Life expectancy shortened by 26 years for children growing up in areas with the most serious literacy problems

Jonathan Douglas
Feb 16, 2018 · 4 min read

At the National Literacy Trust, we have always known that improving children’s literacy improves their life chances. Those who lack vital literacy skills will be held back at every stage of their life — doing worse at school as a student, being locked out of the job market as an adult, and being unable to support their own child’s learning when they become a parent. They are more likely to have physical and mental health issues, have lower-paid jobs or be unemployed, be victims of crime or live in poor quality housing.

Now, in 2018, as we celebrate 25 years of our work, we have uncovered how improving the reading and writing skills of children from the poorest communities is also linked to how long they will live.

Our new research, Literacy and life expectancy, has firmly established the link between literacy and life expectancy in England through the mediating factors of health and socioeconomic status. We now know that children in communities with the most serious literacy problems in the country have staggeringly shorter life expectancies than those in communities with the fewest literacy problems.

The gulf between the life expectancies of these children is astonishing. A boy born in Stockton Town Centre, an area with some of the worst literacy issues in the country, has a life expectancy of just 64 years. In North Oxford, an area with some of the fewest literacy problems in the country, life expectancy rises significantly to 90 years, putting the gap between them at a truly shocking 26 years.


The national picture is stark, but inequalities in literacy and life expectancy are also entrenched within local areas. In Middlesbrough, where we established our first National Literacy Trust Hub in 2013 to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty and low literacy in the area, a boy born in the ward of North Ormesby has a life expectancy of 71.4 years, while a boy born in the ward of Marton East has a life expectancy of 83 years. Those wards are just 1.4 miles apart, yet this small geographical gap also spans a huge 11.6 years in life expectancy. For girls, the gap is also significant at 9.4 years.

By tackling the nation’s literacy crisis at a local level, we can start to reduce the inequalities in life expectancy that exist across the whole of society. This localised approach sits at the heart of our work with our National Literacy Trust Hubs and local campaigns.

We know this approach works. Since our inception in 1993, the National Literacy Trust has worked with local partners to develop long-term campaigns to drive up local literacy levels. As a result of our early years interventions in Middlesbrough, the percentage of children reaching the expected level of language and communication by the age of five has risen 31% since 2013; that’s more than twice the increase seen nationally (14%). This place-based approach has also been adopted by the Department for Education to tackle inequality and improve social mobility in its Opportunity Areas, as well as by many charities and community-led local groups.

However, our new report shows that there is still a mountain to climb. It is a national scandal that in 2018, a child’s life may be cut short because of the situation they find themselves born into. That is why, in our 25th anniversary year, we are launching The Next Chapter, a giving club that will help us extend our community work to reach more than a million of the UK’s poorest children and help transform their life stories.

With a member’s £500 annual donation, we could give 150 deprived children their very first book, give 20 families from disadvantaged communities the skills and support they need to help develop their children’s reading, or give 50 children who struggle with writing the inspiration they need to put pen to paper.

Members of The Next Chapter will be invited to exclusive events hosted by National Literacy Trust author ambassadors and have the chance to visit the charity’s work to see the difference their donation can make. They will also receive a signed copy of a best-selling book by one of our author supporters and receive regular updates on the charity’s ground-breaking research and policy work.

By helping us close gaps in education, employment and health at a local level, together we can ensure that every child has the chance to live a happy, healthy, successful and long life, regardless of their background.

National Literacy Trust

Stories, thoughts and opinions from the team at the…

Jonathan Douglas

Written by

Jonathan has been the Director of the National Literacy Trust since January 2007.

National Literacy Trust

Stories, thoughts and opinions from the team at the National Literacy Trust.

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