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Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training
12/07/2021
Adult literacy and its importance

MARTINOVIC, Dr Marietta, Researcher, Australasian Corrections Education Association [by video link]

WILSON, Dr Ron, President, Australasian Corrections Education Association [by video link]

[14:59]

CHAIR: I welcome representatives from the Australasian Corrections Education Association. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Dr Martinovic : I'm also a senior lecturer at RMIT University.

CHAIR: I remind each of you that, while you are not required to give evidence under oath, these hearings are still legal proceedings of parliament and they warrant the same respect as proceedings of the House. False and misleading evidence is a matter that may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. While we have your submissions here, could you pull out one or two points that you think we should be discussing this afternoon.

Dr Wilson : There are a few points that we've submitted in relation to the various terms of reference of this review. The key thing is that there is an extensive knowledge base about the very low levels of literacy, numeracy, digital skills and employability skills within the prison population. ACEA covers the provision of education and training programs and also the policy development and the practitioners, assessors, trainers, counsellors, vocational counsellors—all of those who work across the adult and juvenile, or youth justice, sectors.

Within those sectors, we know that there's a very high correlation between low literacy, numeracy, employability and digital skills and those people who are represented either in custody or in orders in the community. We also put in our documentation that there are very diverse ways that each of the jurisdictions within Australia—also broadly across Australasia, which includes New Zealand and the Pacific islands, but specifically with the Australian jurisdictions—approach the provision of education and training programs within the prison and youth justice facilities. There are different approaches that are used to measure the current levels of literacy and numeracy capabilities of students. There's a difference in the way that each jurisdiction defines the people who are involved in the education and training programs—the students—and how they report on the outcomes, both at a state and territory level and nationally.

We point out in our submission that different approaches have been used in North America, which includes USA and Canada, and also throughout Europe, where common standards have been established in relation to the provision of corrections education, and they address all of the issues of disparity that are experienced within Australasia. That means that there is a more consistent way of measuring a program's success, to define and track through the benefits of those programs to people who are returning to community from a custodial setting, either directly through probation or through parole, and to people who are on community orders.

We also have quite a diverse perspective on the way that people are trained to be able to teach in these settings. There's an incredible diversity when it comes to preservice training and what is provided to people teaching in the school settings in juvenile justice facilities, to people who are teaching school-type programs in the prisons and to the TAFE providers who are delivering teachers, trainers and assessors. There is very little, if any, preservice training that supports those people to work effectively within a custodial environment, and therefore there are issues that we believe need to be addressed collectively and cohesively across Australasia. We believe that helping to set common standards across the states would support the provision of those programs—their planning, delivery and evaluation—and that would benefit the greater community in that it would allow more effective feedback and provide pathways for these students to be able to work in our community. Marietta, are there any other key points that we've not covered? No? I'll leave that as my overview statement for the proposal we put forward.

CHAIR: Thanks, Dr Wilson. We'll go straight to questions. Ms Bell.

Ms BELL: Thank you, Dr Wilson and Dr Martinovic, for joining us today. It's great to hear from you. In reading through your submission, I was interested in the education practice in the UK. You say they have consistent and rigorous assessment mechanisms. Do you know any more about what those assessment mechanisms are? Consistency is a problem across Australian states and territories, as we can see by the graphs and tables in your submission, where the numbers are quite different from state to state on various different measures. But I think consistency is the hardest thing to achieve, across our nation, in terms of what each state or territory is doing. How could we move towards that in the settings that we're looking at? Also, secondly, what sort of incentives are provided to encourage attendance in the UK setting that is described in your submission?

Dr Wilson : First I'll respond in relation to the UK. The Coates review has provided quite a revolutionary approach to the management of education in prisons. The accountabilities have been very clearly specified in all prison management—that, as part of their performance management, there have to be achievements in relation to the educational goals, in terms of the programs and the outcomes. Throwing it straight back to prison management to take that key responsibility, with the education factor being built into their performance—that's something which is quite different to what we do here in Australia. Prison management is not as explicitly accountable for providing quality education programs. That's a significant difference between the Australian and the UK approach. I am going to qualify that by saying that, with the COVID implications that have been occurring in the UK, the rollout of the implications of the Coates review has been really struggling.

If I may, I'll move to the other part of your question, which is the consistency of the assessment of adult literacy, numeracy, employability and digital skills. You're quite right in saying that there are significant differences in the approach to that. It is not consistent across any of our Australasian or Australian jurisdictions. What I will say to you is that there has been a movement towards utilising the Australian Council for Educational Research's Compass assessment tool, which is used in Victoria and is now being used in New South Wales, and I understand that in the ACT they're starting to pick that up and use it as a tool of consistency. It's benchmarked nationally in terms of the outcomes. It's applied digitally, with additional support that can be provided on the ground to people undertaking that test. But it is quite different to what is being provided in South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, where a lot of those assessment tools are actually self-grown tools and therefore lack the capacity to benchmark against national standards. The application of that the ACER tool is something that I know many jurisdictions are looking at carefully. I know that Tasmania are starting to review a lot of their program delivery and looking at that tool. My belief is that it would be a very applicable tool that could be very easily implemented across all states and territories. It would help to provide consistency in getting those base levels, and it would provide a comparison against national standards that are already being tested, which would give confidence.

