Alarming illiteracy rates in Australia demand urgent action

By Mohan Dhall
Representational Photo by alam kusuma on Unsplash

At least one third of students in Australia are functionally illiterate. The latest NAPLAN data points to an issue that requires urgent addressing.

Despite Australia having one of the best educational systems globally, a third of all students cannot meet basic reading or writing standards. Investment in education is at record levels yet the system cannot as yet seem to sustainably help 1.2 million children out of the 4 million enrolled across all sectors. This means that 6 or 7 children in a class of 20 students are routinely unable to effectively communicate in written forms, read with understanding or fully comprehend what they are being taught. This confirms what international tests have shown—about one-third of Australian students are shown to not have achieved standards.

This is a national disaster and one that needs proper inquiry and responses.

Mean years of schooling

International data available from the UN shows that Australian children have one of the highest levels of schooling globally. According to UN Development, in 2021 a child in Australia could expect to be educated for an average, or mean, of 12.2 years.

Consider this: a third of children unable to read and write when they start school, leave 12 years later still unable to read and write.

The mean of 12 years could perhaps be better characterised as 12 mean years of schooling. Mean and meaningless, for the one third of children, listless, mostly doing time.

It behoves educators, politicians, and academics to ask how this is possible.

Who are these children?

Overwhelmingly the children missing out live in the areas of greatest socioeconomic disadvantage. They may not have access to books at home or technology. Additionally, for most they may face one or more of the following: live in homes where one or both parents are unemployed and uneducated, they may live in social housing, they may live in rural or remote areas with little or disrupted internet access, they may be in homes where an adult struggles with an addiction, may have a learning difficulty or disorder but be in families unable to afford a diagnosis or intervention, or face other issues and challenges.

From school to welfare

Around 50% of these functionally illiterate children, upon leaving school may end up on welfare. State funded top ups in education roll into state funded social security payments. A lack of meaningful education bears the fruit of welfare dependency and overall compromised national productivity.

Socially, economically, morally it makes no sense to find this acceptable.

One solution posited is that of consistent high-quality teaching—implying that teachers are responsible. This is both offensive and implies teaching and learning are coincident. Another solution currently being used is that of in-school small group tutoring.

The tutoring experiment

In-school, small group tutoring has been implemented in Australia, the USA, Britain, and other nations in response to the need for targeted support for children most at literacy risk. Whilst the early results appeared to suggest tutoring in small groups should be beneficial, the scheme running for 2-years in NSW and Victoria shows that this is not reflected in the national tests.

In this regard small group tutoring is experimental. It should work but has not.

What would work?

I believe that there is a way to sustainably improve the literacy outcomes for children. However, it does require some imagination and some school restructuring.

For students to become literate a number of elements must be present: small group tutoring, appropriately trained educators, evidence of student ability as baseline for goal setting, a set of learning goals for each child, accountability to those learning goals, home/community-school partnership, and funding.

Small group tutoring

Data compiled by the Sutton Trust (2023) shows that small group tutoring works when it is done in schools but outside of mainstream classes. Since one-to-one tutoring can be most effective, a size of three or four is practically ideal.

Appropriately trained tutors

Current systems use untrained teachers’ aides, teaching assistants, university students and non-specially trained teachers. A proper program would appropriately train and continue to professionally develop professional tutors in evidence-based forms of effective literacy strategies.

Evidence of student ability as a baseline for goal setting

National tests like NAPLAN provide a basis for determining student proficiency levels. They do not provide insight about IQ. Psychometric testing should be used to overcome educator bias about what students may be academically capable of. Psychometric tests can provide evidence to calibrate expectations about what can be expected at a minimum. These tests can also reveal how students best learn. They can also indicate giftedness that may never have been otherwise detected.

A set of clearly articulated learning goals for each child

From a combination of educational and psychometric assessment, each child should have a personalised learning plan. This plan should be the guide for trained tutors, teachers and parents. Resources should be allocated to the realisation of these plans. Such plans should be regularly reviewed as students reach learning goals.

Accountability to learning goals

Tutors should be accountable to mainstream teachers for learning goals. The tutors should write up each session after being with each student and each five weeks meet face-to-face with teachers and responsible parents/guardians.

Home/community-school partnerships

Many of the issues leading to poor literacy outcomes have their basis in the child’s home and social setting. A strong aspect of a literacy building program should be linked to responsible adults in the child’s life. Where no such adults exist then responsible community partnerships could be built.

Funding—a private-public partnership under the auspices of a charity

The funding of small group tutoring should be a Commonwealth priority with an annual minimum of $2bn committed annually. Illiteracy is a national problem and consideration should be given to an independent charitable body managing the tutoring. This would remove any profit motive and will also bring a level of accountability required.

Accountability can be enhanced by the government matching dollar for dollar each tax-deductible donation given by corporations. Private enterprises value accountability over how money is spent. Moreover, morally run corporations would believe that investment in literacy can only be economically, socially, and individually productive and in the national interest.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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