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Thursday, 11 November 1976
Page: 2625

Mr INNES (Melbourne) -I rise to support the amendment. Particularly I would like to deal with the area of specific learning difficulties and to draw the attention of the House to the problems of the children disadvantaged by these difficulties. I hoped to have had an opportunity to debate these matters earlier in the House in connection with the report of the House of Representatives Select Committee on Specific Learning Difficulties. This most important report was tabled on Thursday, 14 October 1 976, which is almost a month ago. Still the Government has not seen fit to provide the House with an opportunity to debate the report Why the Government should be so reluctant to allow debate on this is not known to me. I urge the Government, however, to bring on the matter as early as possible before the end of the session as a number of unknowns urgently require elucidation. We need to know, for instance, whether it is the intention of the Australian Government to establish a list of priorities in relation to the recommendations and, if so, when such priorities will be implemented. At a more general level we need to know the Government's position and the nature of its commitment to the recommendations in this report.

Allow me to mention just one or two examples of the sort of thing I have in mind. Firstly, teacher education in Australian tertiary institutions needs to include training in the methods of procedures available to reduce learning difficulties. Such training should be given to all trainees and qualified teachers by both pre and in-service training. The Select Committee's report makes several critical recommendations about these aspects of teacher education. We need to know whether the Australian Government is prepared to endorse and implement such change through the various tertiary education commissions and, if so, when will it occur. These are important matters and- members on both sides of the House, I am sure, will want to know the answers to these questions before another month has passed. Secondly, many pre-school children who have learning difficulties do not go to pre-schools or any other educationally orientated place at which such difficulties may be remedied. This includes such categories as linguistically disadvantaged migrant children, in whose welfare I have a particular concern, the economically disadvantaged and so on. The report clearly states that if learning difficulties are not identified and remedied early, overtime such difficulties become harder to remedy.

I asked about the Government's intention in this area in a question without notice on 3 November. I am still patiently waiting for a response. We need to know how and when the Government intends to provide services in order that such children with difficulties will not be disadvantaged for the rest of their lives. Delay is inexcusable. For every month that passes more and more children reach that point of no return where it becomes too late to take such remedial action. Those children are condemned to a life with little prospect. The Australian Council for Educational Research found that 29 per cent of Australia's 10-year-olds and 27 per cent of 14- year-olds cannot understand written material of greater complexity than their classroom textbooks. Some 20 per cent of 14-year-olds cannot comprehend the meaning of passages taken from daily newspapers. Some 26 per cent cannot write a letter applying for a job. There are twice as many students in need of remedial help in reading or arithmetic as there are places. These figures are beyond dispute. They are not the findings of an educationist with his own barrow to push but the findings of research undertaken under the auspices of the Education Research and Development Committee of the Australian

Government. They clearly show that a quarter of our children pass from primary to secondary school and on to the job market without ever acquiring the basic educational skills needed to take their place as functional members of the work force and citizen body.

This country has a long history of assistance for those struggling to compete successfully in other market situations, but the labour market is the most cut-throat of all markets. There are no subsidies or superphosphate bounties there. So the situation is critical. It is interesting and a little saddening to see that response to this situation includes 2 sorts of reaction which are not helpful in the least. One fairly typical response is to try to minimise the problems of basic educational skills. What has been done to meet the crisis of literacy by pointing out that in some comparable countries such as New Zealand or the United Kingdom things are even worse. I would like to know how that helps the situation in Australia. Of course it does not. There has to be an end to the shoddy rationalisation and unceasing defence of the indefensible. Normal children should be able to read by the time they are seven. Teaching a child to read is the most fundamental responsibility which is owed to him by his school and the education system generally.

Mr MacKenzie - What about his parents?

Mr INNES -If he had one like you he would never learn. The rebirth of literacy should be adopted by governments forthwith as a major national priority. The second misleading response, and one which members might think I am about to embrace myself, is the return to the golden age syndrome which has become a great rallying cry for conservatives in this country. Modern educational techniques, it is held, have destroyed standards of literacy and we need to . return to a concentration on the sit up and shut up, strap across the buttocks, rote learning of the 3 Rs system of education. Such stone age authoritarianism certainly fails every educational test except, just possibly, that of literacy. It teaches mindless obedience rather than the truly educational value of inquiry and questioning. It teaches fear of blank servility towards authority rather than the democractic value of civic interest and participation.

I am not saying for one moment that I condone some of the programs that are outlined. Plenty of evidence suggests that there ought to be establishment of a proper and efficient program. If there is a necessity to return to some basic notion of education to achieve that, it ought to be done. I simply raise the question. The problem is here with us. In the far distant future children from my electorate of Melbourne will still be lamenting if the Minister does come to grips with the problem and lets the recommendation of the Committee go unheeded or shelved for the purpose of procrastination. The Government has become certainly not in the true sense of the word objective in its approach, nor has it been challenged on many occasions for shelving reports and not letting them become public. This one is public. It has been tabled. It contains recommendations. What we are calling on the Government to do is to give effect to those recommendations. The Committee was unanimous in its attitude on the issues to which I made reference. There was no argument, there was consensus, about the fundamental principles which I have outlined.

