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

ANDERSON, Ms Patricia, Chairperson, Lowitja Institute [by video link]

BOUGHTON, Professor Bob, Researcher, Lowitja Institute [by video link]


CHAIR: We'll move now to the Lowitja Institute, who are giving evidence to us today. A warm welcome to Ms Patricia Anderson and Professor Bob Boughton. If you could introduce yourselves, that would be appreciated.

Videoconference interrupted

CHAIR: I'll get our secretariat to check on Ms Anderson. But Professor Boughton, if you could introduce yourself and your capacity, that'd be a great start.

Prof. Boughton : Sure. I'm an adjunct professor at the University of New England in the School of Education. I've been working with the Lowitja Institute for the last 20 years or so on links between adult literacy and health, and in the last 10 years I've been involved in evaluating the Literacy for Life Foundation program that Lowitja seed-funded, which is delivering an adult literacy campaign in remote Indigenous communities around Australia.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. I might get the secretariat to contact Ms Anderson directly. But all the evidence, Professor Boughton, you're giving today, while not under oath, are legal proceedings of the parliament. They warrant the same respect as proceedings of the House, and false or misleading evidence can be regarded as contempt of parliament. You've given a little introduction there already. Were there any specific elements of your submission that you would like to highlight before we go to questions?

Prof. Boughton : Yes, Pat actually had some things that she wanted to open up with, so I'd prefer to wait if I could.

CHAIR: At short notice we might have to continue with some questions, and our secretariat will endeavour to reach out to her as well.

Prof. Boughton : Let me just quickly run through the main points that Pat and I discussed before we came on, and then she might come on as we're going through it. The first thing that the Lowitja Institute was raising was the national Closing the Gap agreement, which requires that Indigenous organisations take part in the formulation of policy and programs to be delivered to the communities, and the point that the Lowitja Institute was making was that with the foundation skills policy which is currently under review, at this stage there doesn't seem to have been a way for Aboriginal community-controlled organisations or their peak bodies to take any lead role in the development of the policy as it applies to their communities. So that appears to Lowitja and to me also to be going against the basic thrust of the new Closing the Gap agreement. But the other point is the one about the Lowitja Institute's involvement in developing a community-controlled model for delivering adult literacy into communities using an international model known as—

Videoconference interrupted

Ms HAMMOND: I've got questions, Professor Boughton, on the paper you did. This is a detailed and excellent report. You've got a lot in there. I'm interested in the data side of things, and I'm also interested in the mass literacy campaign. On the data side of things you talk about the WELL program. You were involved in that, weren't you?

Prof. Boughton : Yes, the first iteration of the national literacy campaign in Wilcannia in 2012 was funded under the strategic results program of the WELL program. But then it cut out then, so since then it's been getting funding from different sources.

Ms HAMMOND: Right, and is there a wealth of data on adult literacy and numeracy through that?

Prof. Boughton : There's a wealth of data from the communities that the Literacy for Life Foundation campaign has been running in, because we've been collecting that data as we go. My role has been as the chief investigator of the longitudinal study of the campaign, so yes, there is a lot of data from that. The problem is the lack of data at a national level or local level available for planning and program development, which is the problem I raised in relation to PIAAC.

Ms HAMMOND: On your Literacy for Life program and all of that data that you've collected as chief investigator, have you put out scholarly works, and has this been in a published form? Apologies for not knowing in advance.

Prof. Boughton : Yes, it has. The Australian Research Council study which we've completed just at the end of 2019, as part of that we looked at five of the communities that have participated. We looked at how people have accessed their literacy when we did the initial household survey, then we compared their self-assessment with what the results were when they were given the ACSF assessment a few weeks into the campaign and then again at the end, and what we found is that over 60 percent of the people that we had identified in the initial household survey in those communities had low to very low literacy. That was level 1 or below, so that was that was a very high rate of low literacy, if you like. But that is similar to what was found in the Northern Territory study that I included in the paper, so what we're looking at is somewhere between 40 and 60 to 70 percent of people in First Nations communities having low to very low English language literacy.

