The Cost of Illiteracy

The evidence is overwhelming - illiteracy holds many back and negatively impacts all of us.

Studies show a positive correlation between illiteracy / functional illiteracy and crime: half of UK prisoners have a reading age of an 11 year old or below, a figure that rises to 80% in the case of writing. Despite the Prison Service Order 4205, which makes statuary provision for learning and accreditation opportunity in the prison system, over 50% of prisoners do not possess the necessary skills for 96% of today’s jobs. While one in two prisoners cites employment planning as being the most important aspect of their sentence plan, a measured two thirds leave prison without immediate prospect of paid employment. Within two years, two thirds of adult prisoners will have reoffended.    

While it’s possible to overstate the correlation (between illiteracy and crime), there’s little doubt that, among the population at large, those who struggle to read are more likely to be unemployed or on a low wage, to be to need state support, and to struggle with health problems such as obesity and depression. For the individual, it’s a serious impairment to their quality of life. For the taxpayer it’s a huge cost.  In a recent survey carried out in 24 countries last October the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ‘found that England and Northern Ireland was ranked 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy’, surmising that ‘this low level of adult skills inevitably impacts on the success of the economy as a whole.’ Indeed, it has been estimated that over the course of an individual’s lifetime, the taxpayer can end up spending up to £64,000 supporting someone with poor literacy skills.

The problem of low literacy levels among significant numbers of adults with criminal records, reduced employment opportunities and related social and health problems can be traced as far back as the early years of children from specific socio-economic backgrounds. Of all the four and five year olds starting out at school, those who live in poverty and those for whom English is a second language are particularly likely to struggle with literacy. Further obstacles include the fact that generally speaking, boys at this age develop slightly later than girls, meaning that they make up 68% of all children struggling to read. Finally and perhaps unsurprisingly, those children born in the summer months are disproportionately represented in the low-attainment group.   

Supporting children who are struggling to read is expensive. Special educational needs support in the classroom, perhaps an educational psychologist, and the cost of maintaining a statement over many years, all cost a huge amount of money. In economic terms, for a primary school providing this initial investment the costs are highly likely to outweigh the benefits they will witness. Still, once children arrive at school, investment at this stage can still make a huge difference. KPMG auditors estimate that every pound spent tackling literacy difficulties before children reach the age of seven generates a "return on investment" of between £11 and £17 over a lifetime, as an individual’s life chances are improved.

Clearly, the earlier we intervene, the better. The trade off society-wise is significant. It’s so much harder to get a struggling adult into the position of engaging in learning how to read than it is a struggling child of 5 years old, who must be at school, and who is there to learn. Over the course of a school career and lifetime, proper investment in an estimated 79% of cases will raise the literacy level of an individual and ultimately deliver long-term rewards to the individual and savings for us all. Most importantly, it’ll save lives.

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