Children in areas with poor literacy 'have much shorter lives'

The gap in life expectancy between those in areas of good and poor literacy can be as big as 26 years, study shows

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Children who grow up in areas with the poorest literacy are likely to live much shorter lives than their peers, a study suggests.

The research argues that there is a "staggering" gap in life expectancy between those living in communities at the highest and lowest risk of literacy problems.

For example, a boy growing up in a place that is among the most likely to have literacy problems will have a life expectancy around 26 years shorter than a boy living somewhere with fewest literacy problems, according to the National Literacy Trust (NLT).

Researchers calculated the risk of low literacy levels in each electoral ward in England. This was based on factors such as education, employment and income. Researchers then ranked the areas in tenths, from the tenth most at risk of literacy problems to the tenth least at risk.

This information was then compared with official data on life expectancy.

Link between literacy and life expectancy

"The national gap in life expectancy between children from communities with the highest and lowest vulnerability to literacy problems in the country is staggering," the study says.

The study shows that a boy born in Stockton Town Centre – which is in the tenth of electoral wards most at risk of literacy problems – has a life expectancy 26.1 years shorter than a boy born in the North Oxford ward, which is among the tenth least at risk of literacy issues. This was the largest gap for males.

For girls, those born in Queensgate, Burnley, also among the areas most at risk of literacy problems, had a life expectancy around 20.9 years shorter than those born in Mayfield, Wealden, in East Sussex, which was among the areas least vulnerable to literacy issues.

"Our fresh new analysis of national and local data shows that inequalities in both literacy and life expectancy in England are intensely localised," the study says.

"Children growing up in wards with the greatest literacy challenges in the country have significantly shorter life expectancies than those growing up in wards with the fewest literacy challenges.

"While we recognise that the relationship between literacy and life expectancy is complex, our report finds that people with low levels of literacy are more likely to live in deprived communities, be financially worse off, and have poorer health – all of which are precursors for shorter life spans.

"The gravity of the extreme local inequalities in mortality makes the challenge to close the literacy gap between communities all the more urgent."

'Striking at the heart of inequality'

NLT director Jonathan Douglas said: "The relationship between health, socioeconomic factors and life expectancy is well established, but this is the first time we've been able to see how literacy relates to longevity.

"We now know that our efforts to improve the reading and writing skills of children from the poorest communities strike at the heart of inequalities that shorten life expectancy.

"If we are to truly transform the life chances of the nation's most disadvantaged children, we must tackle low literacy one community at a time."

Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: "Prospects for children who don't achieve good literacy skills by the end of primary school are bleak.

“However, the gap in life expectancy between the areas with the highest and lowest risk of literacy problems highlighted by this report is shocking, and warrants closer investigation.

"We must redouble our efforts to make sure that no child starts secondary unable to read and write well."

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