Changing the story for the UK's poorest children #EducationMatters

About 8 years ago I was staying in a building where a literacy programme was running for young adults who needed a ‘fresh start’ and literacy help. As a group of home educators, late readers were nothing new to us, most of us there had at least one 8 year old who was not yet an independent reader but meeting a 17 year old for whom the written word was a complete mystery was something very new to me. With my privileged upbringing and schooling I simply couldn’t imagine it.

And then I chatted to this young man for a while and everything I understood about reading as a right changed. He was a nice lad but school had utterly failed him. It was the look in his eyes that stuck with me; his eyes were dead as we talked. He was all filled up with shame and failure and loss of hope and he didn’t have anything left in him to believe he could make it – but he was smart enough to know that if he didn’t, he was as good as lost.


As a home educator I’m cautious about pushing for children to be hauled through reading skills too early; I think we potentially do much damage by forcing ‘literacy’ on babies of four and five. Three of my four girls have cracked skillful, independent reading at age 8 or more but, tucked away at home and surrounded by books and stories, this didn’t matter at all. My girls have always been surrounded by the written word; they’ve read it, been read it, fallen asleep to CDs and iPods full of it.  All of them have come to reading naturally, assembling the skills in a supported, slow cooker environment until they were ready to fly alone. With the possible exception of Josie, who started school while still teetering on the brink of the moment where it all came together, it has just happened.

There are many things I’m proud of my girls for, but knowing they can sink happily into a good book gives me enormous pleasure. They are lucky girls in many ways but some of the greatest wealth they own is littered around the house like this photo – and they know it.

But here’s the thing.

In the UK 1 in 8 children leave primary school functionally illiterate. 50% of the people arrested during the London riots had been unable to read at age 11. It’s one thing to have a slow start – it’s quite another to never catch up. And our poorest children, the ones most compromised already in nearly every aspect of their life, are also living in a land without written stories.

Along with struggling to apply for jobs, read a recipe, hold down paid employment, read to their baby, read the side effects on a medicine bottle, follow safety labels, use eBay effectively and decipher their gas bill, they are going to live a life without stories.

It breaks my heart that there is a sizable portion of the children and young adults in this country who think Lucy Pevensie, Charlie Bucket, Harry Potter, Lyra Belacqua and Katniss Everdeen are characters in a film. It’s such a fast food snack of a way to know those worlds, those people, those ideas and thoughts.

I don’t think that should be anyone’s future.

And if that’s not enough to have you asking for my call to action, watch this:

I cried.

Beanstalk is the new name for Volunteer Reading Help and is taking part in a campaign with Save the Children to change the story for the children in the UK who need extra support to open the book on reading. My short brush with how schools can do this well, via Josie’s experience, has inspired me considerably. Home has still been the place that made the difference but a positive, resourced and supportive classroom has really helped give her confidence and every child should get that. Her experience was that once she assimilated the skills and acquired the desire, she just needed practice. You could sign up to be someone who helps children get that practice.

It’s just wrong that Britain, this isle of words, has children locked in poverty who are so far behind in learning to read that they may never catch up. Being seven is Too Young to Fail.

Popped home to give Bene some time but I don't do the train noises right and I have been summarily dismissed.

What you can do.

Find out about Born to Read, tweet and blog about it, using the hashtag #EducationMatters. Get involved in asking politicians to support reading and initiatives in classrooms so that we can change the story. Keep reading the blog posts asking for your help. Write a blog post. Be passionate about books and stories and the utter necessity that the children of today grow up ready to read about Narnia and District 12 to their children, while equipping them with the life skills they need to do the same when it is their turn to be parents.

We can’t carry on letting this slip away.

Please tweet this post and share it wherever you can and be a change maker. Share the link to the Save the Children campaign. Give your voice, your time and your influence to making sure we change the story for the future of the children of this country.

What now?

