Skip to main content

Women: Literacy

Volume 769: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they plan to take to improve the reading skills of 16 to 24 year-old women to ensure that they have a good start in life, and to support their well-being and social mobility.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I remind the House of my interests on this issue.

Being able to read well is essential. Poor literacy is associated with higher levels of unemployment and poorer health and well-being. We are improving literacy provision from early years through to adult education. More than 250,000 adult women achieved an English qualification, paid for by the Government, in the academic year 2013-14.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but we are in a perilous position. Literacy skills for 16 to 24 year-olds in England are at the bottom of the OECD charts, and we are one of the few countries where young people underperform their elders. More young women than men are not in education, employment or training and 70% of lone parents—mostly women—without qualifications are unemployed. Will the Minister tell the House how the Government are helping these vulnerable young women and their children break the cycle of underachievement? What does she believe will be the impact on the learning opportunities of the 9 million adults in England with poor basic literacy skills of the withdrawal of funds from many front-line literacy charities and the closure of libraries in some of our most deprived communities?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question which covered quite a range of issues. In changing our approach, we are ensuring that all 16 year-olds who do not get at least a grade C in English GCSE continue to study English, so we are looking to improve attainment at that level. As a result of that change, over 2,300 more girls achieved an English GCSE last year than the year before. We are doing a lot of work in local communities, including continuing to invest £200 million a year in community learning, which is specifically aimed at engaging people who are disadvantaged. Seventy-two per cent of the participants in that programme are women, so we are working within schools and in community projects to ensure access to literacy for as many women as possible.

What are we doing with very young children coming into education to strengthen their literacy skills so that we do not have a repeat of this generational problem?

We are committed to improving literacy skills, which is why the Secretary of State has said that by 2020 we want all children in England to be the best readers in Europe. We have made important changes at primary school to ensure that children are improving their skills. We also know that children need help from their parents, so we are also trying to focus on improving parents’ literacy skills. We have supported more than 100,000 learners, the majority of whom were female, in family learning programmes to help them with their literacy. We know from studies that that means they feel better able to support their children and to help them get the advantages they need.

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. The Government provide more than £104 million to fund courses in English for speakers of other languages in England. They cover literacy skills, including reading. In 2013-14, nearly 100,000 women participated in such courses and women make up two-thirds of all participants.

My Lords, is it not also essential to make plans to improve the reading skills of 16 to 24 year-old boys and young men to ensure that they have a good start in life and to support their well-being and social mobility?

Yes, it is absolutely important. In fact, girls are doing remarkably well. Eighty-two per cent of girls achieved an A* to C in English GCSE compared to 67% of boys, so it is certainly true that we need to pay as much attention to the education of boys as to that of girls, which is why we have introduced a range of improvements to the educational system. We now have more than 1 million more children in good or outstanding schools.

The Government are clearly committed to improving literacy. How can the Minister square the circle with the closure of so many libraries up and down the country? She also mentioned the importance of family literacy. How can she square the circle with the closure of so many children’s centres up and down the country, which nurtured such things as literacy for families?

In 2014 we launched a children’s centres pilot to see how children’s centres can better motivate disadvantaged, low-skilled parents, many of whom are women, to get the English and maths skills that they need. We consider reading for children to be extremely important. That is why we are delighted to work with Penguin Classics, which has launched its Classics in Schools initiative, giving schools access to classroom sets of up to 100 titles at a reduced price so that children have access to a wide range of interesting and exciting literature.

Does the Minister agree that reading skills, aspirations and well-being for young women can all be enhanced by including more inspirational women in all curriculum fields, science and technology as well as literature? Following the outcry after only one woman, Mary Wollstonecraft, appeared on the politics A-level curriculum, will the Minister undertake to look again at the curricula across education so that we can inspire young women in every area of endeavour?

I am sure the noble Baroness will be pleased that after our consultation on the politics A-level syllabus, while three core philosophies will be studied—socialism, liberalism and conservatism—schools can choose from additional schools of thought, which include feminism.

My Lords, many women who are sent to prison have a low level of literacy. What steps are being taken to ensure that when these women leave prison they are effective in reading and writing, a move that might lower the depressingly high rate of recidivism?

My noble friend is absolutely right. We find that many offenders, and indeed many women in difficult circumstances, who perhaps have suffered from drug and alcohol abuse, have low-level literacy skills, which is why many rehab centres are now realising the importance of including reading skills as part of the treatment and programmes that they provide to the women who use their services. We are seeing reading and writing becoming increasingly central to those programmes, and the Secretary of State for Justice is committed to improving education in prisons. I am sure we will see great improvements within the prison estate.