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

MENDELOVITS, Ms Juliette, Research Director, Assessment and Reporting Research Program, Australian Council for Educational Research [by audio link]

WIGNALL, Ms Louise, Senior Research Fellow, Tertiary Education, Australian Council for Educational Research [by audio link]


CHAIR: We'll now move to ACER, the Australian Council for Educational Research. I remind each of you from ACER that the committee doesn't require you to give evidence under oath but that hearings are legal proceedings of parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the House. False or misleading evidence is a serious matter, potentially contempt of parliament. Would you like to start, Ms Mendelovits, with an opening statement before we proceed to questions?

Ms Mendelovits : Sure. So ACER, as you may know, is a national organisation that specialises in educational research, particularly in assessment, and we are very interested and keen to promote Australia's participation in international adult literacy and numeracy studies. We also have researchers who are highly engaged in researching adult literacy and numeracy, and so we are keen to build Australia's capacity to support adults particularly with low levels of literacy and numeracy and their engagement in the economy and society.

Ms HAMMOND: Thank you very much, Ms Mendelovits, for the ACER submission. This is an excellent submission, and clearly ACER is very invested in this space and has done a lot of research. I'd like you to take us through the PIAAC process. Your submission has a lot of detail on that, but I would like it for the record as well. So we had it last done in 2011 or 2012. How many people in Australia did it sample, do you know?

Ms Mendelovits : Approximately 8500 households, and each household fields one participant in the survey. Australia had an additional sample of 15-year-olds and 65-to-74-year-olds, whereas most countries participating only looked at 16-to-65-year-olds, so we had more at each end. The survey, PIAAC, the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, is about to go into its next cycle, although there were two preceding cycles in 1996 and the second one in 2006, which Australia participated in as well, and they are linked to the current PIAAC program, although there are some caveats around the ability to equate—

Ms HAMMOND: Okay, are the households chosen at random by the ABS?

Ms Mendelovits : Yes, it's a random sample of households, excluding remote Indigenous communities and people incarcerated, but generally speaking it's the whole population in that age group.

Ms HAMMOND: It's interesting, and I think you pick up on the point in your paper—it is highlighted, so I took that as meaning something that you wanted to emphasise—that the exclusion of both the incarcerated population and remote Indigenous communities would affect the results, because I think others are giving us evidence later on today that the levels of poor literacy and poor numeracy are particularly high in incarcerated populations. Does that accord with the research that you have done?

Ms Mendelovits : I think we haven't done any focussed analysis of incarcerated populations that I know of at ACER. There's certainly international evidence, particularly from a researcher in Oregon in the United States who did a longitudinal study of incarcerated men over 10 years, I think in early 2000s. They certainly did have very low levels of literacy and numeracy, and his research was to see what kinds of interventions can be successfully used to help those people to raise their literacy and numeracy and all the concomitant improvements in their lives that come from change.

Ms HAMMOND: Now in your report you've also got a chart that describes performance by level, so I understand that there were five levels, level 1 up to I think it was level 5. But within that the chart shows age groups, and I think there's peak literacy and numeracy at ages in the 30s, I think it was, but then it declines. I've got two questions arising from that: (a) do we lose literacy and numeracy skills as we age, and (b)—this is a snapshot in time, I take it, from the last time we did the PIAAC survey, if that's how you refer to it—could we see differences when we run it again based on how education has changed over the last decades, if you like, so the literacy and numeracy might actually extend out longer than the 30s?

Ms Mendelovits : Well, we may. We certainly may. The hypothesis is that as people get older and particularly as they move away from school and tertiary education, their numeracy skills in particular are more likely to decline because they're not consciously using those skills in their working lives and their social lives as well but they might be using their literacy in everyday life, although the decline is across both areas, literacy and numeracy. Another interesting part of the PIAAC survey that wasn't part of the previous adult literacy and numeracy surveys is the problem-solving in technology-rich environments, which is I suppose a surrogate for ICT skills, and Australia actually did very well in that in comparison with all other countries. But we may see even an increase in performance in that area as more people go through the school system and acquire those skills. I think the emphasis on retaining literacy and numeracy skills as we get older is influenced by our early education, our school education and our tertiary education, and there are higher levels of both of those in the younger population. That will likely flow through to the older age groups as we go along, but also even in countries which have had high levels of tertiary education for many years, like the United States, you still see that decline as people age. The only country I think from the last PIAAC survey where the adult population was more skilled in literacy and numeracy than the younger population was England, and there are various speculations about why that's the case.

