018 to mark the organisation’s 25th anniversary but – more importantly – to emphasise why literacy is more important than ever.

The report also builds on the findings of a study carried out in 2008 (Literacy Changes Lives), in which the NLT established a relationship between literary and life chances through the lenses of physical and mental health, economic well-being, family life, civic engagement, and crime.

This latest research was carried out with the help of Experian. It crunched electoral ward level data on the communities at the greatest risk of “serious” literacy problems, along with life expectancy data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Public Health England. What it found was a stark national difference in life expectancy correlating with levels of literacy.

Digging Into The Details

Children born into communities with the most serious “literacy challenges” are those who are more likely to live in deprived areas, the research found. They do worse at school, they are less financially well off, have poorer health – and they have some of the lowest life expectancies in England.

In some respects, it sounds like the equivalent of asking where a bear answers a call of nature; yes, it’s in the woods, but where exactly? We don’t know the details until we’ve got our hands dirty with some proper research. We shouldn’t be surprised that low literacy levels have some correlation with deprivations that reduce life expectancy, but that’s not the same as knowing.

So a boy born in Stockton town centre (one of ten in the ranking for literary vulnerability) has a life expectancy that is 26.1 years shorter than a boy born in North Oxford (10 of 10). While a girl born in Queensgate, Burnley (one of ten) has a life expectancy that is 20.9 years shorter than a girl born in Mayfield, Wealdon (10 of 10).

An old run-down apartment block

Socially deprived areas are common in every city.

The divide isn’t just national, however: the research found significant inequalities between wards in the same local communities. In Middlesbrough, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, for instance, a boy born in the ward of North Ormesby (one of 10) has a life expectancy of 71.4 years – 11.6 years shorter than a boy born just two miles away in Marton East (eight of 10) who can expect to live to 83. The gap for girls, meanwhile, is 9.4 years.

Closing the Literary Divide

“If we are to truly transform the life chances of the nation’s most disadvantaged children, we must tackle low literacy one community at a time,” said Jonathan Douglas, director of the NLT.

“The National Literary Trust already runs long-term literacy campaigns in seven of the most deprived regions, cities and towns in the country, but [this] report shows that we still have a mountain to climb.

“We want to double our presence in local communities in our 25th year, and ensure that every child in England has the chance to live a happy, healthy, successful and long life, regardless of their background.”

Sadly that aspiration runs rather contrary to recent Government policy. That’s not to say ministers have embarked on a deliberate play to limit the life chances (and life spans) of England’s children, but it can be said that this has been the inevitable side effect of austerity.

The issue of poverty and problems with literacy pre-date austerity, of course: still, it adds a cruel twist to the situation.

Over the last few years, the impact of the Government’s policies on some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society has been examined in detail by academic institutions, thinktanks, parliamentary committees, charities, campaign groups and more. Reams of reports have laid bare the cruelties of austerity. Together, they present a grim picture of modern Britain. The NLT’s new report, sadly, is but one more for this bibliography of woe.

Where does this leave authors?

We’re no different to any other concerned (or indifferent) citizen; we’re not entirely powerless, but we can’t write these social issues out of existence either. Would that we could. But we can surely be rather more aware of such issues, and do our bit to spread the word.

After all, one might say we have something of a vested interest in the matter. How many potential readers – fans even – are we losing to these emerging ‘dead zones’ of literacy? For that matter, how many writers are being muted before they even find their literary tongues?

In a way, it’s about diversity. Sure, life chances are the immediate concern. But beyond that, if we are to avoid becoming a monocultural reflection of a homogeneous audience, then we surely need a diversity of readers, every bit as much as we need a diversity of writers.

Literacy is our lifeblood, in more ways than one. We ignore it at our peril.


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