The West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative

“Something quite remarkable… able to revolutionise an education system to the benefit of thousands of people”
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, 2007

In 1996 Tommy MacKay wrote to West Dunbartonshire Council to propose an ‘impossible’ vision – the eradication of illiteracy throughout the whole area. The aim was to ensure that every child in the area would leave school with the literacy skills needed to function in a modern society. This would prepare the basis for long-term, intergenerational change that would benefit the entire population.

It was an enormous challenge. Economically, West Dunbartonshire is one of the poorest Council areas in the UK. The Council were asked to commit themselves to taking a risk – to achieving the impossible: ‘The vision will be regarded as impossible largely because no one has ever done it before’.

What this led to was probably the world’s longest, largest and most ambitious literacy intervention. We needed 10 years to do the job. During it we assessed almost 70,000 children.

A decade and we can end illiteracy_1

And we made a bold declaration: ‘Give us a decade and we will end illiteracy’.

In 1997 the work began. Ten years later, in November 2007 – and after more than 500 national and international newspaper headlines, radio and television programmes – we published the successful outcome of this remarkable programme in Achieving the Vision. The Centre for Policy Studies celebrated the success of the initiative with its publication, A World First for West Dunbartonshire – The Elimination of Reading Failure.

The benefits to any area or nation in eradicating illiteracy are vast. Among them are a more skilled workforce, a stronger economy and a more positive environment. But underlying all these benefits is the transformation of the lives of individual children and young people. In the words of one West Dunbartonshire pupil:

“When all this started I couldn’t read. I was a failure. Now I have a cupboardful of books at home… Now I am a success.”