Francis Beckett

Here’s a charity which won’t be getting a penny of my money, and, I hope, not a penny of yours either: the London Evening Standard’s “charitable partner”, Volunteer Reading Help. 

Its appeal was carried on Monday with every bit of muscle a tabloid newspaper can muster, taking up pages 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 14.  You’d have to assassinate the Prime Minister or sleep with a reality TV participant to get that sort of attention.

There’s a screaming headline GET LONDON READING on page 1, and heart-wrenching stories of the damage illiteracy does to a child’s life on later pages.  There are nice pictures of children, and a moody picture of the charity’s chief executive,  Sue Porto, looking into the middle distance, where all ethical dilemmas lie, with a caption that says: “Sue Porto is fighting to bring literacy and better lives to London’s children.”

But she isn’t.  She’s holding out a begging bowl and asking us to throw money into it, to enable her to train volunteers to help children learn to read.  The paper presents us with the problem – too many of London’s children can’t read – and the solution, which is to launch a charity appeal.

The Victorians tried charity as a solution, and they managed to help a few children, but as late as 1939, army recruiters discovered they were taking on thousands of men who had never been taught to read properly.  It was the 1944 Education Act which changed all that, and by the 1960s, only a very small number of children were leaving school unable to read (though thousands still leave with limited reading ability). 

According to the National Literacy Trust, current literacy levels represent a significant improvement since the mid-20th century. The number of children achieving the expected levels for reading at age eleven increased from 78% in 1999 to 86% in 2009.

Still, one in six people in the UK have literacy below the level expected of an eleven year old.  But we are making headway.  We’re making headway because we turned away from charity, and attacked illiteracy problem on the simple principle by which we also attacked poverty: that we pay for the attack from taxes. 

That was the discovery Clement Attlee made twenty five years before he became Prime Minister and created the welfare state.   In 1920 he wrote a book called The Social Worker. If the rich wanted to help the poor, he wrote, they should “subscribe to pay their taxes.”  This is the true charity, “impartial and impersonal, encumbering none with obligation, helping all.”

The idea that it’s the job of the state to make sure all its citizens are enabled to learn to read has taken a terrible battering in recent years, and Ms Porto has – I imagine unwittingly – leant herself to the biggest and most powerful assault yet.  For nowhere – not on pages 1,2,3,4,5, 6, 7 or even 14 – does the paper say that this is the responsibility of all of us, that the state’s job is to put in  the resources until we end illiteracy.  The unstated assumption is that we can solve it by appealing for charity.  And we can’t.