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Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training
Adult literacy and its importance

BAUER, Mrs Rosealyn, Board Member, Adult Learning Australia [by audio link]

MACAFFER, Ms Jenny, Chief Executive Offficer, Adult Learning Australia [by audio link]


CHAIR: We'll move to our second witness, and we have Adult Learning Australia to now give evidence. Please go state and the capacity in which you are appearing before our committee today.

Ms Macaffer : Adult Learning Australia has been around for 61 years, and we're really pleased to be here today and welcome the opportunity to input into the inquiry.

CHAIR: Thank you, Jenny. I understand you're on your own today?

Ms Macaffer : No, I have Ros Bauer, one of our board members, who's also with us. I'll just let Ros introduce herself.

Mrs Bauer : Thanks, Jen. I'm an adult language literacy numeracy practitioner, and I've been working in the field for quite a considerable amount of time in New South Wales, Victoria and the Northern Territory.

CHAIR: That's excellent. That'll be very helpful, Ros; and thank you very much, Jenny. Let me first point out that this evidence is under oath. Hearings are legal proceedings of parliament, they warrant the same respect as proceedings of the House and false or misleading evidence is a serious matter, potentially contempt of parliament. Perhaps you'd like to go first, Ms Macaffer.

Ms Macaffer : Thank you. As I mentioned before, Adult Learning Australia is a national not-for-profit peak organisation that's been operating for more than 61 years, and we cover all the states and territories across Australia. Our main aim is to ensure lifelong and lifewide learning for all Australians, but particularly adult Australians, and we also represent adult and community education providers, which take all forms across the country. They could be neighbourhood houses, learning centres, Aboriginal training and skills organisations, community colleges, libraries or local government, so our membership is very diverse. We're particularly keen to look at how adult and community education plays a role in learning and literacy. I'll hand over to Ms Bauer now.

Mrs Bauer : Thanks, Jen. One of the things that I have been thinking a lot about—and I've looked at some of the other submissions and just in my awareness of the sector—is that there seem to be a lot of very disconnected things happening in the adult literacy space in Australia. Some places are much better resourced than others, and that's never been so obvious to me as working in New South Wales, working in the Northern Territory and coming back to New South Wales. It's a constant reminder to me of how under-resourced it is for people in places like the Northern Territory, where the tyranny of distance is just always present in any kind of provision. So even though there's this piecemeal approach and lots of different types of programs happening, one of the things that I see that doesn't come up very much is our resourcing of the sector in terms of having people to deliver in the space. It's something that there's not as much focus on. So I always welcome when there's any investment in adult literacy, and I'm working in a space where we're tapping into the Foundation Skills for Your Future, which I think is a terrific initiative.

But what we're finding is that we've got a workforce that's an ageing workforce, there's no real job security in the sector and it's very difficult to expect people to undertake expensive qualifications with no real guarantee of work in the sector. because of the way that it's so disjointed. The other thing I think—I've just mentioned Foundation Skills for Your Future, which is very much based on economic output, because it's all about work and jobs—is that there's a whole lot of provision that people need before they're even ready for work, and I think that's also an extraordinary gap, because if people are unable to actually either have the literacies to have agency over their being and be able to manage household bills or help their children do their own homework or manage their banking or in fact even be able to read and write, have very basic reading and writing, they're a long way off work. So whilst I welcome any provision from the Commonwealth or states in the workspace, the pre-work or pre-career space is something that I think is quite lacking.

Ms HAMMOND: Thank you both for appearing here this morning and for your detailed submission. I would like to start with the reference you made to the PIAAC data that is run through the OECD. I think it's 44 per cent of Australians lack literacy skills, 14 per cent are very poor and 30 per cent, I think the stats are, are poor. What do you know about the PIAAC? How many people did it? How many people does it survey? What sort of test does it run? Can you give us some detail on that actual OECD program?

Ms Macaffer : So I can give you a little bit. PIAAC happened for the first time about 12 years ago. It's part of an international agreement, so Australia signed up with other countries so there's a benchmark there. We were due for another PIAAC assessment or survey I think it was last year, but obviously COVID has held it over. So the ABS, Australian Bureau of Statistics, has been commissioned to do the PIAAC survey, but unfortunately I think even this time when they get around to doing it, when COVID allows, there's actually only enough funding to do half the sampling that it did last time.

Ms HAMMOND: And what's the size of the sampling, do you know?

