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

HOPGOOD, Ms Susan, Federal Secretary, Australian Education Union [by video link]

RUSSELL, Ms Darcel, Federal Aboriginal Education Officer, Australian Education Union [by video link]


CHAIR: I'd now like to welcome our next guests please, the Australian Education Union. We welcome both of you today. Thank you for joining us. I just remind you that you don't have to give evidence under oath today, but it's the same as proceedings of the House, which means that false and misleading evidence can be regarded as a contempt of parliament. Would you like to start with a brief introductory statement just to summarise your submission, and then we'll go to questions.

Ms Hopgood : Yes, and thanks very much for this opportunity to give evidence and appear today. I'd like to start by acknowledging that I am on Wurundjeri country, and I'd like to pay my respects to elders both past and present. The AEU represents over 194,000 educator members employed in public primary, secondary, early childhood and TAFE sectors right across Australia. AEU members in all three sectors work to instil and encourage literacy and numeracy from children's earliest involvement with education through school and onto post-school vocational education, and as such, AEU members have borne the brunt of the changes to policy that have impacted on the literacy and the numeracy rates of adults in Australia. Many of the reforms and initiatives of the last decade have damaged the literacy and numeracy of Australians. Insufficient resourcing and structural support provided for public education and the educational workforce across the three sectors inhibit improvement in our literacy and numeracy rates. By international standards Australia's results are far behind the benchmarks that wealthy nations such as ours should set for themselves, with approximately one in five Australians, or three million adults, having low literacy and/or numeracy skills. There is a well-established relationship between adult literacy and numeracy and sociodemographic characteristics, including socioeconomic status, parents' literacy skills and migrant status, having your first language other than English and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status. All of these factors can be distinct but more often intersect as diverse, complex and overlapping needs that lead many to struggle with literacy, and the compound and frequently intergenerational impacts of low literacy demonstrate exactly why the Commonwealth should prioritise resourcing for all levels of education.

However, despite the obvious, immediate and lifetime gains that could be made by increasing investment in preschool and schools to facilitate higher levels of literacy and numeracy, particularly amongst disadvantaged communities, there is growing evidence that the gap is in fact widening. We are seeing increasing residualisation in education that students from low socioeconomic status households are highly segregated from their more advantaged peers and up to three years behind them and that socioeconomic segregation results. The earliest years of education are where emergent literacy and numeracy develop, and these years provide the bedrock for all that follows. Quality ECE is a fundamentally important contributor to a child's school readiness. It provides the knowledge and skills that enable children to succeed at school and throughout their lives. The evidence is clear and has been confirmed time and again by Australian and international studies: two years of preschool leads to vastly superior literacy and numeracy outcomes at age 15. Yet Australia is amongst a minority of OECD countries that fund only a single year of preschool, and nearly one quarter of Australian children arrive at school without the skills they need to thrive.

The intent of the 2011 review of funding for schooling to improve literacy and numeracy for disadvantaged students through the provision of adequate funding has since been systematically undermined by governments both Commonwealth and state. The AEU urges the committee to consider the profound impacts that the failure of governments to deliver on the adequate funding of public schools to the minimum mandated schooling resource standard and a shortfall of $4.8 billion, or more than $1,700 per student every year, have had on the literacy and numeracy of young adults and will continue to have if not urgently rectified. Approximately 2,900 of our members identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, and the AEU is the largest educational representative body for First Nations educators in Australia. In our evidence today we would also like to highlight the importance of language learning in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and particularly the role of bilingualism in assisting student learning. I'd now like to invite Darcel just to complete our statement.

