Literacy and life expectancy

A new documentary, H is for Harry, to be released in cinemas on 7 March, focuses on the fact that white, working class boys form the demographic that does worst in our education system. It’s said that 1 in 5 children left primary school in 2018 unable to read or write properly. I’ve heard this statistic before, and understood the difference it makes to life chances, employment, and health, but I was especially shocked to read in the Guardian report on this documentary about the difference it also makes to overall life expectancy:

Adults with poor literacy skills are more likely to be unemployed or in low-paid jobs. There is a link between low levels of literacy and shorter life expectancy, depression and obesity. According to the National Literacy Trust (NLT), a boy born in Stockton-on-Tees, which has some of the most serious literacy challenges in the country, has a life expectancy 26.1 years shorter than a boy born in north Oxford.

26 years off a life expectancy of around 80 is 54. Let that sink in.

A couple of days ago I posted about the differences in library funding between the UK and Finland. It’s instructive to note a few other comparisons as well, described in another article in the Guardian. Life expectancy in Finland is rising; in the UK it has stopped rising. Infant mortality is twice as high in the UK as in Finland. Finland has some of the best education in Europe, because it trusts and rewards its teachers, so that professional morale is high. It also provides free school meals for all pupils, so that no child goes through the school day unable to learn because of hunger. And its system is truly comprehensive, with none of the blight caused by our private schools and selective grammars creaming off the most advantaged children. Finland is dealing effectively with homelessness, and its truly preventative health care measures include the provision of genuinely affordable housing for all, so that people can afford good food rather than paying much of their income on the kind of astronomical private sector rents we see in our system. Finland spends a slightly lower proportion of its GDP on health care provision than the UK, but it can afford to because doctors don’t need to be paid as much as they are in the UK, since housing costs are lower. For every 10,000 people in Finland, there are 32 doctors, compared to 28 in the UK, and there are 40 hospital beds for every 10,000 Finns, compared to 26 in the UK.

There’s more: Finland is also seeking to introduce a truly universal basic income. It has the best green credentials in the world, ranking top in the 2016 Environmental Performance Index. Add to this that Finland is one of the most equal societies in the world: the gap between the richest 20% and the poorest 20% is one of the lowest in the world, second only to Japan.

If we’re looking for ways to improve British society in the coming years (if such an aspiration is even possible) we could do a lot worse than look at how Finland does it.

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