Literacy enables people to be part of society

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The Riots, Communities and Victims Panel recently published a report which highlighted poor literacy as one cause of last summer’s UK riots.

Literacy is crucial, and good literacy skills are essential for personal success. Good literacy is not just a question of education. It enables people to be fully part of society.

How do you use the internet if you can’t read? How do you decide who to vote for? Which ready meal is the healthy choice? How do you complain about your gas bill or apply for a job? In short, how do you make informed decisions about your life if you can’t read or write well?

So that’s it then! Poor literacy makes people riot. It’s the school’s fault.

Or is it? People have choices. Those people stealing from shops they had wrecked knew it was wrong. Some people did feel rage and alienation from society. But plenty were literate, out for a thrill and a free giant TV. There were no riots in Portsmouth, but there are plenty of people with poor literacy skills; why is that?

There IS a literacy issue in our country, and an issue around marginalised families, but quick-fix solutions will not solve the problem – least of all fining schools for poor literacy, which is what the ‘riots’ panel says.

Research shows the development of deprived children is already significantly delayed by the age of three. Before we blame the parents, it is likely they too had a deprived up-bringing, and have literacy issues. Deprived families tend to have worse health and poorer school attendance.

It’s not just about money. Many people on low incomes manage well. They have a good set of skills and knowledge, including literacy, which helps them cope. But most deprived parents do not have these advantages.

Should schools do more about literacy? Definitely! Should they be fined for poor literacy? No way! Schools know literacy is important – but making a difference with troubled families is easier said than done.