Ms HAMMOND: Kids don't get taught grammar anymore, but that's a little pet peeve of mine. If everybody could learn to use apostrophes, I'd be happy.

Ms Mendelovits : I would be delighted too, although that's not measured in that.

Ms HAMMOND: Coming back then to some of the detail in your report, do we think that when the PIAAC says 44 per cent, that's an accurate measure of the issue in Australia, or is the sample size big enough?

Ms Mendelovits : Look, I have great faith in the ABS, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who conduct the survey, the household survey, and I'm confident that the general statistics, the aggregated statistics, are a good sample. What we can't know from those statistics is really anything about the Indigenous population. That's one of your terms of reference, highlighted number 1, to look at the Indigenous population, and we find it really puzzling at ACER as to why in the PIAAC study since 1996 there hasn't been any oversampling of the Indigenous population, the remote populations but also just the urban populations as well, where most Indigenous people are living, to try and get a handle on what's going on in those populations. So once we get down to the subgroup level, with a random sample, there wouldn't have been more than about 250 Indigenous people, if they all responded proportionately, in the last collection of data. That's not enough to make any general statements about what the levels of literacy, numeracy or PSTRE are, so that's a really strong plea to the federal government to resource that so that we can get a handle on what's going on nationally with our Indigenous adults.

Ms HAMMOND: Do you think that there's an argument for an additional and perhaps more frequent—well, I think that's every 10 years—review of adult literacy and numeracy within the Australian context? Do you think that there's a legitimate argument that we should conduct our own research into this or commission somebody to do research into this area?

Ms Mendelovits : We'd be delighted if that were taken. If you look at other international studies that Australia participate in, like the PISA, Programme for International Student Assessment, and the other study that we take part in, they are conducted respectively every three and four years so that after a decade you are starting to get a good sense, with three datasets, of what's going on. Admittedly it's much more expensive to conduct household surveys. It's more resource heavy, more difficult, than conducting school-based surveys, but still, perhaps if Australia had a goal of conducting its own survey once every five years, so the midpoint between the PIAAC surveys, that would be very helpful.

Ms HAMMOND: Yes, because I think in order to address it as an issue—and you do make reference to Productivity Commission reports and other reports which have stressed a need to actually tackle adult literacy and numeracy levels. What we're doing here in our inquiry is not the first time that this issue has been raised, is it?

Ms Wignall : Look, of one of the things about having an adequate sample size is that you can actually then acquire some guidance data adequately against a whole range of industry groups and business groups, and in the past what we've done with PIAAC data is we've basically looked at how it might appear in a range of different environments and contexts for adults so you can look at how well we are performing in the agricultural sector, in the medical sector, in the aged-care sector. If you don't have a big enough sample size, then you can't see solid data that you can slice and dice in that way. But having a really strong evidence base on which to make decisions, some of which you were talking about previously in some of the previous submissions this morning—the issue of the need for really strong digital literacy in aged-care settings, for example, where a lot of the training is really only a certificate III qualification, but when it comes to making correct clinical notes and handover notes, these things are absolutely critical. So this notion of being able to read and write in the first instance but then being able to apply those skills in a context, within a problem-solving context, within a critical literacy context—it's not just, 'I can read those words,' but, 'I understand what those words mean; I understand the implications of the words I'm about to write down'—all of these things add a much richer notion of what literacy and numeracy in application in the real world might mean.