The reason why I said that these approaches just possibly do aid literacy is that there is no firm evidence to suggest that it does. No one has been able satisfactorily to prove that there was ever a golden age in Australian education when standards of literacy were more satisfactory than they are at present; nor is it likely that we will ever have evidence to suggest that those in the generation of our grandfathers were better readers than those in our children's generation. What is needed is action, not a lot of words. What we can say with certainty- and this can be confirmed by the House of Representatives Select Committee of Specific Learning Difficultiesis that an enormous number of today's children who clearly have the capacity to read are missing out on the learning process. In this context, whether there has been an actual decline in reading standards is supremely unimportant. What matters is the decline which has occurred in literacy and the aspiration held by our community for all its children.

We have to establish a re-birth of literacy as a major national priority. In this sense we need to reject efforts to divert discussion away from our present problems and practical ways of overcoming them in favour of an historical debate of a sterile and most inconclusive kind. It is time to tackle the real problems. It is time for a major shift in educational resources to enable the problems of literacy to be tackled head on. To do otherwise is to sell out our children on the basic freedoms of access to information, vocational choice and even political choice which literacy alone can confer. The experience of those who served on the Committee- and I am sure this will be supported by those who have experience in the field- would suggest that recommendations from the Committee's report should be adopted to deal with factors which are external to the classroom and lead to a failure to achieve. Any review of the adequacy of current measures is unsatisfactory if it fails to consider the importance of broader environmental factors.

It is readily obvious that the high proportion of Aboriginal and migrant children- particularly Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory, as was indicated by the honourable member for Fremantle (Mr Beazley)- who suffer from learning difficulties is seriously contributed to by general rather than specific problems. This fact has been firmly established in a number of reputable investigations apart from that carried out by the Select Committee on Specific Learning Difficulties on which the honourable member for Moore (Mr Hyde) and I served. There have been a number of other investigations such as that by the Senate Select Committee on Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and the migrant task force report. It was mentioned also in the submission by a Mr Bell who had practical experience as a school teacher in the Alice Springs area. It was he who submitted in evidence to the Select Committee on Specific Learning Difficulties that the influence on educational under-achievement of other factors such as cultural and linguistic difficulties, basic housing and health problems in a domestic environment, the pattern of alcohol consumption and problems of frequent family movement should be recognised. The importance of these factors in Aboriginal learning disabilities is well documented.

There is a whole range of investigations taking place in all areas where migrant children go to school. It is true that there is a dire need for bilingual teachers in these areas. There is a screaming need for community relations officers who are bilingual. In this respect what has been the achievement of the present Government in the schools mentioned by the honourable member for Calare (Mr MacKenzie)? There is a dearth of teachers in those schools and, if additional teachers are not forthcoming, these schools will not be able to carry on the programs in the Northern Territory for which this screaming need exists. At the Stuart Park Primary School in Darwin there are 2 bilingual- Greekspeakingcommunity relations officers who are fundamental to the children in that area achieving to the maximum. But what happened? Due to the many Budget cuts and the pressures applied in the area, the services of these 2 individuals were dispensed with. This action was to the detriment of the capacity and entitlement of the children in that area to be on equal ground with other children. It was only after a scream from the community that they were put back in the service for a limited period.

In Melbourne, where there is another screaming need for community relations officers, there are blocks of flats in which children are living in shocking circumstances. In one block of flats in Collingwood, 80 per cent of the inhabitants are either unmarried or single mothers or deserted wives- women who are on their own trying to bring up their children. If one goes into the schools seeking to discover what is missing in the link between the education situation and the home environment one need only speak to community relations officers. The honourable member for Moore can smirk for as long as he likes but why does he not indicate whether what I am saying is correct and whether he will support me in a demand that the recommendations in the report be implemented as soon as possible? We should not put up with the procrastination that we have tolerated in the immediate past. I have asked questions on this issue of the report and still have not received an answer. This morning I asked a further question without notice on the same issue and I hope that it gets better treatment.

We appreciate the problem of resources and are not opposing the Bill in general. If we are to go along with this elitist concept, ignore what is in our mind 's eye and in our hearts, and turn our attention to the silk department or the tertiary education area, we will be turning our back on those who need greater help. It might well be that what is needed is a redistribution of resources for some period at least to catch up with and endeavour to relieve the plight of those in the underprivileged areas of our society- the Aboriginal children and the migrant children in particular. We encourage migrants to come out here and immediately set for them standards which are inferior in many respects to the standards we set for the community generally. We find migrant children in schools trying to cope with 2 languages- their native tongue and English. They are losing their mother tongue and cannot find a text book which adequately covers their requirements in their struggle to equip themselves to look after themselves and thenfamilies in the future.

I have endeavoured to stay some distance away from the specific provisions of the report of the Select Committee on Specific Learning Difficulties. The honourable member for Moore (Mr Hyde) should think again if he believes that these are the only areas with which I intend to deal in the debate on the report. I believe that the specific matters raised by the Select Committee on Specific Learning Difficulties ought to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. A whole range of issues is screaming out for attention. If we are not prepared to do something about a redistribution of resources between now and the time when children from the primary schools are moving into the secondary school area, we will commit a number of these children into the wilderness in which other children find themselves. If we allow this to happen, it will be a disgrace to our society.

I am not talking about whether the previous Government was right, how much money it spent on education or whether the present Government will do something better in this area in the future. We have to come to grips with the fact that the problem exists now. I nope that the opportunity to debate the matters contained in the report of the Select Committee on Specific Learning Difficulties will be provided in the very near future. Today I have merely attempted to bring the current crisis concerning literacy to the attention of the House. I hope the lesson will not be lost on honourable members opposite and that the Government will accordingly bring on a debate on the report of the Select Committee at the earliest opportunity.

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