Words matter: the role of literacy in combatting social exclusion

04 Oct 2019
Social inclusion blog - Bradford Inspiring Parents

Our Director Jonathan shares his thoughts on how literacy skills can help social inclusion for the The Vision Project.

Children who start school without the literacy, language and communication skills they need to learn and flourish will have their futures cut short before they’ve even started. As children they won’t be able to succeed at school, as young adults they will be locked out of the job market, and as parents they won’t be able to support their own child’s learning – putting social inclusion, and the chance to live in a fairer society, out of reach for generations of children.

To achieve social inclusion, children, young people and adults must have the literacy skills they need to be able to make sense of the world around them and their place in it. Yet 7.1 million adults in England don’t have the literacy skills they need to read a newspaper, understand a utility bill, make sense of the instructions on their medicine, fill out a job application form or navigate the internet.

Lacking vital literacy skills puts people at extreme risk of social exclusion. Indeed, extensive research shows that people with poor literacy skills are significantly more likely to experience poverty, live in poor quality housing, be unemployed, become a perpetrator or victim of crime, have poor physical and mental health, and even lead shorter lives.

Research also shows that the majority of literacy problems experienced in adulthood can be traced back to the early years. Children who have poor language skills at the age of five are six times more likely to fail to reach the expected standard in English at age 11, three times more likely to experience mental health problems as adults, and twice as likely to be unemployed aged 34.

The scale of the challenge we are facing is immense. Last year in England, more than 180,000 five-year-olds started primary school without the language, literacy and communication skills they need to learn, make friends and flourish.

This picture doesn’t improve as children grow up – in fact, it gets worse – with a quarter (25%) of 11-year-olds leaving primary school last year unable to read well and a third (36%) of 16-year-olds failing to get a good grade in GCSE English language.

For children from the poorest backgrounds, this challenge is even more acute. We know that children and young people from the poorest backgrounds are most at risk of falling behind when it comes to developing the literacy skills they need to succeed in life. In fact, the link between poverty, educational attainment and basic skills is stronger in England than in any other developed country.

To tackle the UK’s literacy challenge and give every child the literacy skills they need to reach their potential, regardless of their background, we must target our work in the places where we can make the biggest difference to children’s lives.

Working with Experian, we’ve been able to pinpoint the nation’s literacy cold spots – communities where as many as a third of the adult population is functionally illiterate, child poverty is rife, social mobility has stagnated and life expectancy hasn’t improved.

Using this analysis, we have established 12 Literacy Hubs and campaigns in towns, cities and regions where low levels of literacy and poverty are seriously impacting people’s lives, including Middlesbrough, Bradford, Stoke-on-Trent and the North East.

In our Literacy Hubs, we bring together multiple local stakeholders, including businesses, education, community, health and cultural organisations, to galvanise the whole community, its skills and assets in decade-long campaigns to improve local literacy levels and drive social mobility and inclusion.

Our approach is different in each place we work because every community has different needs and this is the best way to create long-lasting change. And we are starting to see evidence that place-based approaches can move the dial on literacy in the nation’s most disadvantaged communities.

When we began working with local partners in Middlesbrough, children from the town were starting school with some of the lowest communication, language and literacy skills in the country. Five years on and the attainment gap with the national average has halved.

During this time, we have delivered a range of interventions through our local partnerships, each with the aim of improving the early language skills of disadvantaged children in Middlesbrough. For example, we delivered targeted literacy interventions in nurseries, ran a town-wide advertising campaign with the local council to encourage parents to chat, play and read with their child every day, and worked with health visitors to provide new parents with information and advice on the importance of reading with their baby from day one.

Place-based working enables us to tackle intergenerational low literacy in areas of concentrated deprivation and give some of the most disadvantaged children and young people in our society the literacy skills they need to take control of their futures.

While there is no silver bullet, the message is clear: if we focus tightly on the areas where the literacy challenge is sharpest, we can make a meaningful difference to children and families’ lives and help them to become informed, empowered and active members of their communities and society.


Developing Health & Independence (DHI), a West of England based social exclusion charity are marking their 20th anniversary this year with The Vision Project. This series of articles, podcasts and events is exploring the question of how they can achieve their vision to ‘end social exclusion by ensuring that everyone has their basic needs met and is able to thrive by contributing to the richness and wellbeing of their community’. All articles and podcasts can be found on their website, and you can sign up to their newsletter for latest updates on the project.