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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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We shouldn’t take literacy for granted

This news post is over 9 years old

​Shona MacAlpine runs a project bringing literacy to hard-to-reach groups

It was an idea I first developed after travelling across south east Asia. I had been in Cambodia where I was struck by the high levels of literacy among young people, despite the fact the average wage was around $150 a month and earning money was more important than education.

Most of the children I spoke to had very high levels of spoken English – and they all had a lust to learn.

Then there is Thailand, where although there is far higher prosperity, literacy rates are 90% among young people.

As a literacy officer for Argyle and Bute Council, I had come into contact with a number of families whose literacy levels were poor. I thought: Scotland actually isn’t that much more advanced when it comes to literacy than developing countries like Cambodia. That might sound melodramatic but I knew from my work that whole communities often could not read and write – ethnic community and gypsy/travellers, for example.

So I started the Write Turn project where volunteers go into communities and help with literacy where it is needed.

We’ve had lots of success in the three years we’ve been operating. Mostly we engage gypsy/traveller communities. Some of our volunteers have a gypsy/traveller background so we are able to get up their confidence and offer the support they need.

Because of their itinerant nature, these communities find regular schooling difficult. It’s not true that most are illiterate: they just need help and support with their reading and writing skills.

Many of these kinds of communities were cut off from mainstream society for various reasons. People are critical they choose to live this way. In my experience they don’t want to be isolated; it’s just that for a number of reasons they are more secure among themselves. It’s more about wider society accepting them, not the other way about.

It’s very interesting to see how language evolves among some of these so called closed communities. For example, Urdu in Scotland is practically a different language from that in India. The same can be said for Romani spoken by the travelling communities. It has inter-mixed with English, Irish and Scots, creating an unusual – but very harmonious – hybrid, which many outsiders find difficult to understand.

On one level part of the problem these communities have is that they are unable to communicate because of their poor literacy levels. Literacy creates communication. Communication creates confidence. That’s our mantra.

Our classes can be one-to-one or in a more communal setting. These can be fantastic: old mix with young and share support. It works well.

We take for granted our education in this country but it isn’t an equal playing field. Yet education is a right. So we need to ensure everyone has access.

Our project is tiny, but it has a sizeable impact: we estimate over 200 have improved their literacy through the project. And all from harder-to-reach communities with multiple barriers to learning.

So it’s a huge success. But imagine how successful it would be if it was rolled out nationally?