Children in areas most at risk of literacy problems likely to live shorter lives

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Children who grow up in areas that have the greatest literacy challenges are also likely to live much shorter lives than their peers, a study suggests.

It argues that there is a “staggering” gap in life expectancy between those living in communities at the highest and lowest risk of literacy problems.

For example, a boy growing up in a place that is among the most likely to have literary issues has a life expectancy around 26 years shorter than a boy living somewhere that is among the least likely, the National Literacy Trust (NLT) study calculates.

This information was then compared to official data on life expectancy.

“The national gap in life expectancy between children from communities with the highest and lowest vulnerability to literacy problems in the country is staggering,” the study says.

It calculates that a boy born in Stockton Town Centre – which is in the tenth of electoral wards most at risk of literacy problems – has a life expectancy 26.1 years shorter than a boy born in the North Oxford ward, which is among the tenth least at risk of literacy issues. This was the largest gap for males.

For girls, those born in Queensgate, Burnley, also among the areas most at risk of literacy problems, had a life expectancy around 20.9 years shorter than those born in Mayfield, Wealden in East Sussex, which again was among the areas least vulnerable to literacy issues.

“Children growing up in wards with the greatest literacy challenges in the country have significantly shorter life expectancies than those growing up in wards with the fewest literacy challenges.

“Whilst we recognise that the relationship between literacy and life expectancy is complex, our report finds that people with low levels of literacy are more likely to live in deprived communities, be financially worse off, and have poorer health – all of which are precursors for shorter life spans.

“The gravity of the extreme local inequalities in mortality makes the challenge to close the literacy gap between communities all the more urgent.”

NLT director Jonathan Douglas said: “The relationship between health, socio-economic factors and life expectancy is well established but this is the first time we’ve been able to see how literacy relates to longevity.

“The relationship is so deeply rooted that children growing up in communities with the most serious literacy problems in the country shockingly have life expectancies 26 years shorter than children from places with the fewest literacy problems.

“We now know that our efforts to improve the reading and writing skills of children from the poorest communities strike at the heart of inequalities that shorten life expectancy.

“If we are to truly transform the life chances of the nation’s most disadvantaged children, we must tackle low literacy one community at a time.”

Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), said: “For some time the link between good literacy levels, fulfilling careers and rewarding lives has been clear.

“Prospects for children who don’t achieve good literacy skills by the end of primary school are bleak. However, the gap in life expectancy between the areas with the highest and lowest risk of literacy problems highlighted by this report is shocking and warrants closer investigation.

“We must redouble our efforts to make sure that no child starts secondary unable to read and write well. The best way to do this is through the better use of evidence: looking at what has – and has not – worked in the past to give the best chance of success in the future.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “In January, we announced a new Centre of Excellence for Literacy Teaching that will set up a national network of 35 English Hubs across the country – backed by £26 million investment – to boost literacy skills in early years and primary education.

“On top of this, last year we launched our Social Mobility Action Plan, which sets out a range of action including targeting the areas that need the most support through the £72 million Opportunity Areas programme.

“This builds on the £2.5 billion we have provided to schools this year alone to help raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils through the Pupil Premium.”

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