If I reiterate what a lot of people have said already today, in real estate they say 'location, location, location'; in adult literacy you have 'context, content, context'. What do literacy practices mean to the individuals that are using them in their lives, their livelihoods, at any period of time? Yes, we can be talking about following instructions on maps. We can be talking about writing birthday cards to loved ones. But we can also be talking about making critical decisions around chemicals or the scheduling of a workplace practice that we're deriving from a chart or a set of instructions, so literacy means a lot of different things. It'll mean different things to every single individual, therefore it's really important for us to gather the richest set of data we can in order to then make a set of evidence-based decisions around the solutions that will meet everybody's needs, not just people with low-level literacies who do self-identify and turn up to programs and say, 'Yes, I need help,' but also with the sorts of integrated approaches that mean that we're strengthening our population's literacy practices from within the workplace, from within our sporting club activity, from within our volunteer activities, at libraries, within the family and friends, so that it becomes everybody's business. Literacy is everybody's business. Some people do business more than others, but ultimately it's everybody's business.

Ms HAMMOND: Speaking of that, I know that one of my colleagues has a number of questions in relation to literacy in business environments, so I just want to thank you both for your paper and for appearing here today.

Ms BELL: Ms Wignall and Ms Mendelovits, thanks for being here. I want to continue down my road of questioning in terms of business and how business can help with literacy. I notice in your submission you talk about the future and how taking an holistic approach to L&N can assist high competency completion rates, learner engagement and employer satisfaction, as the most outstanding point to me when I look at business. That's the first point, taking an holistic approach, and then I apply that to your recommendation number 5, to implement a range of standalone informal learning and integrated LLND-focussed programs for a range of learner cohorts in a revised national foundation skills strategy. I guess my question is: I would understand that there are community programs within that national foundation skills strategy, but are there any business or corporate Australia programs in there that could assist in placing low- or no-skill workers into those areas of business? This is what I was talking about earlier with some of the earlier witnesses, just around mentor programs, business programs, an entry pathway through small business or SMEs. Would either or both of you like to speak to that?

Ms Wignall : There is a foundation skills strategy for results that was launched in 2012, running through until 2022, and within that work there was the identification of a number of innovative ideas to locate workplace champions within our different public and private companies and to have them basically lead work within their organisations that promoted in-house approaches to language literacy and numeracy. I know there has been a lot of research done by the Australian Industry Group, BCA, ACCI et cetera, and all of that sits behind some of the thinking that has gone into a range of programs in the past. As someone mentioned before, the workplace English language and literacy program was around for many years, and it was a surprise to many that in fact that was abolished after the 2012 budget. There have been some additional programs put in place that somewhat engage employers since, but I would have to say, sadly, although there's enthusiasm and the will out there, there's not at the moment any sort of overarching structure that allows people to get involved. In many cases within the ACE sector, where people were talking earlier about a neighbourhood house having a little cafe and then trying to transition the people working there into local cafes, it's all done on the good and best will of local employers, often within our suburbs and country towns, but it would be wonderful if there was some sort of structural funding or incentive that meant that there was more opportunity and more reason for people to join up, join forces, get involved and actually create, as some of the people said, some of those soft entry pathways from volunteer work into vocational training or perhaps directly into employment. So I see that that is an enormous opportunity for additional thinking and additional funding, but at the moment I'm afraid there's nothing out there that offers a clear model of how to do that. I think the WELL program is probably one of the best models I've ever seen.

Ms BELL: So could an updated version of that look like some kind of incentive for small-business owners to mentor an English-second-language person or to bring them into their business and help work on their literacy? Is that what it could look like, or what could it look like for small business, in your view?

Ms Wignall : Well, at the moment in Victoria I certainly know that the Adult Community and Further Education Board have a national strategy where they're looking at linking up their Learn Local or ACE sector providers with TAFE colleges and further education providers, as well as providing pathways to employment for people who are seeking assistance within the Learn Local sector. They're always looking for the opportunity to make partnerships with workplaces, to give people work experience and workplace pathways, so linking up some of the strategies that are occurring within our states and territories and providing the opportunity for direct relationships between those agencies with businesses who may then be able to offer opportunities for employment experience and maybe direct employment opportunity would be a fantastic model.

Ms BELL: I understand there's a program now that's 51 local jobs programs across 51 LGAs across Australia, where we have a local jobs facilitator who is matching local people with jobs that are available, and it's working quite well. It has been taken from last year 25 local jobs programs to now 51, and I'm just wondering if there could be an opportunity for literacy to be embedded in that. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Ms Wignall : I'm not entirely familiar with the program that you're talking about.