Ms HAMMOND: Do you have any idea how that compares with the non-Indigenous population?

Prof. Boughton : The overall figure in PIAAC was 14 per cent for people at level 1 or below and around 35 per cent for people at level 2 and below, so it's significantly higher. Because PIAAC didn't publish data on First Nations adult literacy, we can't be absolutely sure. But the rate was much higher for people who are unemployed, it was much higher for people in remote areas and it was much higher for people for whom English was not their first language, so on that basis alone you could predict that it would be much higher for the First Nations communities.

Ms HAMMOND: Okay, one of the things that you make very clear in both of your submissions is that there's not a one-size-fits-all model, and when it comes to Indigenous communities they very much need to be worked as a partnership. Can you explain the reasoning for that?

Prof. Boughton : The fundamental reason is that, as in primary health care, what works is Indigenous community control, and in each community, people will take control in their own way, if you like. So if you have a model that allows the community to take leadership of the process, then you will get the model that works in that place, but if you don't have a model that allows the community to take leadership, then you won't get the model that works for people. That's why I think in the published data that we've produced on the campaign models, which can be contextualised to each community, you'll see that we're getting four to five times better outcomes than people get in the mainstream VET-type programs that deliver literacy and numeracy.

Ms HAMMOND: It all comes down to collective ownership of the problem and collective responsibility for fixing it.

Prof. Boughton : Yes, it does. It comes down to the community control model, as in the primary healthcare sector. In each community that the model has been trialled, a community committee is set up to provide the leadership, local Aboriginal people are recruited to be the facilitators of the classes and there's a lot of engagement with other organisations in the community, like health services or legal aid services, with the shire, with the schools. So there's a whole-of-community model that is used, but it's led by the First Nations people in that community.

Ms HAMMOND: Yes. So can you just take us through at a very high level the elements of a mass literacy campaign?

Prof. Boughton : Yes, this is a thing that has been used in countries of the global south for the last hundred years. What it requires is for each community to take responsibility for raising the level of literacy in that community, so it's a population model; it's not a model based on individuals. It works usually in three phases. The first phase—

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Ms HAMMOND: Could you take us back to the first phase, Professor Boughton?

Prof. Boughton : Okay, so in the three-phase model, your first phase is what I call mobilisation and socialisation, where the community selects a group of people to provide the leadership, and then they develop—

Videoconference interrupted

CHAIR: Apologies. Professor Boughton, can we pick up where you were? Is that possible?

Prof. Boughton : Yes. There are three phases to the campaign. In the first phase the leadership is chosen. People are trained to do a household survey. They go house to house in the community discussing what problems people have with literacy, explaining what the idea of a campaign is and seeing who in the household might be interested in participating. When there have been sufficient groups of people identified in the community to start the first class, then the second phase begins, which is a series of 50 or so classes, 54 classes, which are run on a DVD but with local people taking charge of the process. The class watches another class learning to read and write, then they do exercises similar to those that are on the screen. It's something where local people can lead the work entirely, but they have professional people onsite supporting them with lesson preparation and planning and with evaluation at the end of each lesson. Then once people have completed those 54 basic lessons and they've reached a minimal level of being able to read and write and comprehend, it goes into the third phase where they then get an opportunity to use that literacy in interaction with other community organisations. They do a nutrition program, for instance, with the health service. They learn about local government working with the shire. They do job experience, work experience, with local employers. The post-literacy program is designed by the community to meet the specific needs and to work with specific issues that are in that community. That's the three-phase model.

Ms HAMMOND: Thank you very much, Professor Boughton, for your patience and perseverance in presenting that. It was great to get those three phases.

Ms BELL: Thank you very much for coming today, Professor, and giving your evidence. I want to ask: in your submission you say a couple of times—I just can't put my finger on it right now—that even Indigenous RTOs don't have the flexibility to work with this system. Can you maybe just outline if you can imagine a pathway that might work where this program works hand in glove with—

Videoconference interrupted

CHAIR: Ms Anderson, can you hear us now?

