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Read full article published in Briefing, page 28

Low literacy levels undermine the UK’s economic competitiveness and can create huge barriers to social mobility.  It is estimated that poor literacy skills cost the taxpayer 2.5 billion every year, at a direct cost to business.   The Literacy Trust state that in some disadvantaged areas in the country, 35% of the population lack the literacy skills expected of an 11 year old.  For those affected, this compromises employability, health, confidence and happiness.

Giving back to school

In 2016, the National Literacy Forum launched the Vision for Literacy Business Pledge to encourage the UK business community to join the national literacy campaign and help close the literacy gap. At the start of the year, 44 businesses from a wide range of sectors signed a pledge for one year to raise literacy levels. It involves committing to take action in three distinct areas: engaging employees in the workplace, supporting the local community and contributing to the national campaign.

Quite a number of the signatories were law firms including: Baker & McKenzie, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Bird & Bird, Nabarro, Norton Rose Fulbright, Clifford Chance, Pinsent Masons, Mayer Brown, Slaughter & May and Travers Smith.

These firms have undertaken a wide range of activities – from workplace campaigns highlight the importance of reading for volunteering in schools, libraries, providing work experience and on a national level using various networks to raise awareness and build support to tackle the Literacy gap challenge.

For example, BLP helps in the local community by recruiting more volunteers for their long running reading scheme at a school in Newham.  Further afield the firm has provided work experience, careers advice and skills development and supported the East London Children’s University. Employees were engaged by relaunching an in-house charity book library.

Pinsent Masons reach over 600 students each year by supporting 12 schools every year. It also supports the goals of other high-profile literacy campaigns such as Read On, Get On, which works to a vision of all children reading well, at age 11, by 2025.

Kate Fergusson, head of responsible business at Pinsents, says: “Continuing commercial success relies on the education and employability of the young people in our local communities, and ultimately the stability of those communities. Being a responsible business wholly reinforces our strategy to attract, retain and enable talented people.

“And we recognise that businesses have a key role to play in tackling skills shortages among UK school leavers. Our school partnership programme was initiated in 2003, and it represents a long-term commitment to improving academic achievement, raising aspirations and creating better life chances for children living in some of the most deprived areas of the UK.”

“Around 30% of our people are actively engaged in our volunteering programme each year, and volunteering also creates opportunities for skills development, team building and networking with colleagues and other businesses. It’s something that we encourage all our people to do.”

Home helps

Chris Edwards, corporate social responsibility and diversity manager at Travers Smith, says his firm signed the pledge to send a positive external message of its commitment to improving social mobility by boosting literacy levels. The firm helps to run a range of schemes. Participation is actively encouraged, and a number of partners and senior business managers take a lead on efforts.

However, another very important aspect of the pledge involves engaging employees as parents to raise the profile of literacy for the sake of their own children. In 2016 Travers Smith employees met during their lunch hours for seminars on a  range of subjects – such as instilling in children a love of books and reading, understanding how reading is taught in schools, and practical tips for what parents can achieve at home. There was also a seminar on developing children’s writing skills.

“Travers Smith has used such courses as an effective way to equip our people with information and skills needed to develop children’s literacy and communication skills,” says Edwards. “As a busy law firm,  we understand that non-work time can be a very precious commodity. These resources and skills training help to enable busy parents and carers to make the most of the time they spend reading and writing with their children and families.”

The seminars run by Educating Matters can be webinars or workplace clinics, covering a wide range of parenting-related challenges. As well as literacy, firms have covered numeracy, homework, exam preparation, children’s use of technology and screens, choosing schools, motivation, self-esteem, emotional intelligence and creating more harmony between siblings.

Having sessions like these at work also promotes an ongoing internal support network for parents, and may serve to normalise common challenges they face. Indeed, they may be one of the only opportunities for employees (irrespective of title or role) to meet as parents – and equals. It’s rare they’d have another, similarly relaxed forum in which to share stories or advice while at work.

Parents are continually challenged to balance work productivity with meeting their family responsibilities. And if an employer is seen as unsupportive of caring responsibilities, it’s unsurprising if that affects team morale, and eventually drains talent, with potentially serious cost implications.

There are benefits to providing non-work-related support for both firm and employees. Recognising this, many firms have established their own networks, or actively promote external alternatives, such as Cityparents.

For employers, this is an opportunity to demonstrate concern and empathy, enhancing the firm’s image as an employer of choice. It also signals that the firm takes work-life balance seriously, knowing that if employees feel less stressed and guilty about time spent away from home, they’ll be more engaged and focused, and ultimately more productive, at work.

Top reading tips for parents

1 The absolute key is finding ‘the right book’. Every time a child experiences reading something boring, too challenging or too easy, they’ll be put off. On the other hand, children’s attitudes to reading can be transformed by reading one book they really enjoy.

2 Reading doesn’t always have to involve a book. It should be part of everyday life. It may be newspapers, magazines, comics, magic tricks, instructions to a game, road signs, a TV guide or the back of a cereal packet.

3 Parents are role models for children. Make sure they see you reading regularly – particularly relevant for fathers and sons. Have ‘family reading time’ at the weekend where everyone sits together and reads their own thing.

4 Read aloud to your children, even if they are confident, independent readers. It gives parents an opportunity to discuss what they’re reading and ensure that their comprehension is solid.

5 Make time. Don’t overload children with too many extracurricular activities. And longer periods of uninterrupted time, such as weekends or school holidays, are a more productive time to build the habit. One trick – say: ‘Lights out unless you’re reading!