Ms Macaffer : Look, I'm not quite up with what they've agreed to now, but in some of the states and territories it's a very small sampling. So it might only be 100 or 200 people, whereas before it might have been 500—

Ms HAMMOND: If I can just pick that up—and sorry for interrupting,—one of your recommendations or I think two of your early recommendations on the way forward is that we have to commission research that provides a deeper understanding, and so perhaps if the sampling of the OECD program is so low, I think the justification for actually commissioning research is even greater.

Ms Macaffer : I think that's true. I mean, the sampling is a good sort of benchmark, but it needs to be supplemented. Certainly it doesn't really go into Aboriginal remote communities, and you'll hear that I think later on this afternoon. Bob Boughton will be presenting with someone else later on this afternoon, and he's an expert in some of the areas around Aboriginal communities. The other thing is that we don't understand the social landscape fully, because we don't really know what's out there. There are issues in different cohorts of the population, in different demographics, so it depends: are you rural, regional, remote, in metro areas? What access do you have to services where there might be literacy support? That is different and very diverse across the country, so we need to map that kind of social landscape and do that research. What are the issues? What are the needs? What's out there now?

We currently do what we call an adult and continuing education scan showing that there are about 2,500 adult and community education providers across the country. But we don't know lots about them, and they could take the form of neighbourhood houses to an organisation that has both informal and formal education, so accredited and unaccredited. But as Ros was stating, the best pathways or entry points for people who have low literacy and numeracy often aren't the institutional pathways. Some of our members help people getting their driver's licence. They don't think that they're going for literacy; they're going for driving their licence. But at the same time they've got to read and write, answer forms and comprehend those sorts of things, so that's one way of entering through that pathway. Or maybe there's a cooking class, for instance, and it might sound like it's just getting together and learning how to cook. But if you're learning how to read recipes, how to measure things, you might actually go along to do food hygiene or cooking classes or become a chef. So people need these kinds of soft entry points, and that's what adult and continuing education does best I think in Australia. It needs to be recognised that these soft entry points and these other pathways are very important. You'll have these organisations in your own community.

Ms HAMMOND: So getting some research done might be the first plank of any national policy as to the true extent of the issue across Australia, the social characteristics and the causes and best ways of reaching out and then the best sorts of programs for various different cohorts. What did you call it, when you pick it up in a cooking class, the soft entry points?

Ms Macaffer : The soft entry points, and we've seen those in many modes. As I said, there are lots of examples, and Ros in fact can talk about that in terms of Aboriginal populations that she has worked with in some of the remote communities, if you'd like an example.

Mrs Bauer : Thanks, Jen. Often, and Jen has just covered this pretty well, people don't necessarily seek out what they see as literacy or use that terminology. They have a need—and the driver's licence is a naturally perfect need, or being able to fill out a form is another example—requiring a whole heap of skills in terms of reading, writing, learning and knowing the context. There's a purpose around it, and it's such a social thing. Literacy is a social practice, because we are doing it, being involved, in every part of our lives, every day. Yuendumu, where I worked for quite a bit of time, was a very unique place because there were learning centres in the Warlpiri communities up there that were funded by the Granites goldmine, but that is not the case for many other remote communities in the Northern Territory. That provision in the way that it was in the Warlpiri community is either almost non-existent or just provided by people like helping organisations. There might be a clinic in the town or at a school where people go if they need help, but in actual fact people need a lot more than that.

The other thing I think I might just add there is that in those kinds of spaces everybody becomes a literacy worker, and I think one of the ways that we can actually get some reach across those hard-to-resource places, because there's not a limitless amount of training and we can't stick adult learning centres in every community in Australia, is if people who work in those communities have the skills to support people properly, without necessarily turning them into adult literacy teachers, but have literacy volunteer 101 as part of their toolkit. I recently talked at a conference on behalf of ALA, and one of the things I just thought of, to give an example of what we could do, is if you go to work in a remote community, you're not allowed to go unless you have a working-with-children check, and you have to have four-wheel drive training. Well, I think one of the other things I see with the amount of transience, with people coming in and working for job network providers, in the clinics and in other the spaces, is that people need to have some idea about how to support the literacy of the people that they're working with, and I don't think that's a really hard thing to do. I think that those kinds of badged short courses could help people and in fact adult learning in the space there. We don't want people to go and do a fully accredited course, but if they could actually do literacy support 101 so that they have ideas about how to help somebody fill out a form or read a document, that would go a long way to helping get some reach across some of those.

