Teach First – A Lesson in Literacy

People often say to me “how did you succeed at anything with no education”? Well the secret is I didn’t. I was educated, but not in the conventional sense!

Due to my dis-functional background I rarely went to school but thanks to my mother I learnt to read from a very young age. Because of my serious hyperactivity she was concerned that I would never read anything if I become bored so she taught me to speed read hoping that if I got to the end of each page quickly I would be more likely to read the entire book!

What she didn’t realise was that I would become obsessed by reading and as a result have read several thousand books in my lifetime. Including some ridiculously long texts.

My point here isn’t to shout about my own achievements, which are essentially very humble, but to illustrate the importance of literacy in a modern world obsessed with information. It doesn’t matter how one takes in information. The important thing is that one does.Tablets, laptop, desktop, newspapers, magazines, paperbacks and good old leather bound books all provide reading opportunity for anyone who has the skill.

Imagine for a moment that these words which appear to jump off the page are merely meaningless squiggles to over 26% percent of the world’s population. That’s over one billion people. One Billion!

What is just as disturbing is that according to The World Literacy Foundation over 8 million people in Britain are functionally illiterate. Effectively that means they struggle to read medicine labels as an example.

Think how different and difficult your life would be in such a circumstance. Especially if you were applying for employment.

Reading and literacy are the foundation skills needed in today’s fast paced world. They are the skills which unlock anything else you want to learn. The ability to read is undoubtedly the key to a better life.

How do you find out where the information is if you can’t read directions where to locate it? Not very easily if you are even partially illiterate that’s for sure.

I was delighted to be invited by HRH The Prince of Wales to a reception for the charity Teach First at his London home Clarence House a month or so ago.

Prince Charles is patron of this wonderful organisation which promotes literacy wherever it finds the opportunity and provides teachers to schools where more than half of the pupils come from the poorest 30% of families, measured by, ‘Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index’.

Besides the many children born in the United Kingdom who are functionally illiterate, there are generations of school age children entering this country whose first language isn’t English and who will lack spoken and written communication skills in the language of their new home unless more is done to focus on these key areas of education.

Teach First coordinates an employment-based teacher training programme whereby participants achieve Qualified Teacher Status through participating in a two year training programme that involves completion of a PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education ) together with wider leadership skills training.

Trainees are placed at participating primary and secondary schools throughout the United Kingdom.

Many leave teaching in later years but remain ambassadors for Teach First and promote both the programme and improvements in literacy wherever they can.

I was born on a council estate in Bristol and was the offspring of parents who were wholly incompatible. They fought like cat and dog which eventually led to an acrimonious divorce with me living between the two of them, sometimes on the streets throughout my childhood.

My mother lived in a little caravan in Wiltshire. It was a tourer but we never ‘toured’ because we didn’t own a car. My father lived in a one bedroom council flat in Bristol where we shared the bedroom for many years.

Going to school just wasn’t on my agenda. Thankfully though I had books which I read with relish all the time.

As I grew older and developed communication and business skills I found access to information easy. Whatever I wanted to know or research usually appeared in print at a library. I didn’t even need to buy the book.

My role as Entrepreneur in Residence and as an ambassador at The Business and Intellectual Property Centre for the British Library in London is important because it helps new businesses develop. For me – If I hadn’t developed reading skills my life would have been very different.

Literacy and improved education is the foundation block of any society whether that be one as poor as parts of Africa or Latin America or in an advanced and financially secure democracy such as ours.

Teach First is working to eradicate individual poverty caused through lack of education which is undoubtedly a worthy cause.

Dr Stephen Fear

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