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UK: An illiterate child’s future makes grim reading…

By Vicki Soutar, Solicitor and Volunteer

Grace, ten, reads with her Born to Read volunteer Vicki at her school in Tunbridge Wells
Vicki reads with Grace, 10, as part of the Born to Read campaign (Jo Metson Scott/Save the Children)

I’ve spent my whole working life dealing with defendants and fairly early on it struck me that at least once a day I would come across a defendant who couldn’t read or write.

We may know that there’s a connection between illiteracy and the kind of reduced options that often lead to crime but it’s startling to see that theory in front of you every day.


Illiteracy ruins futures

Children who struggle to read and don’t get any support will get frustrated; many then opt out of the system altogether.

If you can’t read well, you can’t engage with the world around you in a conventional way: education and many jobs are closed to you but criminal activity, violence and gang life are not.

I was stunned at the number of offenders whose literacy was so low that they could not read the oath in court. Something, I felt, must be done, so I started to look around for a literacy project to get involved in.


The joys of volunteering

I began volunteering as a reading helper in a local primary school. I love being with the children. It’s great to see their reading skills improve: it’s much easier for a child to learn to read when young than once they have fallen behind, when all kinds of special support and intervention is necessary.

Still, I think it’s just as important that I’m conveying my own love of reading and sharing the stories that meant a lot to me when I was a child. Basic skills are important, of course, but reading should be a lifelong joy, not just a tool.

I help as much as I can, but it’s not enough. An unbelievable 40% – almost half – of poor children leave primary school below the expected reading level. My work has shown me the dismal consequences that this can have for many of those children’s futures.

Chloe, ten, reads a book with her Born to Read volunteer Vicki at her school in Tunbridge Wells
Chloe, 10, reading with Vicki as part of Born to Read (Jo Metson Scott/Save the Children)

It shouldn’t happen here

The UK is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. It’s bad enough that we have 3.5 million children growing up in poverty: the circumstances in which they live should certainly not be allowed to determine their educational achievement and thus their opportunities as adults.

But if those children leave school unable to read, that is precisely what is happening.

Every child, whatever his or her economic situation, should leave primary school reading confidently and ready to face their future. That’s a reasonable ambition, and it starts with reading. Just ten minutes a day of parents reading to their children can make a huge difference.


Ensuring children read confidently by 11

Outside the home, projects like Save the Children and Beanstalk’s Born to Read programme do vital work in ensuring that children leave primary school reading confidently; they rely on volunteers – and of course, on donations. If you would like to help, find out more here.

However, it’s also up to our government to tackle this inequality. Party leaders must ensure that by 2025, all children leave primary school reading well.

I have joined thousands of others across the country in calling on them to commit to this, but the more voices raised in protest, the more likely we are to be heard. Please sign the petition today.

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