Ms HAMMOND: Or perhaps even varying levels of literacy identification so you get the skills to be able to identify when somebody is having literacy or numeracy problems and help them at a base level, then perhaps refer them on, because I imagine not everybody is quite capable of teaching literacy or numeracy, but if they have the skills to identify there's an issue, then there are referral services for people who do exist. Thank you for your time here.

Ms BELL: Thanks, Ms Macaffer and Mrs Bauer, for being with us today. I want to ask some questions and explore the area of the role of business in literacy and numeracy, or the opportunity perhaps. I see in your list, the call to action to governments, numbers 7 and 8 are talking about the whole-of-community, family literacy and learning approaches, as well as a library-based literacy program, that break cycles of low formal education and literacy. That's one point, and point 8 was to ensure nationally consistent support for adult learners requiring literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills to achieve vocational competence. I'm wondering whether there is an opportunity there that we're not tapping into when it comes to the role of business or those SMEs, small-to-medium enterprises, who can employ people with low literacy and perhaps mentor them or help them as a sort of partnership with government in some way. Am I painting a picture of an opportunity that might exist? I'm wondering what your thoughts are on how that might work.

I remember when I was learning my second language, and the environment that I was in, the only way I learned was that my host mother at the time was taken to walking me around the kitchen and speaking in the language which I was learning, which at that time was Danish. She was simply holding out objects and telling me what they were and then slowly teaching me to speak that language, and within three months—because I had no access to speaking English apart from privately, but whenever I was interacting, I had to learn the language in order to progress—at the age of 17 I had learned to be quite fluent in that language. But it was only because I had that mentor and the buddies also at school at that time to assist me in learning the language, so I'm just wondering whether there is a role for buddy and mentor programs, perhaps in a workplace environment or in other environments, community environments, those sorts of things. You did mention a little bit earlier that there are those sorts of volunteer literacy folk out there helping, so I'm just wondering about your thoughts on those points.

Mrs Bauer : Thanks, Ms Bell. I may note here that is such an important thing that you're suggesting here, because what I see also needs to happen is raising that awareness that organisations and other places are actually part of the learning centre without actually realising it. For example, I live in a small community, and we've got a small shire council. They may see their role as rates, rubbish and roads or whatever else, but they actually can play a much bigger role, as can other organisations. One of the things that was a real weakness in the old workplace English language literacy program was only working with the workers, so that when that group of workers left and a new group of workers started, all that learning and literacy acquisition was actually lost. We weren't actually embedding it by training literacy champions or literacy mentors in the workplace. So that idea of having people in the workplace that can be the literacy officer or whatever name you want to call them is another really strategic way of trying to get a reach across the community that doesn't look to the answer for this to be just an educational institution, because as you said, in learning your second language, it wasn't sitting in a classroom; it was being socially involved in the language of that culture that what you were trying to learn about. So I think there can be great scope for organisations to be undertaking that, and it could be part of the other things they do. Organisations have environmental targets and affirmative action targets. Where's our adult literacy target?

Ms BELL: OH&S comes to mind as well.

Mrs Bauer : Yes, that was the other one.

Ms BELL: If occupational health and safety has to be undertaken, perhaps literacy and numeracy have to be undertaken as part of their induction into the workforce or workplace.

Mrs Bauer : Absolutely, yes.

Ms Macaffer : Thank you, Ms Bell, for that question. The other thing I just want to add is that adult and community education providers, because they're in the local community, as Ros said, are very connected to other networks and informal relationships. Some of the adult and community education providers actually establish social enterprises themselves, so they develop catering, cleaning services so they can employ and teach at the same time in nonthreatening environments. We've actually got a Learning Changes Lives Foundation. We've recently just funded a small group to put through about 40 participants to teach some literacy and numeracy by making coffee at a coffee stand and taking it around to events. That's a kind of pathway to develop some customer service skills, learning how to measure things, all those sorts of things, so again it's supported by workers in a community centre.

Ms BELL: And it's enjoyable for the participants.

Ms Macaffer : That's right. They also learn things around risk management and work health and safety and hygiene, but they don't see it as actually education; they're seeing it as learning a pathway to a job and social interaction.

Ms BELL: But could more be done in partnership with business in this area, do you think?

Ms Macaffer : Yes, and there are a number of local community providers that work that actually get approached by local community businesses to tailor specific courses to them. They might need to just learn a number of skills, so they will actually work with those community providers. They're flexible enough to be able to do that, to work with local business and local community providers because they're in either the same municipality or the same region, and they want the same outcomes for their communities.

Ms BELL: Thank you very much for your response.

