Growing up North: Breaking the cycle of poverty and intergenerational low literacy
Author: Alasdair Flint, Middlesborough Reading Campaign
Middlesbrough is one of the most disadvantaged local authority areas in England. It has the highest proportion of neighbourhoods among the most deprived in England (49%) and a third (35.7%) of children live in income-deprived households (2015 Index of Multiple Deprivation). Children born in Middlesbrough also have some of the lowest life expectancies and most serious vulnerabilities to literacy problems in the country (Gilbert, Teravainen, Clark and Shaw, 2018)
In 2013, the National Literacy Trust established its first Hub in Middlesbrough, branded the Middlesbrough Reading Campaign, to break the cycle of poverty and intergenerational low literacy that was impacting on children’s life chances. After extensive scoping activity to identify the town’s specific literacy challenges, the National Literacy Trust brought together local businesses with health, schools, housing, sport and cultural partners in a long-term campaign to change literacy levels in the town.
Five-year-olds in Middlesbrough have some of the lowest communication, language and literacy skills in the country. This means that children start school at a real disadvantage, from which most don’t recover during their school life. In order to address this, the National Literacy Trust Hub began delivery of an early years programme, Early Words Together, in primary school nurseries and children’s centres in 2013.
Over the course of three years, the programme trained a cohort of early years professionals and volunteers who helped more than 200 parents and families develop the skills and confidence they needed to be able to better support their child’s communication, language and literacy at home. By using local volunteers and staff, the programme was delivered by those most aware of the particular challenges faced by families in the town.
The children who took part in the programme made demonstrable progress according to an internal evaluation which examined the impact of the programme between 2013 and 2015. Analysis of the government’s Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) data, which measures children’s level of development at age five, found that children who took part in Early Words Together had made significant progress against their peers, both locally and nationally.
The evaluation found that:
- The percentage of children reaching the expected level of communication and language skills rose by a huge 20.2 percentage points (pp) for those who had taken part in Early Words Together. This compared to a 12.4pp increase for children from primary schools in Middlesbrough who hadn’t taken part in the programme, and 5pp nationally
- The increase in children reaching the expected levels in literacy was even greater, with a 20.9pp increase compared to a 9.1pp increase for other settings in Middlesbrough and 5pp nationally
- The percentage of children achieving an overall Good Level of Development increased by 26.9pp, compared to a of 17.8pp increase for other settings in Middlesbrough and 8pp nationally
Early Words Together has been supported by an integrated early years campaign. The Hub works with Public Health to drive awareness of the importance of early years literacy and language development in the most deprived communities. A major public campaign also promotes reading and talking to babies and children, with posters displayed on Middlesbrough’s public screen and bus shelters around the town. More than 20,000 flyers have been distributed to families and supporting information is included in every baby’s personal child health record.
Alongside this, working with James Cook University Hospital and premature baby charity Bliss, the Hub has supported parents of premature babies and given literacy training to nursing staff. Families on the neonatal ward receive a story pack which includes a copy of Guess How Much I Love You, donated by Walker Books, and information about the importance of singing, talking and reading to their baby. Books have now become an important part of daily life on the ward.
The National Literacy Trust is continuing to build on the success of the programme, delivering it in established settings and expanding it to target new groups and areas. They are also planning to set up an early years hub in Redcar and Cleveland to work with families there, and will be delivering a pilot version of the programme, aimed at newly-arrived communities through a community centre in Central Middlesbrough, in partnership with the local authority’s Ethnic Minority Achievement Team.