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Literacy, dignity and freedom - article in the Evening Standard

The Archbishop talks to an art student during a recent school visit

Tuesday 7th June 2011

An article by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, published in the Evening Standard as part of its Get London Reading campaign.

We have just launched at Lambeth Palace Library a small exhibition to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. This celebration might well remind us that having a Bible in English was probably the greatest stimulus in British history for people to learn to read.

The same is true, of course, of other countries and languages - not least Welsh. Like all my generation in Swansea, I learned in O-level history about the 18th-century travelling schools that taught an astonishing proportion of Welsh working people to read the Bible and the Prayer Book, and helped to produce one of the most education-hungry and politically sophisticated populations of the Victorian age.

They wanted to read these books because they knew that the contents were a matter of life and death. It mattered to know the stories, the prayers and above all the picture of yourself that these texts could give you - as capable of changing yourself and the world around you, and as a person to be taken seriously. Reading books like these was a way to a new kind of dignity and freedom - which was also why some wanted to restrict their readership. Eighteenth-century slave-owners were not too keen on slaves learning to read the Bible (or anything else); how right they were to be nervous.

Learning to read by learning the Bible may seem a bit odd to 21st-century readers. But the fact is that one of the great incentives was the need to learn what really mattered for your dignity on earth and your salvation in heaven. We may not put it like that these days but literacy is still about dignity and freedom. When we forget this, we are in real trouble.

That's why it was so shocking to learn that rates of improvement in young people's literacy have slowed down disturbingly since 2006 and that a quarter of children and young people do not see any connection between reading and success or stability in their lives. Yet the figures clearly show the correlations between inadequate literacy and a variety of social ills - unemployment, lack of a stable family life, and, significantly, apathy about voting. The percentage of functionally illiterate people in our prisons (nearly 50 per cent) tells its own story.

More worrying still are the figures for young people in London. One in three children does not own a book. One in four leaves primary school with a substandard level of literacy.

Part of the problem is that illiteracy is surrounded by shame and stigma, so that people are unwilling to ask for help. As with any potentially humiliating difficulty or disability, the first step is for society as a whole to take a positive, not a contemptuous, approach and not to blame people who have been let down because of poverty or exclusion or struggling institutions.

All good schools know that they need friends in the wider community. And one of the most effective ways of cementing friendships is through volunteers coming in to help with literacy training. But this needs to be extended further. It is very good news that the Evening Standard is calling for more volunteers to help children with reading on a one-to-one basis at the crucial points in their lives.

There are voluntary groups that are doing exceptional work with adult illiteracy, such as Worth Unlimited, a Christian charity working nationwide with young people from eight to 25 and focusing on issues of exclusion and illiteracy. And there are imaginative projects working with prisoners such as the Shannon Trust, which uses a "buddy" system already developed in schools to improve literacy in prison. The effect is that, on release, prisoners are better equipped for the job market and, even more important, have an enhanced sense of their capacities and skills.

These projects - and lots more like them - need firm and consistent support from parents and governors in schools, from staff in prisons, and, of course, from national government. Whether you want to talk about a Big Society, a good society or just about ordinary common sense and fairness for the disadvantaged, this must be a priority.

Being able to read means being able to change yourself more effectively - to have more at your fingertips. It means being able to see yourself differently and to empathise with others more fully. That's why literacy and democracy go together and why it's no surprise that people with problems in this area are far less likely to vote and less likely (so the figures tell us) to trust others in their community.

In this context, illiteracy is a prison. It traps people in a world where they are always at a disadvantage and always in fear of being "found out". We need to foster a positive attitude that will assure people they are not inferior and that they really can learn and take a fuller part in the world. It is an obvious area in which local civil society can get involved in a way both Left and Right in politics are now advocating.

And we should be aware too that the new social media are not the enemy here. For a lot of young people, enjoying reading and writing is bound up with blogging and Twittering. We need to make the best use of these technologies, not despise them. Given the universal use of such media, how does the school, the workplace, the prison use what's available to encourage questions that will improve literacy and challenge people to become more confident?

The problem won't be solved by travelling schools like those of the 18th century but it can be solved by us adopting the attitudes of those who inspired and ran those schools. They believed they had a responsibility to help people gain the best access to what would change their lives and give them the strength they needed in tough times. If that's what we believe too, we can and we must rise to this challenge for our city and our society.

© Rowan Williams 2011

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