CHAIR: Can I have a concluding question, unless committee members contact me otherwise. I want to understand the difference between providing the term you used, more soft entry points, for additional literacy training and overcoming hesitancy or reluctance to admit that additional literacy training would be beneficial, so I'm trying to understand how we can make an assessment on whether additional awareness-raising in this literacy space is effective if people have a reluctance to come forward or admit that additional training might change their lives in a beneficial way. Secondly, there's a proportion of people who admit it probably is but have some doubt about whether they can improve their skills or feel overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge of illiteracy and therefore are reluctant to take that first step. I want to learn a bit more about those for whom it isn't simply a matter of supplying extra opportunity but it's going to require a lot more work, particularly culturally appropriate work, to get them to take that first step, then obviously once that occurs, how successful you are at holding some of those people with low levels of confidence or uncertainty for the longer term sufficient to actually improve literacy.

Ms Macaffer : Thank you for that question, Dr Laming. I might just say that there is a great deal of shame in this area where people are not able to read and write, and sometimes people have been able to manage that for a certain period of time until a certain point in their life when it becomes very difficult. I know in Tasmania from some of our members there—and I think you're going to speak with them tomorrow—there was some work done with 26TEN where a lot of farmers who were working in agriculture discovered they couldn't actually read and write. In that sense they might have been using toxic substances sometimes, so they mightn't be able to read the directions or the measurements. So those sorts of things can be problematic, but due to the fact that they might have challenges reading and writing, they don't often come forward to literacy programs, because they feel that sort of shame and embarrassment. In terms of those sorts of entry points, I think I might just pass to Ros, because she's probably had a bit more hands-on experience in those terms.

Mrs Bauer : Thanks, Jen, and thanks for the question. It's a massive one, can I say, Dr Laming, and it's also quite significant because even though we might say professional development's an issue, funding's an issue, this is also an incredible barrier for people. One of the things that I always do when I start off working with somebody, whether they're from a language other than English or someone who is an Australian-born native speaker and has had literacy challenges all their lives, is acknowledge the incredible other strengths that they have, because in these cases people have had a lot of other strategies that they've developed over a period of time to actually navigate the reading and writing they need in their lives and have developed a whole lot of other skills and—this is probably purely from a practitioner perspective—reassure them that they are not alone. Often, they think that they're the only one, because this is actually an invisible issue for people. It's an invisible as a national issue, people who have a literacy issue. It's not invisible for us here present today, because that's why we're here. It's not invisible to adult literacy practitioners and others in the field. But generally by the time somebody presents and they need some help, they're not realising that there are many other people in Australia from various backgrounds who have the same issues, so I always make that a starting point and acknowledge their other strengths. I know how to do it one on one; I'm not sure what the national approach would be unless there was some sort of campaign that would then give people the confidence to come forward.

CHAIR: Thank you for what is a very complicated question with many parts to it. If you'd like to contact us in the following seven days with any additional information about these not so much high-risk groups but groups that have the greatest reluctance to come forward if there were to be additional supply of adult literacy opportunities and also any evidence either in Australia or in comparable countries where these highly challenging groups have been able to show greater stability and success by changing the strategy—we're interested in what strategies would not only deliver more supply of opportunity but identify the groups that are hardest to engage and retain until they show a difference in their literacy capabilities—any evidence to that effect we would warmly welcome. We thank you for your attendance here today with us, Adult Learning Australia, and your contributions. The transcript will be available, sent to you. You'll be able to check that and let us know if there are any errors. Obviously that additional information within seven days would be very much appreciated, and you can contact us for any other matters as well via the secretariat. So to Ms Macaffer and Mrs Bauer, thank you very much for your time today. All the best.

CHAIR: Thank you for what is a very complicated question with many parts to it. However, if you'd like to contact us in the following seven days with any additional information about not so much high-risk groups but groups that have the greatest reluctance to come forward if there was to be an additional supply of adult literacy opportunities and also any evidence either in Australia or comparable countries where these highly challenging groups have been able to show greater stickability and success by changing the strategy. We're interested in what strategies would not only deliver more supply of opportunity but identify the groups that are hardest to engage and retain them through until they show a difference in their literacy capabilities. Any evidence to that effect we would warmly welcome.

We thank Adult Learning Australia for your attendance here today with us and for your contributions. The transcript will be sent to you. You'll be able to check that, and please let us know if there are any errors. Obviously, any additional information within seven days would be very much appreciated. You can contact us for any other matters as well via the secretariat. Ms Macaffer and Mrs Bauer, thank you very much for your time today.