Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Queensland: Minister discusses the literacy survey, saying Dr Kemp is being irresponsible by releasing data which has not been validated; Dr Kemp responds to allegations raised by State Education Ministers.

PETER QUINN: Federal Schools Minister, Dr David Kemp, stands accused by four State Education Ministers of shattering public confidence in schools this morning by deliberating manipulating survey figures to show a high illiteracy rate among school children. In a joint statement, the Ministers from New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, say Dr Kemp's been misleading and alarmist by claiming that one-third of Australian school children can't read or write properly. Queensland Education Minister, Bob Quinn, spoke to Peter Rapp.

BOB QUINN: Well, there's a view around that because Dr Kemp has been beating the literacy bandwagon for quite some time, he feels that he has to manufacture some figures and to, you know, make a crisis when, in fact, we don't know for sure what the standards are at this particular point in time.

PETER RAPP: That's a very serious charge, isn't it?

BOB QUINN: Well, I mean, I would have thought that someone in Dr Kemp's position would take a responsible attitude to this whole program. The States are trying to cooperate with the Commonwealth. We've agreed on national goals for numeracy and literacy and we've all put money into this particular project to make sure that, in fact, when the information becomes available to us, it's accurate. Now, for Dr Kemp or anyone else to go and make public comments before all the work is completed begs the question of what the motivation really is.

PETER RAPP: And the four Ministers believe that he really doesn't have the ability now to be productive in this area, is that right?

BOB QUINN: Well, when you're asking all the States to cooperate, in terms of a national goal about numeracy and literacy, and dedicate some funding to it and then turn around and release the information, which is not valid information, and information that also belongs to all of the States as well as the Commonwealth, because all of the States have financially committed money to this particular project, one would have to question whether or not Dr Kemp is serious about seeing this program through to the end.

PETER RAPP: From what you've just said, the four States don't have the confidence in Dr Kemp to prosecute his position and the literacy area. Should he be replaced?

BOB QUINN: That's a matter for the Commonwealth itself. My major concern is that, at this particular point in time, we're seeing a release of data which has not been validated, data which belongs to not only the Commonwealth but also the States and, I think, in my view, that's just simply irresponsible.

PETER QUINN: Queensland's Education Minister, Bob Quinn. Well, to discuss these survey results and the allegations raised by those State Education Ministers, we're joined in our studios this morning by the Federal Education Minister, Dr David Kemp. To speak with him, AM's Ross Solley.

ROSS SOLLEY: Dr Kemp, have you manipulated these figures?

DAVID KEMP: Absolutely not. The results that have been released to the media and which will be put out in the public domain in detail today, have been prepared by Australia's top literacy experts with the Australian Council for Educational Research. They are based on standards developed by the national benchmarking task force which has the support of all the States and Territories. They are, in fact, the result of the most expert analysis of the most comprehensive study of literacy among school children that has ever been done in this country.

ROSS SOLLEY: But I understand that most of the States and Territories haven't actually signed off yet on the benchmark standards that you're using.

DAVID KEMP: Well, these benchmark standards are the standards that have been developed by the benchmarking task force. To my knowledge....

ROSS SOLLEY: But they don't have the approval of the States, do they, yet?

DAVID KEMP: Well, the States, indeed, as the Ministers did sign off on these benchmarks in the middle of the year, so far as I'm aware there's never been any question raised about the level of these benchmarks and, in fact, in the application of these benchmarks to the survey that was done, the conclusion was reached by the Australian Council for Educational Research that in fact the benchmark did distinguish very clearly at year three whether young people had basic literacy skills or didn't. And what we're now being able to put before the public is information for the first time that parents have been demanding for decades. They want an answer to the question: can my child read and write at a satisfactory level? The Australian Council for Educational Research has done this analysis and what we find is that around one-third of young Australians in year three and year five do not have literacy standards at that satisfactory level.

ROSS SOLLEY: Okay, but there's another survey, a National Schools Literacy Survey, which I understand you're also going to release today, which shows that over 90 per cent of year three students and about 80 per cent of year five students have reached adequate reading requirements.

DAVID KEMP: Well, this is not another survey, this is the same survey. The results, in fact, are totally compatible with the results that have already come into the public domain and that I'll be putting out later today and of which the Ministers were informed about last week.

ROSS SOLLEY: How are they compatible? This one says that over 90 per cent of year three students have adequate reading requirements.

DAVID KEMP: Well, it doesn't say that, and there is no basis for the statement by the State Ministers in the release that they put out that 96 per cent, or whatever percentage of students, are performing at the expected level. The concept of the expected level of performance is not in the report. That has, in fact, been made up by the State Ministers.

Look, what we're seeing here, Ross, is people who've been out of the spotlight for quite a long time, they've been conducting teaching of young people, which has not been successful in bringing all young people up to the literacy level they ought to be at at year three. The spotlight is now on and they're finding it uncomfortable. The fact is that parents in this country want their young people to read and write. Every literacy expert tells us that young people should be reading and writing by the end of grade three. What we've now got is the first analysis we've had in this country of that simple proposition: how many young people are literate in reading and writing by the end of grade three? And what we're finding is that a very significant minority of young people, who are at risk of being disadvantaged for life, don't meet that standard.

ROSS SOLLEY: Of the 27 per cent whose reading levels you say are unsatisfactory and the 28 per cent whose writing levels are unsatisfactory, what percentage of those don't actually have English as a first language?

DAVID KEMP: Well, there are a significant number of young people in a representative sample who come from a non-English speaking background. Round about, probably about 25 per cent of the sample come from young people from families where the parents are born overseas. If we have a look, however....

ROSS SOLLEY: So doesn't that cause problems for your result findings straight away because you wouldn't expect children who don't have English as a first language to reach standards so quickly that other students with English as a first language might reach, would you?

DAVID KEMP: Well, if they're children of migrants, they are entitled, of course, to English as a second language, which is designed to bring them up to a literacy level rapidly. We've also, of course, got a very substantial problem amongst young people who have English as their first language, for example, 33 per cent of students in year five with an English language background fall below the national standard for writing literacy - 33 per cent with English as their native language or their mother tongue.

This is not an issue that is confined to students who come from families where English is not the first language, this is a wide problem. I think we have to face up to the fact, Ross, that in this country there is a significant literacy problem, and it has to be addressed, it can be addressed, and should be addressed, in those early years of schooling. This is the best data we have ever had to indicate the dimensions of that problem, and I believe it is very disturbing that we have State Ministers saying that they don't want to face up to these facts. What they should be doing is saying, 'This information gives us the power and the capacity to press on and make sure literacy has the priority that it ought to have in that junior, secondary curriculum. And if they are not prepared to give literacy their first priority, then I think the parents of this country will want to know what they're doing there as Education Ministers, because that is the first priority.

ROSS SOLLEY: Dr David Kemp, thanks for your time.

DAVID KEMP: Thank you.

PETER CAVE: The Federal Education Minister speaking there to Ross Solley in Canberra.