Ms BELL: It's a COVID response program.

Ms Wignall : The thing that I would say about any program like that is that it's always wonderful to do some action, reflection, and figure out whether or not what you've implemented in an emergency response is working. So going really back to the notion of PIAAC or going back to the notion of evidence-based research, innovation is fantastic, but it's always an opportunity to take pause, do some evaluation, some reflection, look at the strengths and weaknesses of the approach you've taken and then obviously redesign the approach and expand it and then roll it out in a broader sense. My encouragement always with any program is to say, 'Well, we haven't just solved it in one fell swoop; we've given it a good first go. What's really worked well in this program? What do we need to improve? How might we ongoingly implement change and allow it to evolve over time?' so that would really be my response to your question, without knowing too much detail, to just encourage you to look at what works, get the learner voice, find out from the people who receive the program whether it has made a difference to their lives and make adjustments accordingly. But I think anything, Ms Bell, that engages people and joins up people's sense of effort—people talked before about the disparate nature of this out there; there are many people who are passionate about this all working away out there to try and make solutions—has to be a very positive thing.

CHAIR: I have a very quick final question, if I could, for our guests from ACER. I want to refer to what Australian research there is to show that interventions in the pre-primary, primary and secondary phases of education can actually definitively reduce entry into the youth justice and criminal justice system, and I'm aware that we've got the randomised studies by the Abecedarian project back in the 1970s that showed that they can reduce entry into the criminal justice system. I suspect we don't have anything as long in Australia. There's Yes, I Can program, the adult program to assist Indigenous youth, and they believe that they were able to achieve a slight reduction in potentially fines and an increase in people getting driver's licences and understanding AVOs. But is there anything more compelling that we can actually reduce the number of new people entering the pool of adult low-literacy groups by intervening earlier in school, or is there just a general assumption that the better the education, the less illiteracy there is? What can we do to prevent the hardest of the hard cases, particularly in remote and Indigenous areas and within our corrections facilities, from getting there in the first place?

Ms Mendelovits : Look, I'm not aware of any specific research in that area in Australia. I mentioned before the Oregon study that looked at people who were already in the penitentiary system, and a lot was done to support them when they came out of that system. But I don't know of any specific research; do you, Louise?

Ms Wignall : No, I don't know of any specific research in that area, but I certainly know that what we can say about literacy is that it connects people to a sense of learning and personal agency and the more people have that sort of power to make individual choices about their lives, the less likely they are often to make—bad choices, should I say? But with regard to research, unfortunately, that's probably something that's a bit lacking.

CHAIR: Thank you. It may be a recommendation. Any other final comment before we say thank you to our guests from ACER, to our witnesses?

Ms Mendelovits : Sorry, I was just going to say that we could follow that up after this meeting and see whether there is any research that we can direct you to, if that would be helpful. I would just like to say one other thing. We haven't really emphasised what was one of our major points in our submission, that numeracy is not in the title of this inquiry but is a very important area for Australia particularly. As you may have read from the PIAAC study, Australia's literacy levels are quite high in comparison with other OECD countries, but our numeracy levels are only around the average. We know that numeracy particularly has a very strong association with all the other life skills and outcomes that people experience—social health, employment and so on—even higher than the literacy relationship, so we see that as a really important area for adult education improvement.

CHAIR: That's great. If you could help with any research there—we know ARACY has developed a common approach. They talk about the multiple elements to keep young Australians out of the youth justice system, and obviously literacy is one part of it. I'm interested in just how dependent that variable is. If we focus obsessively, say, on getting someone into a supervised workplace, the lift in self-esteem simply by being employed might be effective, but can you do that without a focus on literacy and numeracy skills at the same time?

Ms Mendelovits : Okay, thank you. We'll take that one on notice, thanks.

CHAIR: Thanks, everyone, and thank you very much to our witnesses from the Australian Council for Educational Research. We welcome your follow-up with any issues, including that additional information, over the next seven days, and you'll get a copy of today's proceedings so that you can check that our recording is accurate.