If The Shoe Fits!

There’s been a bit of a Twitter storm over Government plans, partnering with the National Literacy Trust, to encourage language development and literacy using, of all places, Clarks shoe shops, with staff apparently being “…asked to engage children in conversation to improve language skills, as part of a government attempt to tackle “concerning” rates of early literacy.”

Now, as always, this is not the full story and is in fact part of a wider government initiative to involve businesses to support children’s early learning in the home environment, which includes bookswaps in supermarkets as well as special training for staff in shoe shops.

The inclusion of Clarks, KPMG, and Penguin Random House in the partnership with the NLT seems a perfectly natural fit (pun intended!) given that they all have links with the NLT Board of Trustees. Whether KMPG and Clarks are appropriate organisations to support such a scheme is open to debate.

Also, as many on Twitter pointed out, the cost of Clarks shoes is likely be prohibitive to many of the disadvantaged constituencies that this scheme aims to target. It would interesting to compare customer data for Clarks against the Indices of Deprivation to see if any correlation exist.

The Guardian followed up with another story, Outsourcing education to Clarks shoes: only a Tory could think of that, which reflected many of the criticisms on Twitter, and in which the columnist pointed out that what was really needed:

“…is proper investment in early-years education. A 2010 evaluation of the Sure Start initiative found that children’s centres, which offered consistent, high-quality expert support, could have a positive influence on the home-learning environment and on parenting more generally. Buts many as 1,000 children’s centres have closed down since 2010, and many of those that are left offer only a fraction of the services they once did.”

This month, the Minister for Children and Families, Nadhim Zahawi, announced the creation of a new advisory panel to assess the many different educational apps. The same announcement also highlighted the work of British Land to introduce bookswap schemes at three of its retail sites.

This builds on the work from last November when Education Secretary Damian Hinds publicised a Multi-million investment to support children’s early communication skills along with the NLT.

Some of the more interesting participants of the scheme include the aforementioned KPMG – the auditing firm that was severely criticised and investigated over its role in the collapse of Carillion, leaving the taxpayer to pick up millions of pounds of debt – McDonalds (I’ll have fries with that literacy programme please!), and the Scouts! Yes, the Scouts are being funded to run a volunteer early years pilot programme.

Now given the importance of early years literacy and communication skills you would expect that one of the participants to be included would be an organisation that already has ‘bookswaps’ in place. Places that already specialise in early literacy development through carefully curated children’s stock and activities, and which is delivered by trained professionals.

But no! libraries didn’t get a mention at all. Even the accompanying document; Improving the home learning environment barely mentions libraries and certainly no library organisations were consulted as a sector expert (Annex A).

But it’s not just about the exclusion of libraries, the issue goes far deeper than this. It’s about the neoliberalisation of literacy, and it’s not just the library sector affected but other public services such as health and education.

This real issue here is a ‘small-state’ philosophy, the withdrawal of the government from public services, and the over-inflation of the philanthropic or charitable model to take its place. From badly run academies, failed outsourcing (hello Northamptonshire!), and volunteer libraries, the big society approach is creating greater inequality and more disadvantages in the very communities it is supposedly meant to benefit.

That is not to say there is no role for charities or philanthropy but the role should be one of supplementing, not replacing, basic or essential services. And though we may applaud businesses for getting involved let’s also remember the not insignificant PR and potential tax advantages that come with doing so.

It also allows the Government to abnegate its responsibility for vital public services. If charities and big business can be responsible for literacy levels why fund schools and libraries as much?

Equally, the £18m funding for the project pales into insignificance when compared to the reduction in public library funding in England of more than £230m since 2010. Or the reduction of £763m for Sure Start services, or that funding for services for young people has fallen by £855m.

The danger becomes that charity and philanthropy target the symptoms rather than the root-cause and provide a fig-leaf to hide behind without addressing the thorny issue of wealth inequality (including taxation models).

Let’s not forget that despite being the 5th wealthiest nation in the world a recent UN report stated that the Government had inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies driven by a political desire to undertake social re-engineering rather than economic necessity.

Another point against philanthropic approaches is argued by Dr Neil Levy in that it benefits the state rather than the disadvantaged and is self-defeating if it allows governments to escape some of their responsibilities. Further, he states that:

“…large-scale philanthropic activity carries with it serious risks of changing the balance of funding from the public to the private sector, thereby exposing those most in need to the vicissitudes of the market. To the extent that private funding of essential services becomes the norm, the vulnerable become the recipients of (at best) uncertain aid, which is liable to fluctuations and constant reduction.”

Literacy is perhaps the single most important life skill any individual can develop. The fact that the Government is farming this responsibility out to charities only adds to the ‘great misery’ inflicted on already disadvantaged communities.