Literacy levels in the UK have moved up the political agenda following the announcement by the Business, Innovation & Skills Committee (BISC) of an inquiry into reading skills. Separately, the Publishers Association has brought together 10 literacy charities under a “Reading for Pleasure” banner in an attempt to lobby more effectively.
The PA initiative, launched this week, aims to provide greater communication with publishers and a stronger dialogue with government. The 10 participating charities are Beanstalk, World Book Night, World Book Day, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace), The Reading Agency, Save the Children, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), BookTrust, the National Literacy Trust and Quick Reads.
The campaign has begun at a crucial time, with key witnesses to be called before BISC. Its deadline for written submissions was yesterday (6th February). Caroline Dinenage, Conservative MP for Gosport, said that the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD) report on the Programme for International Student Assesments (PISA) results suggested that despite billions of pounds of funding, literacy statistics had remained “stubbornly static”.
She said: “There are lots of charities focused on literacy doing different things. I think it would be really useful to question charities across the spectrum on how the money is spent and if it could be spent more effectively, because we don’t seem to be getting better results. And we need to get better results.” Dinenage said she would be looking for “creative” solutions.
The BISC session will also focus on what the government can do, and Conservative MP Matthew Hancock, who is responsible for literacy and numeracy, will give evidence. The government spent £178m on adult literacy in 2013, up 8.4% from 2012 (£164.3m), according to BISC—but records suggest that this figure is much less than what was spent by the previous administration. Dinenage said: “I agree it isn’t helpful to cut adult literacy funding but you have to be careful when quoting the figures because they come from different education budgets and departments have moved around.”
The PA denied that the umbrella scheme was in direct response to the BIS inquiry; it said it has been discussing the idea since the summer. Emma Hopkin, m.d. of Bloomsbury Children’s and Educational Publishing, said: “Literacy levels in the UK are shaming, and it is about making more noise and bringing all the voices together to send the same, louder message into government. Funds are so short from the government these days and charities have a really hard task on their hands, but of course everybody can always do more.”
Booktrust chief executive Viv Bird explained: “Bringing together publishers and charities will give us a focus to come up with really good ideas that we can then have a serious dialogue with the government about, which we haven’t got at the moment.”
Katie Fulford, special projects director at HarperCollins, agreed: “Lobbying with a more unified voice in this current environment [means] charities stand a better chance of achieving their aims.” Louise Johns-Shepherd, chief executive for CLPE, concurred: “Literacy is a life-long issue and the last thing we want is for charities to be working in competition with one another.”
A publisher portal will be launched on the PA’s website to provide details of the charities and directions on how publishers can get involved, as well as links to research reports. Joanna Prior, chair of the Trade Publishers Council, said: “There is a literacy issue in the UK and if we can work more cleverly we’ll be able to deliver better results and communicate issues to government.”
Technology helping readers
Technology is helping us read more than ever, a new study from Quick Reads, an initiative that supports adult emergent readers, has revealed. Of the 2,045 adults surveyed, almost half (48%) who used technology to read said it encouraged them to read more, with the average adult spending six hours a week reading.
In light of the news that one in five adults (22%) do not read for pleasure, the study showed that technology has had a positive impact on reading habits. A third (33%) of respondents said that when they read, they read for longer periods thanks to e-readers; 41% said being able to look up words they didn’t know on an e-reader had made reading easier; and 51% said being able to adjust the appearance of the text to suit them had also helped.
The research is being released concurrently with the six 2014 Galaxy Quick Reads, available from today (7th February): Jeffrey Archer’s Four Warned, Emily Barr’s Blackout, Lindsey Davis’ A Cruel Fate, Harriet Evans’ Rules for Dating a Romantic Hero, Lynda La Plante’s The Escape and Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Hidden.
Established in 2006, Quick Reads has published 123 of its specially commissioned shorter reads. The organisation’s chair Dame Gail Rebuck said: “Quick Reads goes from strength to strength, and it is wonderful to see six fantastic new books added to our vibrant backlist. We take a great pride in enabling adult emergent readers to start and finish their first book.”
Digital has also had a positive impact on improving children’s literacy too.
Booktrust’s chief executive Viv Bird told The Bookseller that when evaluating the results of last year’s Read For My School campaign—the national reading competition which involved 100,000 children from 3,675 schools—the literacy charity was “struck by how many children had read the books through the digital library that Pearson had provided; half of the children read the books digitally”. She added: “Anecdotally we found that a lot of the struggling, reluctant readers were coming into school earlier to read the books digitally. A lot of young children are growing up reading on digital devices as well as print books and digital offers great opportunities.”