Britain’s battle to get to grips with literacy is laid bare in H is for Harry

Life repeats itself, Grant says dejectedly. “It’s just repeat, repeat, repeat. I had it, my dad had it, and now my son’s going to have it.” He’s talking about illiteracy, which has trapped his family in poverty and shame for generations. But Grant is desperate to break the cycle. The Observer reports.

His hopes are pinned on his son, Harry, the engaging star of a new documentary that tracks the boy’s struggles with reading and writing during his first two years at secondary school. H is for Harry is released in cinemas on World Book Day on 7 March and will be shown to MPs in Westminster two days before.

Harry is a white working-class boy, the demographic that does least well at school. His story shines a light on a scarcely believable fact: that in the 21st century, in one of the most developed countries in the world, one in five children leave primary school unable to read or write properly.

Nine million adults in the UK are functionally illiterate, and one in four British five-year-olds struggles with basic vocabulary. Three-quarters of white working-class boys fail to achieve the government’s benchmark at the age of 16.

Functionally illiterate adults are more likely to be socially isolated and lack self-esteem. Books, newspapers, email, the internet, forms, road signs, bank accounts, instruction leaflets, written directions: all are beyond their reach. They are unable to help their children with schoolwork, reinforcing a cycle of illiteracy. On top of that, there is a pervasive sense of shame and secrecy. “It’s a lifelong disability,” said Fiona Evans of the National Literacy Trust (NLT).

According to a charity working with families and in schools in south London, early intervention is the key to breaking a cycle of intergenerational poverty. “At Harry’s age, the speed of academic progress required is just too much for such huge gaps to be closed,” said Teresa Harris, the founder of Learn2Love2Read.

It works one-to-one with children in the first years of primary school and with pre-school toddlers, using “a whole family approach, encouraging and equipping parents so they can help with their children’s reading at home”.

Harry is 11 before he gets one-to-one specialist help from newly qualified teacher Sophie. The relationship between the two is central to the film: Sophie, encouraging, positive, empathetic; Harry, mostly charming, sometimes surly, occasionally angry.

Grant was also a crucial figure. “He’s passionate about Harry’s education but he doesn’t possess the skills to help. There’s not much support for adults like Grant out there,” said Ed Owles, one of the directors. 

1 in 5 Children left primary school in 2018 unable to read or write properly (DfE)

£37bn Estimated yearly cost of functional illiteracy to the UK economy (World Literacy Foundation)

17th Where the UK ranks for literacy among 34 OECD countries. It ranks 15th for numeracy. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation)

Read the full article Britain’s battle to get to grips with literacy is laid bare in H is for Harry

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  1. Anonymous

    Simply elevate ‘white’, ‘working class’ and ‘boy’ to the top of the hierarchy of protected characteristics and plough as much money and as many resources into them as the rest of the ‘victims’ get.

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