From education to employment

Illiteracy costs the UK economy £81 billion annually

According to a preliminary report released by the World Literacy Foundation, the estimated cost of illiteracy to the UK economy is £81.312bn each year.

The interim report entitled ‘The Economic and Social Cost of Illiteracy’ aims to highlight the economic and social cost of illiteracy to the global and UK economy, where in the latter six to eight million adults are functionally illiterate.

This means that although they can read and write simple words, they cannot apply these skills to accomplish tasks which are necessary to make informed choices and participate fully in everyday life, such as filling in a job application form or reading a bank statement.

The report draws figures from the money spent of welfare and unemployment benefits, estimated to be £23.312bn. It explains that illiterate people are more likely to be claiming such benefits because there is more chance of them dropping out of high school and / or being unable to find work.

It also discusses the burden that illiteracy has on the health system, saying that it significantly limits a person’s ability to access, understand and apply health related information and messages, in turn resulting in poor household and personal health, hygiene and nutrition.

A further worry is that a high number of illiterate adults will only lead to the next generation having the same problem, as illiterate parents tend to have lower aspirations and expectations regarding education for their children. ‘They cannot read to their children nor encourage a love of learning.’

Dr Anthony Cree agrees with this concern: “The children of illiterate people are more likely to be illiterate and follow this same vicious cycle of poverty and disadvantage.”

However, the report also infers the no-win situation that these illiterate people face, earning 30-42% less than their literate counterparts, but not possessing the literacy skills required to undertake further vocational education or training to improve their earning capacity.

This means that illiteracy also costs lost opportunities, such as individual wealth creation or entrepreneurship, as studies have shown that those who struggle to read and write are likely to remain on the same income throughout their life.

World Literacy Foundation CEO, Andrew Kay, stresses the important link between income and literacy: “One of the best things we can do to stamp out poverty in the world is to improve literacy.

“This is the key to getting people into jobs, increasing their income and enabling them to take part in society.”

To address possible solutions, costs and impacts of the problem, as well as discussing current initiatives, a World Literacy Summit is being held in Oxford from April 1-4, where the final report will also be released.

Kay said about the Summit: “This is the first time ever a conference has been dedicated to addressing the problem of world literacy and its link to poverty.

“Leaders and experts from the literacy community in the UK and around the world will attend this conference to build a collective plan of action to make inroads into wiping out illiteracy.”

Stephanie Manley

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