Ms Russell : Thank you, Susan. I'm speaking on TAFE. TAFE is unique in our education system in that it offers a full mix of trades and vocational training and foundational skills programs. It has a long history of educating those who've previously fallen away from education as migrants, those who speak English as a second language and those from low-SES backgrounds. The social purpose of TAFE has indeed been embedded at the core of TAFE as an institution since the Kangan report in 1974. However, the rampant commercialisation of vocational education in Australia over the last decade and cuts to public VET have significantly impacted on TAFE's ability to fulfil this function. Adult TAFE enrolments and foundational literacy and numeracy skills enrolments have fallen dramatically since 2012, as funding cuts to TAFE have seen courses cut and class sizes increase. There must be a properly resourced commitment from the Commonwealth to ensure that all young adults have strong, not poor, literacy, numeracy and digital skills as a basis for ongoing participation in work and in the community. A substantial shift is now required from all Australian governments if literacy and numeracy rates are to improve. A well-resourced public education system that values diversity, understands social and cognitive development, engages all learners through inclusive processes and is responsible to fundamental human needs has the potential to develop highly literate, numerate, actively engaged, resilient and connected members of our wider community.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. I will kick off, and I think Ms Hammond will also have some questions. Can I ask about your initial reference, Ms Hopgood, to vastly superior outcomes for 15-year-olds for those that have two years of preschool education? Was there some variation between OECD economies, and what was Australia's PISA point difference for 15-year-olds when comparing those that had one and two years of preschool education, as you were referring to? I understand that Australia's results were quite different to those of the OECD and also that after correction for socioeconomics there was a substantial change in Australia's results.

Ms Hopgood : Yes, thanks for the question. Look, I haven't got the exact figures in front of me, so happy to provide those to you. I think what we do know from the PISA results but also from other research, which is actually a lot of Australian research and international research, actually does show that, not only with PISA but with other research that is taken or other assessments that are taken, clearly two years of early childhood education achieves far better outcomes. But the exact point we'll have to provide to you.

CHAIR: That's great. I'm referring to the TALIS study from 2015, and they showed that there was an over-20 PISA-point difference in 15-year-olds that were surveyed, depending on how these samples were collected in each country, of course. But that difference in Australia, for those who'd had the second year of early education or preschool education, was only seven PISA points, and when corrected for socioeconomics it fell to just one single PISA point. I'm probably on your side that the extra year of early education, just as a gut feel, has to be better than one, but this data suggests, when it was collected over a decade ago—there probably were some significant intervening variables in this data—it makes Australia look like it can't show a benefit from a second early year of education. Whether you had a view on that I'd be interested, but certainly it suggests that there are some sampling errors between economies because it wasn't showing up strongly in Australian data.

Ms Hopgood : Look, one of the issues of course for Australia is that we're behind many OECD countries in the introduction of two years of preschool to any children, let alone to all children, and so the data 10 years ago I suspect would have been very limited in terms of Australian outcomes. The children who were receiving two years of preschool education, which really means not only the four-year-olds but the three-year-olds, would have been not a cohort which adequately represented right across the nation, and that may well have had an impact on that. But we're happy to look at those and come back to you for some clarification on what we believe is the case.

CHAIR: Yes, and I think it's a really important debate because we need to have Australian data, as I've continued to emphasise. One of the possibilities is that a decade ago, if you'll allow me to generalise, the only people getting two years of preschool education were already wealthy, middle-class families in well-serviced areas, so by virtue of that they're not going to show a great deal of difference, because whether they had the second year or not, they're probably going to be faring quite well by the age of 15. The other issue is that Australian children are usually a year younger than a lot of the European counterparts in getting their first or second year, so the activities that an Australian child is doing will be completely different at the age of four from what European children might be doing at the age of five. But I think that data has to be collected, and I think the PISA data has to be reanalysed so that we can have a stronger case in that respect. It's not helpful that Australia's sitting on the bottom in that study, and it's probably due to these Australian related factors that we're alluding to. Secondly, you made this point about the range of, as you said, diverse, complex and intersecting needs for particularly high-need children. I want to go to the abecedarian work out of the US and ask if the AEU would take an interest in some of the abecedarian applications here in Victoria, in Queensland and in the Northern Territory. Perhaps a question for you, Ms Russell, as well: do you feel that the initial efforts by a couple of jurisdictions to buy into the abecedarian model have proven effective? Have they continued to be funded, or again do we need more domestic research to be finding different ways to be engaging that high-need population in the pre-primary school age groups?[12:15:05]

Ms Russell : I think the research is quite polarised at that moment. So I do agree in fact that we do need some deeper research. Indeed I'm not sure if you've been following the debates in The Conversation and other academic websites most recently around the impact of the abecedarian model as it's applied in Australia, let's say the Good to Great Schools model, and I think there's been debate between Noel Pearson and John Guenther, who's an academic who does a lot of research in rural and remote areas. He's assessed NAPLAN data in particular in relation to direct and explicit instruction. Can I just also put the caveat that whilst there may be a broad belief that there's no direct and explicit instruction occurring in our schools outside of this model, that's actually a fallacy. The teachers do actually use direct and explicit instruction in the classroom as a part of their everyday pedagogy, so I do believe that there is a need for a lot more research, particularly amongst baselines. What we've found in the past is that often the impact of these programs could be the liquorice-stick version of literacy and numeracy programs. Often the impact is the initial funding of the program, the fact that it's come in, it's been introduced to the whole school and there's leadership support, so all of the things that we generally know provide an initial kick in the data, and the difficulty for us as a country, Australia, is sustaining these programs beyond pilot programs and turning them into fruitful systemic interventions but actually working out which programs work first, which is why I'd advocate for a lot more research being done on direct and explicit instruction beforehand.

