Seema Malhotra: World Book Day should renew the debate about early intervention

Posted On: 
7th March 2019

With the UK ranking 17th for literacy amongst OECD countries, World Book Day and all it stands for is needed more than ever, writes Seema Malhotra

Intergenerational illiteracy and its impacts are more widespread than we realise, writes Seema Malhotra
Credit: 
PA Images

Today is World Book Day 2019. Schools across the country will be seeing pupils and teachers dress up in character to bring to life stories that educate, entertain and enthral – nurturing a love of storytelling and literature.

To mark the occasion, I have tabled an EDM in support of the efforts on World Book Day in supporting literacy, calling on the House to celebrate World Book Day in the UK and Ireland which brings together authors, illustrators, books and reading. It congratulates World Book Day for its 22nd ‘World Book Day’ being held this year.

But it also notes the rather shocking statistic that the UK ranks 17th for literacy among 34 OECD countries. It’s far from a statistic to be proud of, and an urgent sign that World Book Day and all it stands for is needed more than ever. Further research by the National Literacy Trust shows that one in eight disadvantaged children in the UK does not own a book. And one in five children in England cannot read well by the age of 11 – a situation that will be set to hold back their educational achievement and life chances.

This week I hosted a screening in the House of Commons of the documentary H is for Harry ahead of its theatrical release and a panel discussion on how we can improve education outcomes for those from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds.

This powerful and unique documentary covers the story of charismatic 11-year-old Harry and his struggle with literacy. His father and grandfather were both unable to read. His father dreams that his son will have a better life than him. But breaking the cycle, Harry’s father reveals, is difficult, “it’s just repeat, repeat, repeat. I had it, my dad had it, and now my son’s going to have it.”

The documentary is based at Reach Academy in Feltham and has been described by the Sunday Times as "casting a spotlight on one of the biggest education scandals in Britain...heartbreaking.”

Many of the debates we have on literacy are led by academics and policymakers, but this unique film has achieved something very different. It approached the debate on intergenerational illiteracy, its impact on social mobility and educational disadvantage through the voice and story of a child and a parent – raising some uncomfortable truths and realities. It also shows the impact of a long summer holiday without resources or support playing a big part in rolling back a child’s progress, particularly those from a disadvantaged background.

What is clear here, and from the oversubscribed debate on school funding this week, is that we need to start a new debate about how we intervene early in a child’s life to give them the best chance to succeed. Cutting thousands of sure start centres and youth centres across the country have not been without consequences - Shadow Education Minister Tracy Brabin recounted a visit to a sure start centre where she met a mum who had learnt to read at the centre and then was able to read with her children.

To not be able to read when you leave primary school can have wider consequences. Teresa Harris, founder of Learn2Love2Read suggests that such a gap when you are 11 years old becomes very challenging to catch up, and a child’s development and learning in other areas is then also held back. As the old saying goes - first we learn to read, and then we read to learn. If you cannot read, learning in school gets that much harder. The link between illiteracy and crime also becomes all too evident, as well as social isolation and low self-esteem.

Intergenerational illiteracy and its impacts are more widespread than we realise. I hope this year that on World Book Day which encourages policymakers, schools, teachers and young people to work together to read, that we can renew the debate about early intervention. And at the very least we should pay tribute to the staff and teachers in schools across the nation for their efforts in delivering quality literacy education to young people, equipping them with the skills to reach their full potential.

Seema Malhotra is Labour MP for Feltham and Heston