Ms Anderson : Yes, I can.

CHAIR: That's great, Ms Anderson. I just wanted to ask about the Suzanne Ingram article in the Weekend Australian on Indigenous box-ticking, the explosion in Indigeneity of 18.6 per cent over the last five years in Sydney alone and the degree to which gaps are potentially closing simply by Indigenous identification rather than any actual change in on-the-ground conditions, whether that's of any concern to you and, if it is, what you would be doing about it as part of the institute to better understand it.

Ms Anderson : That's a really complicated question, especially if you're from Tasmania, 'Who is and who isn't?' and it is a challenge I think for all of us but Aboriginal people in particular. This has been well known for some time. Everyone is kind of reluctant to do too much about it, and quite frankly I don't know what government could do. In the past, as you know, there has been that identification that people had to get a letter from an organisation with the common seal from a board meeting, and that person had to be identified by the local community as being an Aboriginal person. So those standards have been around for some time. But this is not new, the box-ticking, and as to what Lowitja can do about it, what can the government do? We're just a small, poorly funded research organisation. Maybe there is some research that could be done, but it's still not going to solve the problem. I'm sorry, Chair, but that's how it is. It comes out again and again, like we did in a recent article, 'Who is and who isn't?' I actually gave a speech to students at ANU a couple of years ago saying that they have lots of challenges as the new generation coming up, and this is one that we have to deal with. How to solve it is not easy, and I think it will get worse as we go along. So I don't think there's any easy, quick-fix answer here, unfortunately; it's difficult, and you know this. I know you know this.

Ms BELL: Thank you, Ms Anderson, for joining us today. I note that in the submission—and I've found it again—in the conclusion section you do not support the use of mainstream models such as outreach by TAFE or VET, nor are Indigenous-owned RTOs the best solution, and then you outline some of the reasons why. But I guess my question is that these are models that have been well entrenched for decades, and can you see a way that the two models can work together? Can you see a bridge between them or a way to create a bridge between them as opposed to having separate—

Ms Anderson : No, Angie. These models in the past have just not worked. That's the issue.

Ms BELL: Is there a way that those models could be again made a bit more flexible for our Indigenous communities in order to still deliver what you're delivering? Because it seems that it works very well and that community outreach seems to work well in terms of outcomes, but is there a way that—I guess my question really is: can you see a way in which those two systems might work together? Not at all?

Ms Anderson : The existing RTOs?

Ms BELL: Well, with perhaps the Indigenous-owned RTOs.

Ms Anderson : We're promoting a particular model here which has been accepted by the committee previously, this campaign model. We know that it works all over the world, and Australia has failed badly in terms of adult literacy for a number of years. In fact for my mother it was public policy of the day not to teach her to read and write. This is a perennial issue for the nation that we still haven't really dealt with. There is a model here that Bob has talked about earlier that works globally, and RTOs continue to fail.

Ms BELL: I understand and acknowledge that these programs work in the community, and I'm not trying to take away from that in any way. What I'm trying to suggest is: can you enlighten the committee in any way on any pathways that might be able to bring what you're delivering together with perhaps Indigenous-owned RTOs in order to deliver it more broadly? Any suggestions, or will it simply just not work?

Ms Anderson : I'd leave that to Bob, because he's an educator, but I can't. If you change everything, you can do it, but you'd have to deliver it in a totally different way.

Ms BELL: Okay, this is what I'm asking, if you have suggestions around that.

Prof. Boughton : I could come in here, if it helps.

Ms BELL: Perhaps a middle ground, Bob?

