International Literacy Day 2021: How COVID-19 has impacted literacy development of the 4.6 million children living in poverty in the UK

International Literacy Day 2021: How COVID-19 has impacted literacy development of the 4.6 million children living in poverty in the UK

How online and remote learning has widened the UK class divide and has impacted learning poverty worldwide

Marta Wave, Pexels©

The pandemic has highlighted the financial and cultural disadvantages that children from working-class and deprived backgrounds face when remote and online learning. On International Literacy Day we aim to focus on the mechanisms and approaches that could be adopted to narrow the existing digital and class divide in literacy teaching and learning in the UK – ultimately improving learning poverty during the pandemic and beyond.

COVID-19 and the shift to remote and online learning has widened the UK class divide and has magnified pre-existing inequalities which detrimentally impacted the literacy development of the 4.6 million children living in poverty in the UK.

Even prior to Covid, research showed that children from disadvantaged backgrounds were already up to 19 months behind their better-off peers and are twice as likely to leave secondary school without or with poor grades in important subjects like English and Maths. These children were most at risk of cultural and material deprivation; often without access to certain physical resources such as adequate technology and/ or connectivity infrastructure, or cultural support and parental guidance, due to parents having to work long and/or antisocial hours or not prioritising or understanding the importance of building literacy skills at an early age.

These factors resulted in millions of children who were already disadvantaged even more at risk and deprived of sufficient support and guidance throughout the entirety of the remote and digital learning process. Additionally, statistics suggest that only 5% of children who were considered vulnerable children of key workers, were attending school during lockdown. This would have increased their chances of falling behind their peers from middle-class backgrounds further.

The COVID-19 crisis has also massively affected the progress made in systems tackling learning poverty and the learning development of children worldwide and, alike the UK, has had a devastating impact on children from poorer countries and disadvantaged backgrounds.  Figures suggest that even before the pandemic 260 million children of primary and secondary school age were out of school and shockingly 53 percent of children in low and middle-income countries have little to no reading skills.  In poorer countries this figure is said to be as high as 80%, or even 90%, in places like Sub-Saharan Africa.

These alarming statistics highlight the importance of raising awareness and discussing resolutions on how we can narrow and eradicate this ‘digital divide’ on International Literacy Day. The efforts of English professional footballer Marcus Rashford MBE, known for playing for Premier League club Manchester United and the England national team, have been greatly effective in helping disadvantaged children in the UK. His perseverance with campaigning against food poverty helped millions of vulnerable children in the UK during the pandemic.


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A post shared by Marcus Rashford MBE (@marcusrashford)

Rashford is now also utilising his platform to help support and encourage literacy development in children. His most recent campaign is aimed at the estimated 383,000 children in the UK that have never owned a book – which roughly equates to 1 in 11 families. He spoke about how he was in the same position as a child and recognises how the pandemic restricted access to books with library and school closures. He has now launched a book club with publishing house Macmillan Children’s Books which aims to donate 50,000 fiction titles to 850 schools across England and Scotland through the children’s food charity Magic Breakfast and he also aims to distribute books to pupil referral units and special educational needs schools.

Most recently, Rashford, became the author of You Are A Champion, a book he wrote alongside football journalist Carl Anka. Alongside his work with Macmillan, this book aims to provide self-help for children and encourages children to unlock their potential and overcome adversity. He says “Sometimes you only need a little nudge to become something you could have never imagined. Hopefully this book will provide that push for a lot of young people.”

In the UK, aside from the work done by Marcus Rashford, other charities such as FamilyZone continue to mitigate the long-lasting impact of COVID-19 on disadvantaged children through providing activities, resources, and free books to engage children at home. Globally, other celebrities and organisations have stepped up to help those children most in need, too. Dolly Parton with her charity Imagination Library, has been helping children to fall in love with literature through supplying books to children in the US for over 20 years and the World Literacy Foundation is striving to eradicate illiteracy by 2040.


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A post shared by Imagination Library (@imaginationlibrary)

The UK class and the global ‘digital divide’ has negatively affected billions of children worldwide without access to sufficient or any cultural or material resources required to develop strong literacy skills. The pandemic has magnified the financial and cultural inequalities that affect children from disadvantaged backgrounds and highlights how important raising awareness and supporting work from the charities and organisations is in helping those in need, to improve and narrow this divide and to ultimately eradicate learning poverty and give children a fair chance to succeed.

The media will never be diverse enough if learning poverty is not tackled. We as PressPad are fighting for positive change; and on International Literacy Day we want to raise awareness on the detrimental impact of learning poverty. If we do not overcome learning poverty – there will continue to be billions of disadvantaged children worldwide without the cultural and physical tools to develop literacy skills. These deprived children will then never have fair and equal opportunities to work and thrive in the media industry. 

International Literacy Day was first celebrated by UNESCO in 1966 and emphasised the importance of literacy in all communities and societies worldwide. This year’s theme ‘Literacy for a human-centred recovery: Narrowing the digital divide,’ hopes to highlight the negative impact COVID-19 has had on literacy development in the UK and across the globe. 

Support the charities/organisations fighting to improve and eradicate learning poverty: 

Save the Children

The Childhood Trust


Free events to attend on International Literacy Day:

Building Black Futures Through Literacy

Neurodivergent or Not? | International Literacy Day

Online International Roundtable on Education, the UNCRC and the SDGs

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