CHAIR: That's great, Ms Russell. We'll take that on board. I'm going to make a statement and then go across to Ms Hammond with a question. Because of this white noise between these different philosophies, if your organisation would like to provide us any additional data that's potentially more up to date on the assessment of these programs, any data that they've released that might suggest that they're able to reduce the number of students of primary or secondary age that are being added to the adult literacy cohort, that would be useful. Often we just hear models critiquing each other, but if there's any information you've got or data to suggest—we're not so worried about the cost of keeping pilots going; we just want to find something that works and then leave it to the politicians to find the money for it. At the moment we're not convinced we have even a model that's showing success in this space. We just hear from respective camps about short-term studies or small numbers of students that are being tracked. If you have any additional evidence, please provide it in the next seven days.

Ms HAMMOND: Thank you very much, Ms Hopgood and Ms Russell, for your submission and for appearing here today. May I just start off by thanking every single teacher across the country for what they've done over the last 18 months? I know that our health workers have been on the front line. We have numerous frontline workers, but I think the school sector has been hugely impacted. I still have kids in school. I just see across the board that the way that our schools and our teachers have adapted has been extraordinary. I do just want to pick up on that. It's not where I was going to start. But having said that, has COVID, do you think, had a negative impact disproportionately across school sectors or across low SES versus high SES because of the lockdowns and because of all the measures that we've had to put in place because of COVID?

Ms Hopgood : I'll start. The answer is yes, but I think what it has done is actually exacerbate or highlight, if you like, many of the inequities which actually already existed. So COVID didn't create the inequities, but they are there. But of those students who were already at a disadvantage, if you like, the pandemic has caused additional problems for many. One of the studies, one piece of research, that we did last year was to look at the digital gap, for example. That piece of research, which we're happy to provide to you, actually showed really clearly that the gap does exist. But in fact of course moving to remote learning and a hybrid model, and moving back in and out of remote learning, as we are doing just this week in New South Wales, has made it even more difficult for many students who struggle anyway. We know of many households where simply the only digital device is that they share a mobile phone, and they're somehow expected to be able to undertake their education. We know that access to good wi-fi right across the country differs enormously and that those families that don't have access are those that are disadvantaged, so that's one of the examples that we have. So I think the answer is yes, it has exacerbated existing inequities, and we actually believe for that reason that it would be really critical for there to be some sort of equity audit undertaken, particularly looking at the digital issue, across the country so we can actually determine where those gaps are and what governments can do to focus on overcoming those disadvantages.

Ms HAMMOND: Yes, there's that digital gap. But also, and this is coming back to the adult literacy and numeracy, if you're a child in a household where the adults who are there have low levels of literacy or numeracy, for the periods at home, I imagine, even if you do have access to a computer, assistance from the home, even once you get to year 3 or year 4 maths, I personally think can get a little bit challenging. If you don't have that support at home, that could have actually had even more of an impact because the kids aren't at school with that one on one. Do you think that that's possible?

Ms Hopgood : That is absolutely the case because there is a sort of assumption—I should've said, Ms Hammond, that we really do appreciate the comments that you made about teachers and schools over the last 18 months, and I know that teachers and other education workers very much appreciate that appreciation, actually, because it helps in a very difficult situation. But it is absolutely true that in households where the parents or carers or guardians are more educated or have a greater understanding of learning, are literate themselves, those students will be better off than those students who are in households where they have adults in the household who have low literacy rates or alternatively might have very little time because of their work hours and their work time to actually spend with their children on these sorts of issues, and there are many examples of that. So yes, that is absolutely correct, and we need to be able to understand those issues to assist those students to overcome those difficulties.

