Reaching one community at a time

Jonathan Douglas
Thursday, 4th April 2019

Jonathan Douglas reports on the significant impact of joint initiatives with publishers to tackle the growing problem of illiteracy

Literacy remains one of the UK's biggest challenges. One in six adults lacks basic literacy skills* and, as a result, faces a high risk of unemployment, poverty, poor health and crime**. Add to this the fact that low literacy is set to cost the UK economy £32.1 billion by 2025*** and you start to see the immensity of the challenge we face.

UK business is increasingly recognising that it has a key role to play in addressing this challenge. This year, 74 businesses from a wide range of sectors have signed the Vision for Literacy Business Pledge, committing to tackling low literacy in their workforce, in the local communities where they work and on a national level. But no single industry has the power to transform the UK's literacy profile like the book industry.

Countless initiatives over the past two decades have shown how publishers, booksellers, authors, poets and illustrators have an unparalleled ability to get the nation reading, especially when working in partnership with libraries, charities and schools. Industry-backed campaigns such as World Book Day, the National Year of Reading, the Summer Reading Challenge and Bookstart have been transformational.

The UK's literacy challenge is now more specific than ever before. Working with Experian, we have 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 - providing publishers with unrivalled insights into where their campaigns can be targeted to make the biggest difference.

To date, we have set up nine Literacy Hubs in these communities, bringing together local partners in decade-long campaigns to transform literacy levels for an entire generation. 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, the attainment gap with the national average has halved*****.

There is no silver bullet. The impact we are seeing in these communities is a result of multiple partnerships, campaigns and interventions. But the message is clear: if we focus tightly on the places where the literacy challenge is sharpest, we can make a meaningful difference to children's lives.

The active ingredient that brings literacy alive and makes reading irresistible in these communities is the engagement of the book industry. That's why we were so delighted that, in his inaugural speech as president of the Publishers Association, Charlie Redmayne (CEO of HarperCollins UK) announced the launch of the Literacy Project - enabling the National Literacy Trust to help publishers channel their incredible assets into boosting literacy and social mobility in the UK's poorest communities.

Masses of activity is already underway as part of the project. In the early years space, several publishers have committed to working in communities where large numbers of five-year-olds are starting school with poor language and communication skills.

Early Words Together
In Glasgow, employees from HarperCollins UK's local distribution centre are volunteering on our Early Words Together programme, which has already given 170 disadvantaged parents in the city the skills and confidence to support their children's language development at home. In Nottingham, Scallywag Press illustrator Rose Robbins helped us design A5 flyers for our Christmas book gifting campaign, encouraging parents to read and chat together with their young children. And in the North East, Penguin Random House has provided us with funding, books and intellectual property - including the iconic Peppa Pig and Spot the Dog - to help get key literacy messages out to parents who are traditionally hard to reach.

Puffin World of Stories
Penguin Random House has also been making huge strides in the primary space, where almost twice as many children from disadvantaged communities leave school unable to read and write well compared with their better-off peers******. Working together, we have launched a new pilot programme, Puffin World of Stories, which gives primary schools in deprived parts of the North East, London and Essex the books, materials, training and resources they need to champion reading for pleasure across the whole school and reinvigorate their school libraries.

Words for Work
HarperCollins UK has picked up the gauntlet in the secondary space, committing to improve the communication and employability skills of young people in Stoke-on-Trent, where half of all secondary students failed to get good grades in GCSE English language and maths last year*******. They are also sponsoring our Words for Work employability programme, and donating books to local secondary school libraries; bestselling author Mel Sherratt, who lives in Stoke-on-Trent, has been secured as an ambassador for the campaign to help raise students' aspirations.

Literacy Hubs
Many publishers have donated books to children in our Literacy Hubs, notably Walker Books and Dorling Kindersley, and Penguin Random House has committed to gifting 150,000 books to children and families in these communities as part of our Charity of the Year partnership.

We are working also with Pan Macmillan on some exciting plans to celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Gruffalo across our Literacy Hubs, and Bloomsbury has brought Kid Normal authors, and Radio 1 broadcasters, Greg James and Chris Smith to our latest Literacy Hub in Hastings.

We are in the process of developing partnerships with Elsevier, Bonnier, Faber, Sage and Nosy Crow, and we have many more publishers to meet with in 2019. This is just the beginning of this publisher-powered movement to support literacy in the UK, harnessing the passion of the industry and the unique creative assets that it can bring to bear on the nation's literacy crisis. Together, we are using the power of the written word to change children's life stories.

* OECD (2016) Building Skills for All: A Review of England, Policy Insights from the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)
** National Literacy Trust (2018) Literacy and Life Expectancy
*** Read On. Get On (2014) How Reading can Help Children Escape Poverty
**** Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2012) Skills for Life Survey 2011
***** Department for Education (2017) Early Years Foundation Stage Profile Results: 2016 to 2017
****** Department for Education (2018) Key Stage 2 and Multi-academy Trust Performance, 2018 (revised)
******* Department for Education (2018) GCSE Results for England, 2018 (provisional)

Photos: (top) students on HarperCollins' Words for Work programme; (above) a young reader benefiting from HC's Early Words Together

Jonathan Douglas is director of the National Literacy Trust.

This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch London Book Fair Show Daily.