What the Human Development Index doesn’t tell you: The UK’s literacy challenge


What the Human Development Index doesn’t tell you: The UK’s literacy challenge

The UK is a 'developed’ country, whatever that means. If you use any of the popular metrics for measuring development, we usually exist somewhere near the top. Most often, we use the Human Development Index (HDI). According to the United Nations Development Programme, the UK ranks 14th on the HDI scale, coming in after the United States, and way behind Norway, who takes the number one spot year after year. 

How we measure development

This HDI scale is the most popular way to define human development because it’s the most comprehensive measure we have available, with the fewest cons for each pro. Other measures, like GDP, measure one aspect of development (economic) but ignore others. You can be a rich country but have huge human rights violations or massive inequality in where that wealth goes. 

The Happy Planet Index measures sustainability and well-being. Costa Rica comes in first place while the UK is 34th. But being happy and sustainable doesn’t mean there aren’t other issues, like low levels of schooling for example.

The HDI scale uses life expectancy at birth, mean years of schooling, expected years of schooling, and Gross National Income (GNI) per capita to form a more rounded view of a country’s level of development. It uses multiple metrics because development, social and economic factors closely impact each other. The HDI is one of the more effective and accepted ways we can measure development while acknowledging this interconnectivity. 

Yet, it’s still highly flawed, and the UK’s literacy challenge is a prime example. 

The UK literacy challenge is a crisis

Did you know, in England, one in six adults lack the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old? We call ourselves developed, yet we’re the only country in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) where literacy rates of young people are worse than the older generation. 

The HDI used to incorporate adult literacy rates into their calculation but later changed this to measuring average years of schooling because, “adult literacy rates do little, if anything, to discriminate between a person with two years of schooling and a person with a PhD or medical qualification.

And so, in the case of very high HDI countries, they barely discriminate among countries where literacy rates are at almost 100%. The new indicator - ‘mean years of schooling’ - better portrays the educational achievements of people 25 years and above and so better discriminates between countries. It was, therefore, given equal weight with its ‘expected years of schooling counterpart’”.

But what happens when the young generation goes to school and completes years of schooling, until they’re sixteen, but they can’t read? That’s the reality in the UK, with declining literacy rates hitting the most underprivileged areas. How can we call ourselves developed when a huge portion of our population struggle to read and literacy rates are declining?

“But literacy is just one aspect of development, don’t we have others to make up for it?” 

Everything is connected

Just as the HDI suggests, social and economic factors are intrinsically entwined. When our younger generation can’t read, who will become the workforce of the future? Who will drive a fresh perspective in growing businesses? Who will bring new life to your business as your staff retire?

We’re already struggling to have enough children to replenish the workforce, as the over-60s age group grows each day. Those held back by a lack of literacy find themselves restricted to low-skilled jobs, and our economy is £30 billion worse off for it.

This small failure in the UK’s education has a huge impact on wealth, inequality, happiness, poverty, economic growth, well-being, and health. If we seriously want to develop as a nation, it’s time we did something about it. 

We’re ready to help change the way young people and adults engage with literature and writing to ensure everyone has access to a bright future. At Coster Content, we seek to inspire others like yourself to help secure a sustainable economic and social future in the UK. If you would like to know more, please get in touch on 0161 413 8418.

Alia CosterComment