Ms HAMMOND: Most of your submission—and I think it's great, your submission—is to try and avoid or to try and stop the problem arising in future. In the context of the problem that we have already with the research, and hopefully we'll get better research in the future, my question to you is: do you think that—and I'm not saying within current resourcing; I'm not suggesting that at all, because I know our teachers and our schools already work very hard as it is—there's the potential for schools to play some role if we develop a national strategy in tackling the issue that we have at the moment with adult literacy and numeracy, so those adults at the moment with poor levels? Could there be a role for schools to at least help identify or provide soft access, I think it was soft openings, for people with low levels of literacy and numeracy? So at the school reception where a parent has to go and fill out a form, if it's noted there that their literacy levels are low, could that be part of a solution? As I said, I'm not saying, 'Add to what schools already have to do, just add it onto their list,' but is there a possibility?

Ms Hopgood : Look, I think that there are so many caveats I'd have to put on that. The obvious one is funding, to have the resources available to able to do that, but it's not only that, because you also have to have the person who's at the front office with, if you like, the qualification or the understanding of how you would actually determine whether or not somebody has those low literacy rates. I think schools have always over a long period of time been able to work with adults simply because they work with them as parents. They come in and out, and they can provide that. There's no question that teachers and principals and other education workers in schools actually do work closely with parents and do understand or try to understand the difficulties in their own lives and provide support for them. But as a strategy I'm not so certain, and Darcel, you might have some thoughts on that as well.

Ms Russell : I've got a couple of reflections. An example that came a couple of years ago, many moons ago I was managing a statewide unit for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students studying in TAFE, and we worked with a number of the local schools in Cairns to develop a tutoring program with parents wanting to assist their kids in the homework club, Aboriginal parents. Essentially we worked with adult literacy and numeracy teachers at the TAFE and provided those teachers with outreach into the school community, and eventually we provided a peer tutoring program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults who had high levels of literacy learning to give basic reading and writing training to other Aboriginal people who did not have such high levels of literacy. So I guess my reflection on that goes back to the earlier comment that I made in response to Dr Laming's question, the statement around the system advising the work that we do around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander opportunities. Without a stable policy and stable systems, we're never going to be able to get continual quality improvement. What happens, as Dr Laming said, is that we do get pilot programs. We do get a whole range of ideas people who are come in with great ideas, and often they'll fund them for four years or eight years and then they get sucked out. We don't have baseline evidence to show what's actually working. We're not setting up a system so that it's sustained, and therefore we lose in fact and waste a lot of money on things that've done before very well and should have been systematised and in fact, had they been systematised, perhaps could have made an incredible impact by now on work. So I'm certainly not suggesting that the work that I was doing in Cairns was the be-all and end-all. But that is one example of how schools and TAFE colleges have been working together in local communities to meet that adult literacy demand, and I'm sure that there would be many other examples of that across the country as well.

Ms HAMMOND: Yes, I think those programs—I became familiar with one up in Broome—are great. I do take on board your comment too about that reinventing the wheel the whole time because of funding programs that then stop. It strikes me often that when we fund a program, we should equally fund the ongoing measurement of it or analysis of it so that if it's proved to be working, it can continue out and go out further, adapted as necessary, because all communities or all situations are different, but it does strike me across the board in public policy often we change without actually having really invested in looking at what is working. There was one other question that I was going to ask, and I have forgotten it. But we heard earlier submissions this morning about, if you don't use it, you lose it, so do you have any thoughts on that, particularly from your involvement with TAFE? But as you get older, the less you use it. Particularly I think it's probably apparent for numeracy skills.

Ms Russell : I think that's my personal experience. I concur. Susan's a maths teacher; she doesn't have that experience. Certainly it's like playing the guitar, isn't it? It's like any other skill. I wouldn't suggest that you lose the capacity to read, because you haven't been reading, but what you do lose is the capacity to grow the neural pathways that assist you to grow the analytical skills that you need to process technical content. So certainly there are stages, but I don't think you ever completely forget how to read. You don't lose the capacity to read if you're not practicing reading.

Ms HAMMOND: I hope not! Thank you both very much.

CHAIR: Thank you to our witnesses from the AEU, and it could really be an inquiry in and of itself, couldn't it, Ms Hammond, the role of early education in adult literacy. So thank you very much to both Ms Hopgood and Ms Russell for your contributions today. We look forward to getting a little bit more information from you in the next seven days. We'll send you a transcript of today as well, and thank you very much for your attendance.