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International Literacy Day: what now for the UK’s education system?

Today marks International Literacy Day. I have been fortunate enough to join a UNESCO conference with a theme of literacy teaching and learning in the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

773 million people lack basic literacy skills

Recently the EPI, Fair Educational Alliance and Unbound published their annual report in which they argue that the gap between the most disadvantaged pupils and their peers is now so wide it may never be closed. In reality, this means for generations to come pupils from less affluent backgrounds, who have Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) or are in care will trail the majority of pupils who do not face such barriers. Many of these young people with have long term difficulties with literacy.

At Driver Youth Trust, we frame difficulties with literacy in relation to special educational needs and disability. Yet international literacy day reminds us of the dynamic and interchangeable nature of accessing a good quality education on a global scale.

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented schools and teachers with the greatest of challenges. Adapting to the majority of pupils being out of school, implementing or improving technology infrastructure and grappling with exams will leave many wondering how they can ever make a difference to pupils who, even before Covid, were being left behind.

Educational inequality is getting worse

Schools can and do make a real difference, in even the most challenging circumstances, but they cannot overcome or even compensate for all the gaps in society. The sustainability of our system has been fundamentally challenged and the results suggest the educational inequality in the UK is getting worse.

The EPI report claims that, on average, disadvantaged young people are 22 months behind their peers; for those with SEND the picture is much worse. Our own research shows that 36% of pupils reach the expected standard in phonics in Key Stage 1, whilst 31% of children with speech, language and communication needs achieve the standard for reading in key stage 2. These trends continue throughout education.

Of course, education is not solely about exams results. We want to see a system which holistically embraces young people and their identities in order to help them overcome whatever barriers they face. 

What can we do?

The UN is calling on governments around the world to develop new strategies for improving literacy. In England, the government is preparing for a comprehensive spending review and education is likely to figure prominently given the ‘levelling-up’ agenda. We need a focus on:

  • People: a continued investment in the development of teachers and teaching assistants must be a priority. Significant improves have been made through the revised initial teacher training framework and the new early careers framework, but this needs to be expanded to ensure momentum is not lost.
  • Resources: many young people continue to lack access to basic equipment and technology, especially when working from home. The government’s programme of suppling IT equipment has been blighted by delays and it needs to include assistive technology for pupils with SEND.
  • Prosperity: the importance of cultural values should not be underestimated. Pupils who are motivated to read or write will develop more proficiency in those skills leading to better outcomes overall. For this, they need a rich diet of cultural experiences to explore and engage in literacy beyond dry catch-up lessons. 

What next?

Later this month we will be joining CLPE and First Story for The Future of Literacy Provision Virtual Roundtable, hosted by the Fair Education Alliance. Together with our education partners we will be discussing how we can ensure the importance of literacy for all pupils remains high on the government’s agenda. 

Chris Rossiter

Chief Executive, Driver Youth Trust

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