Tell me about your reading journey. Tell me about what is good and bad about how your kids are learning to read. Tell me the books you love, they loved. Instagram a picture of them reading, of the books in your house, of a picture they drew of their favourite story or character. If you write a blog post, even if it is just a quick photo and a few lines, leave me a link and I’ll tweet you and share your words. (My comments are follow links 😉 )

I’m going to sign up with Beanstalk, because ShareNiger taught me that if you want to change something, you have to actually do some of it yourself. What could you do?

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  1. Sarah says

    Lots of effort with child 1 – now a complete bookworm age 8, devouring several books a week and knowing Harry Potter much better than me.
    Much less effort with child 2 age 6 but he’s not far off child 1 in terms of ability. Surprises me with the words that he knows and can decipher, happily reading above his ‘reading age’. Tried reading eggs as he started school but he whizzed through in about 2 weeks as too easy for him. Child 3 age 3 tells herself stories made up to the pictures in the books. Wanting to learn her letters but neither of us are really that worried when she doesn’t get much more than o,s, and p since she has the interest and the desire to engage with the written word.

    Suppose my experience fits in with your comment “humans are driven to try and achieve this skill and, left to time it themselves, they’ll find the moment when the acquisition of literacy just becomes as logical a next step as walking and speaking.” since I didn’t really encourage child 2, it just seemed to happen. Having said that there would then be no excuse for any child not to gain the skill of reading so presumably the difference with the poorly literate children is the lack of reading material left lying around and the lack of parental engagement/ ability. A relative who is a teacher in a deprived area says that they have to be careful with improving childrens’ abilities beyond that of their parents as this causes all sorts of issues in the family home. They ended up setting up literacy classes for the parents so they were then able to engage with, understand and help their children in their own journey into literacy. I hadn’t even given that much thought but without supporting and teaching the parents, it would seem that any classroom based initiative focussed purely on the children has the potential to struggle. Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try though.

    Good luck with the volunteering – no idea how you fit it all in.

  2. says

    I very much remember a girl who couldn’t read when we left school, it must have been awful for her, I remember the awkwardness. The fact the teachers didn’t step in. I often wonder what happened to her. The system failed her. It also failed me but in my late teens and early 20’s I picked up the pieces; I discovered books. It doesn’t make up for all that I missed. I’m keen for my son to have a better relationship with reading than I did as a child.
    I agree, I think we do teach our children too young. I had huge reservations about my son learning at 5, and utterly refused to do anything before school towards reading. We’ve gone at his pace and it’s been wonderful. I still get frustrated with schools inability to praise him for reading at home regularly, as they promised they would. I get frustrated that they send a 5 year old boy home with a book about a girl buying flowers when we have specifically said he likes books about animals. He has me to advocate – not every child has that. It makes such a difference.
    Brilliant post – thank you.

  3. says

    Great post, Merry. I was a bit reluctant about joining the campaign as on the flip-side (as you mentioned) there is a lot of pressure for kids to learn to read before they’re ready. However, your post has brought the real, hard-hitting issues to the surface and has convinced me to get involved. Reading has utterly shaped my world and for all my determination to let Talitha learn at her own pace, it turns out her pace is faster than mine since, at 2, she is begging me to teach her letters. To think of how privileged she is to grow up so immersed in books and how frustrated and undermined she could be if I weren’t willing to encourage that interest now and in the years to come.

  4. says

    I cried :( such a shocking statistic, I had no idea that it was such a big problem. We grew up with books coming out our ears and I was often reading to the wee hours under my duvet with a torch, I just can’t imagine growing up without that. Will share your post and look at what else I can do to help.

    (P.S Sophia asked to learn her letters at 2.5 and at almost 4 seems to be making leaps and bounds with not much input from me, just a healthy diet of us reading to her and her ‘reading’ to herself. We also use reading eggs which she loves. Isaac (21 months) loves being read to though often gets himself into a right overexcited state if a tractor, train cat, dog or elephant is featured or if it is one of Jez Alborough’s Bobo books!)

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