A vital factor for inclusion in schools is pupils’ literacy skill. Put simply, reading, writing, and communication are the cornerstones of school success and prerequisites for inclusion.

Consider the inferences and implications of the following:

‘Only 14% of adults in the prison population have GCSE level or equivalent in English language/literacy.’

‘An assessment of the English and maths skills levels of prisoners in England’ (2015)

Just 14%. 14…

This clear correlation makes us consider that low literacy levels – not being able to read and write effectively – can lead to countless failures beyond the school gates. Some are significant societal issues like the prison pipeline, whereas for many it is a reality of quiet desperation. Schools cannot compensate for society, but when it comes to literacy, it can be within our gift to make a positive difference.

If we consider school exclusion, we recognise that there are many complex factors that prove significant. For instance, there are factors such as low socio-economic status, mental health and behavioural difficulties, SEN, gender, lower parental engagement etc. Additionally, two other significant factors are ‘language difficulties’ and ‘social communication difficulties’.

It is commonplace to recognise that limited literacy for our pupils can have lots of damaging effects. And yet, it is so intermingled with inclusion, SEND, teaching, learning, social deprivation, and what happens outside the school gates (even before children ever start school), so it is understandable to miss connections and opportunities for success. So much just feels insurmountable right now.

Literacy and our locus of control

It will be unsurprising to teachers and school leaders that behaviour is inextricably bound to the ability to communicate. Inclusion – if we see it as successful communication and making school accessible and doable – can be well mediated by literacy.

Over time, failure to access the school curriculum can harden into disaffection and even a full-on rejection of school – from simply not turning up, to at-their-desk truancy – whereat pupils are in school but choosing not to engage in learning. Maybe they aren’t making a choice at all; they simply can’t engage with what they are being taught.

It is understandable that the mention of inclusion inspires angst about limited social supports for pupils and families. Whether it is limited mental health services, full-up PRUs, or lengthy waits and inadequate solutions for pupils with SEND, we recognise that some factors appear to be beyond the control of school leaders and teachers when it comes to enhancing inclusion.

We are left to focus on factors that are more within our control in schools. Literacy is within our locus of control, and it can make a meaningful and manageable difference.

Shrinking the inclusion challenge to improving reading

Every school knows that reading matters. In primary schools, the drive for early decoding has been high profile for several years. The notion is that this approach offers strong foundations for reading comprehension. In secondary school, the emphasis has been greater on reading widely to build knowledge to access the academic curriculum.

When lots of pupils are reading far below their chronological reading age, it is an indicator for them being unlikely to access the school curriculum. As a result, we can often lower the challenge and present tricky topics with nice graphics on PPT slides, and offer us excellent verbal explanations, but this is invariably not enough. The reading challenge of exams always brings back into focus that the literacy challenge of reading and writing that pupils must take on to succeed in school.

Let’s return to the grim predictions that attend the largely illiterate prison population. OFSTED revealed that many prison workers didn’t know how to teach adults to read and that visits to a small number of prisons show they struggle to identify reading needs and go on to address them.

The more manageable, and necessary, solution is to address reading skills upstream, as early as possible, in our schools. Schools cannot compensate for society, but when it comes to literacy – reading and writing – schools can make a significant difference. It may just be the most effective approach to inclusion that we can enact successfully right now.