Dame Julia Cleverdon interview: 'The price we all pay if children can't read properly'

The James Ashton Interview: The campaigner and confidante of Prince Charles aims to transform society by improving the next generation’s literacy

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The Independent Online

When, seven years ago, Dame Julia Cleverdon decided to stand down from running Business in the Community she had to inform the organisation’s president, the Prince of Wales. She’d been in the job since 1992 and, according to Cleverdon, the Prince’s response to her departure was: “Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t stand down. I can’t, so why should you?” It was at that moment, she says, that he asked her “why she wasn’t a special adviser to me on responsible business?”

She soon was, and so followed The Place Strategy, the Prince’s attempt to get his relevant charities working together to improve lives in struggling communities such as Burnley in Lancashire and Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent.

Catherine Mayer’s new biography of the prince raises the prospect of Britain one day having an activist monarch. Every activist needs allies, and Cleverdon’s anecdote offers a clue to her effectiveness in that role. She remains a special adviser to the Prince, on close terms with him. She had spoken to him only the day before we met, which was just in advance of the serialisation of Mayer’s book.

At BITC, Cleverdon’s style of activism involved cajoling chief executives into being more socially responsible by supporting campaigns ranging across education, employment and homelessness.

Now she has a new cause to get her teeth into. Last year, she became chairman of the National Literacy Trust, and since September she has spearheaded the “Read On. Get On” campaign involving Save the Children and the National Association of Head Teachers. Its aim is to make sure literacy features in the main parties’ election manifestos – the Liberal Democrats have already answered the call – and has set a target that all 11-year olds should be able to read fluently by 2025.

Work on Britain’s literacy record is more pressing, though: almost 1.5 million children risk falling short of the target over the next decade. Within that figure, 40 per cent of poorer children leave primary school unable to read well. Among white British boys, the statistic is even worse. Then there is the geographic split. “I am not in the least worried about Berkshire,” says Cleverdon, over a cup of tea at the Trust’s offices in south London. “Surrey is fine. Buckinghamshire is not much of an issue, Slough I would be a bit concerned about, and the outskirts of Reading.”

The real story is further north, where literacy scores are barely moving. Cleverdon, who is 64, cites the “perfect storm” in deprived communities where some children start school at the age of five with the language skills of a three-year old, and teachers don’t always have the ability to help them catch up. Problems set in at home too.

“Some of it is undoubtedly about supporting parents who are not tremendously well parented themselves or don’t have much confidence about what they should do. Yet of course governments by and large can’t march about and say they are going to teach everyone how to parent because everyone gets cross about the nanny state.”

It’s typical of Cleverdon that she is trying to broaden the coalition, so that parents read to young children for 10 minutes a day, and businesses understand what a lack of literacy will do to Britain’s competitiveness. “The truth is if kids can’t read there will be diamonds in the dust that you never get through on to a maths and science programme because actually they haven’t got the literacy.”

She wants to let off “depth charges” in particular communities, instead of just a nationwide “spray and pray” campaign. One example of special attention is Blackpool, chosen last month for a £45m Big Lottery grant to fund better child nutrition and communication – the result of the NHS, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the local council teaming up. There are other initiatives too, such as the Premier League’s Reading Stars scheme, which uses the carrot of football to get uninterested boys to open a book.

Literature loomed large in Cleverdon’s childhood in north London. Her father Douglas, a BBC radio producer, commissioned Dylan Thomas to write Under Milk Wood and was also friends with Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. As a teenager Cleverdon was with the couple’s children at the zoo on the day Plath committed suicide in 1963.

After Cambridge, she was intent on working in the public sector, not the business world, until a meeting with John Garnett, who ran the business campaigns group the Industrial Society. Not only did he help her get a job in industrial relations at British Leyland, but many years later, after she had joined him at the Industrial Society, he became her second husband. He died in 1997.

The lesson she says she learnt from the failure of her first marriage, to a stockbroker and Lincolnshire landowner, is never to marry anyone until you’ve been out of university for at least five years. Garnett, who was 30 years older than her, is the father of Virginia Bottomley, the former health secretary, meaning that Cleverdon is stepmother to someone a couple of years her senior.

BITC channelled much of the Industrial Society’s campaigning spirit. Then, as now, Cleverdon’s style is to bustle in, press the flesh, ask a favour. The only thing that has changed is she no longer wears the magenta coat associated with her time at BITC. With her boundless enthusiasm, she coaxed captains of industry to take tours around dilapidated council estates and then persuaded them to support BITC’s work.

Her biggest achievement at BITC, she says, was “making the market”. Back in the early 1990s, “a few Christian business leaders with Quaker overtones and Marcus Sieff at Marks & Spencer believed it was important how businesses behaved, but we hadn’t really made the business case”. Few resisted her, but among those that did were Northern Rock and Lehman Brothers. And Fred Goodwin scrapped Royal Bank of Scotland’s BITC membership. “I always say they were the three businesses that caused the collapse of Western capitalism.”

Cleverdon has passed on her fearlessness to the next generation. One daughter, Victoria, is a detective inspector and involved in Police Now, a scheme to get more graduates into the force. Her other daughter, Charity, an A&E nurse in Plymouth, is going to ebola-hit Sierra Leone in a few weeks’ time on secondment.

The model for Read On. Get On might be how Cleverdon encouraged Prince Charles’s charities to work together. She went to Burnley every month for nearly seven years to check on progress. It suited her. She had left BITC because she “wanted to do some other things, wanted to see from a bottom-up perspective what worked”. She adds: “You have got to have a touchstone to understand what all the chat at senior level actually does. Does any of that make any odds at all on the ground floor? Burnley became my ground floor in a way.” To begin with, the town had the lowest level of business start-ups anywhere in Western Europe. After a programme of regeneration, it was named the most enterprising spot in Britain.

Soon after the Burnley project kicked off, Cleverdon was asked to lead a review of the Prince’s 21 charities, assembled over the course of 30 years. Some of the smaller ones were merged or spun off, but the conclusion was that BITC, with a turnover of £25m, and the Prince’s Trust, which has annual revenues of £75m, “almost undoubtedly will survive whatever happens to the Prince because he has built them in a very sustainable way”, she says. Time will tell whether Cleverdon can build up children’s reading skills just as effectively.

The CV: Dame Julia Cleverdon

Education: Camden School for Girls, then read history at Newnham College, Cambridge, achieving a first.

Career: Began as an industrial relations trainee at British Leyland in 1972, then communications director at the Industrial Society, later director of its education and inner cities division. Business in the Community chief executive from 1992; chairman of Teach First from 2007. Special adviser to Prince Charles’ charities. Appointed chair of the National Literacy Trust in 2014 and also chairs the Read on. Get on campaign.

Personal: First husband was Martin Ollard, a stockbroker and Lincolnshire landowner. Her second husband was John Garnett, director of the Industrial Society, who died in 1997. Two grown-up daughters, Charity and Victoria. Lives in Islington and the Isle of Wight. Relaxes by gardening.