Prof. Boughton : If there is an Indigenous RTO already set up in the community, offering courses that are already on its scope which are LLND courses, then the best strategy would be for people to find a pathway from that once they had completed the process that the campaign model offers to them, so it becomes a pathway into a more accredited formal setting. But the problem with an RTO is they can't offer unaccredited, informal programs, they're not funded to do it and the whole compliance system set up around them means that they aren't actually able to do what this model requires them to do. They can't spend three months, for example, working in the community to find out what specific problems and issues there are for people with illiteracy and then finding and training people to work in the class to do it. They can't employ unqualified people to teach the course the way that the Literacy for Life model can. So that campaign model could be a feeder into RTOs, but an RTO would find it impossible to actually run the model because of the funding models for RTOs and the compliance frameworks that are set up around them, which are national. The national VET system has a huge amount of bureaucracy around it, if you like, that makes it almost impossible for an RTO to do this kind of work.

Ms BELL: Great, that really answers my question and I guess highlights that this program could serve as a prerequisite for other programs. If there has to be some compliance or some outcomes that could then help people get into an RTO, then this program would do that.

Prof. Boughton : And it does do it. I should say that the data that we've got from the communities where the campaign has run has shown a significant number of people go on to do certificate II and even certification III level courses once they have got over the barrier that has been created by past practices which have led to people not achieving basic English language proficiency in the first place.

Ms BELL: Great, that's a fantastic response. Thank you, that's what I was after.

CHAIR: I think, unless someone's signalling, we are close to the end of questions, so particularly, Professor Boughton, my question to Ms Anderson was, acknowledging you're a small, underfunded research institution, whether you would be interested in looking more carefully at newly identifying Indigenous Australians, whether their needs are actually different and how they might contrast particularly to remote Indigenous Australians. Obviously referencing a recent appointment by KPMG of the first Indigenous female to their board over the weekend, I heard comments where it's time to be brave, not safe, so would the institute consider doing additional research on whether current Indigenous funding is directed into the right places?

Prof. Boughton : The level of funding that is going to adult literacy is not reaching the majority of Indigenous people who have low literacy, who have the need, because it's going through the VET system. So if it goes through the VET system and people are unable to join the VET system, then they never get to do it, and that's the problem, as Pat said earlier. The historic problem is that we've had this situation now for many years, and there is in fact a very large pool of people now. There are more people leaving school every year who have the same issue, and there isn't a funding model at present which allows for a community-controlled solution to that problem.

CHAIR: That's a very important point you're making. It applies even at school level as well as vocational.

Prof. Boughton : If I could just say about schools, if you look at which children and young people leave school with low literacy, they are the children of the people where literacy is already minimal in those families and those households and communities, so it's an intergenerational problem which continues to be reproduced by the system itself, which is why you need the circuit-breaker of a different kind of a model to come in and do something differently from what they've done.

Ms Anderson : You're probably aware that the ABS, Australian Bureau of Stats, are about to run a national survey next year on adult literacy and numeracy. This is funded by the Commonwealth, as you might know, but it's also part of an international study called PIAAC. This survey is supposed to establish a baseline level of need. The Commonwealth has not provided ABS with sufficient funding to produce any results on the level of adult literacy in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and this is the place, the area, of the greatest need. We think this is an extraordinary decision, and it could even be considered discriminatory, in fact. Given how this will be key data for determining policy and programs as needed in the future, there's a whole section of Australian society that aren't going to be included properly enough, and that's I think the work of this committee. So I'm sure you're aware of it; I just want to make that an extra point, because if we're not included on the ground, how were you ever going to deal with this issue? And it's growing, as Bob has already indicated.

CHAIR: Thank you. While it was alluded to in the submission, if you wrote specifically to the minister and to our committee, that would serve as a freestanding piece of correspondence, if you are happy to do that for us.

Ms Anderson : Yes, and Lowitja is available to do any research, and we have done with Bob and an ARC grant, all of which evidence is available now to prove the worth and value of this campaign.

CHAIR: Thank you so much, Ms Anderson. It's great to have you with us. It's great to have Professor Boughton as well, and we appreciate your input from Lowitja Institute. To the Lowitja Institute witnesses, the transcript will come to you in the next few days for you to make any corrections or note transcription errors. For any additional data you'd like to give us, particularly on some of those questions we put to you, please write to the secretariat as well, including any other matters you might like to raise. Thank you for being with us.