Literacy, reading, education & the cultural environment

Innovation cannot flourish without a strong cultural environment which encourages and rewards imagination and creativity.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. SF had been disapproved of for a long time. At one point I took a top official aside and asked him what had changed? "It's simple," he told me. "The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Neil Gaiman

Literacy

We were pleased to see support in the Government's Green Paper for improving the UK’s literacy levels, but surprised that literacy has been omitted from the description of the ten pillars. As the Reading Agency points out:

  • Low levels of literacy cost the UK an estimated £81 billion a year in lost earnings and increased welfare spending, impacting on 'the success of the economy as a whole' 
  • Per capita incomes are higher in countries where more adults reach the highest levels of literacy proficiency and fewer adults are at the lowest levels of literacy. 
  • 16 year-olds who choose to read books for pleasure outside of school are more likely to secure managerial or professional jobs in later life.
  • In England and Northern Ireland the median hourly wage of workers with the highest levels of literacy is 94% higher than for workers who have the lowest levels of literacy.

We believe that a thorough review should be made of the UK’s strategies for teaching literacy. Evidence does not support the Government’s emphasis on phonics and grammatical structure. As our members writing for children wrote in 2016 a their statement on the teaching of writing:

We are worried that when the Government steps in too far, the resultant teaching no longer reflects what writing really does. This happens, for instance, when the Department for Education in England uses new terminology for grammatical structure (such as ‘fronted adverbs’), or states that exclamation marks must only end sentences that begin with ‘what’ or ‘how’. These practices risk alienating, confusing and demoralising children with restrictions on language just at the time when they need to be excited by the possibilities.

We want teachers to be allowed to give all children the chance to love language, play with words, be bold and creative, express themselves - and to learn proper control of language alongside these joyful experiences. Teachers must be allowed to teach the rules of writing in the context of supporting expression and control, not affording primacy to those rules. We condemn the trend towards more and more testing for the sake of testing. We echo the fears of primary school teachers that too many of the new tests for young children seem designed to show children failing.

And we are concerned to ensure that literacy teaching is available well beyond school, including in community centres and prisons.

Reading for pleasure

Reading for pleasure is about far more than just literacy. We believe that all children should be encouraged to read (and write) for pleasure- including reading non-fiction as well as fiction. There is strong evidence that reading for pleasure develops empathy, curiosity and imagination - all of which are essential skills for innovators. Diana Gerald, CEO of Book Trust, says:

We know that reading for pleasure has a dramatic impact on life outcomes - and this is as much about confidence and wellbeing as it is about educational achievements. Quite simply, children who read for pleasure are happier, healthier and do better in life than those who don't.

We support The Publishers Association's Reading Ambassadors scheme, which calls on all book lovers to become ambassadors for reading in their communities.

Creative education

We need to foster creativity by ensuring a wide creative education in all the arts.   As Darren Henley concluded in his 2012 review of cultural education:

The skills which young people learn from studying Cultural Education subjects help to ensure that the UK has over many years built up a Creative and Cultural Industries sector which is, in many areas, world-beating. There is a clear message from the Creative and Cultural Industries that the education which children and young people receive in school in Creative and Cultural subjects has a direct bearing on feeding into the talent pool for those who take up employment in this sector.

Sustained investment in providing young people with an excellent Cultural Education should form a key pillar of the government’s strategy for the long term growth of our Creative and Cultural Industries, both at a national and international level. It is vitally important that there is continued investment in giving the next generation of creative practitioners the tools and training necessary for the UK to continue its position of pre-eminence.

Diversity

There is no one-size-fits-all education system. Technological developments, robotics and digital solutions are changing workplaces in ways we cannot imagine. Many of our traditional jobs will not exist for the next generation. We will need people who are flexible, fleet of foot and ready to change. It is hard to predict what skills we will need but flexibility of mind, empathy, imagination and literacy, numeracy, digital and business skills are likely to serve our workforce better than fixed skills. The UK liberal arts education which is rightly prized worldwide should not be lightly dismissed. In particular we are against any education system which streams arts and science students apart or which encourages one path at a very early stage. Innovators have much to learn from other outlooks and that is lost if young people are streamed into different silos.

Bookshops

We believe that bookshops should be supported by appropriate rate and tax concessions and by efforts to protect the high street environment.