Ms BELL: I want to ask about programs that are available to those who are incarcerated, particularly Indigenous Australians. Are there different programs specifically for Indigenous Australians that honour their culture and language, as opposed to just one general program for those in the prison system?

Dr Wilson : There are a range of different programs that are provided, and many prison locations have programs supported by the local communities. There would be some nationally accredited programs and some state accredited programs that are run consistently across the various jurisdictions or within particular jurisdictions. But state accredited ones obviously wouldn't be applied across other jurisdictions. The national ones would be, if they're being applied through a registered training organisation such as a TAFE institute or a registered community training provider that adheres to that, but they would be customised to the local community needs.

Ms BELL: Thanks.

CHAIR: I'd like to jump very quickly into some data collection and ministerial council activity. Concerned as I am by the data in your submission showing the very patchy levels of literacy in the incarcerated population, what conversations have there been and which states have shown an inclination to bring to the ministerial council agenda the need for uniform data collection? Secondly, were you to be commissioned to come up with a suitable Australian system, would you borrow from either the US or the European models or would it be a blend of both?

Dr Wilson : There are a few questions there. We have been struggling, as an association, to get a foothold and a voice for this within the national standards. We are hopeful that, through presenting today, we'll be able to get a platform to express the importance of building consistency across all the jurisdictions. As I mentioned, the membership of the association comes from policymakers and from people who are managing education programs, both in TAFE institutes and elsewhere. We are really struggling with getting a unified voice across each of the different jurisdictions. I'm hopeful that, by bringing this to your attention now, we will be able to get a public voice on that.

Secondly, through a lot of this, there's a fairly heavy emphasis from the TAFE institutes that are providing programs in prison environments in each of the jurisdictions. There is, again, a real struggle and reluctance to bring the provision of education in the corrections environment into the discussions within the Australian Industry and Skills Committee, and having that identified as a key platform. It would be an area that we would see as important, particularly as it relates back to the quality of preservice training and in-service training for people working within the prison environment—to have that knowledge about how to serve people in prison and support their transition from prison to community. It's critically important.

CHAIR: And the other part was about a universal system that might be adopted, using international examples.

Dr Wilson : I'm fully aware that the United States have now modified their standards and are about to utilise those standards. I have access to them, and we are running an international virtual conference at the end of this year, where we are having a review of the prison standards from Europe and also a review of the prison standards from the US. My personal belief is that a hybrid of those would be an advantage. But there are some unique strengths in the Australian standards, those in Victoria and in other states, and I think we could put in a superior set of standards to those that are being utilised.

CHAIR: Thanks. Dr Martinovic, could you add to the question about the current research frontiers around a better understanding of who's going into incarceration and their levels of literacy—ideally, the degree to which low levels or sub-adequate levels of literacy are actually leading to incarceration?

Secondly, of course, what can we do while they are incarcerated? Have there been any studies of even small-level interventions to increase literacy and numeracy to adequate levels being able to show effectiveness and cost effectiveness?

Dr Martinovic : There have been lots of studies—mostly done overseas, unfortunately, in the US and the UK—that show the more you invest in education of incarcerated people, the better the return; the less the likelihood of reoffending and coming back into the system. I have never come across a study that said it's a useless investment. Every single study goes to say that the more you invest, the better.

However, most people coming into the system come at a very low level of education, which means that the investment needs to be quite substantial. Also, a lot of people who come into the system are on very short sentences—I'm talking about sentences of less than six months. In a period of less than six months, you are so limited in what you can actually do positively with a person who is requiring so much support, attention, education, et cetera. What seems to happen, from my personal work in the Victorian prison system, is that people start to engage in education at the later part of their sentence or during longer sentences. But if there were a way to engage people earlier on, even during shorter sentences, and a mechanism for the education to continue in the community, that would be probably the most ideal system.

In saying that, what is absolutely critical is there has to be some kind of real, imaginative learning for these adult learners. We can't simply think of any kind of learning that is going to work in the community. This is very different. We're dealing with a quite vulnerable population who are disadvantaged, traumatised—all of those things that Ron was talking about before. These teachers need to be properly trained in how to work with this population and how to engage the learners. It's absolutely critical.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. That's great. What about any idea on the amount of investment required? Is there any work on just how expensive it is to do in an incarceration facility compared with in the community, or for youth in particular, who have a similar level of inadequate literacy levels? Where would I rather see those interventions occurring?

Dr Wilson : Each of the states has a different approach to the way that they resource education and training programs. You will find that in Victoria there's a significant contribution that comes through as part of the schools and TAFE contribution and provision into the programs, whereas in other states you'll find that the contribution is coming purely from their correctional services operations and therefore varies greatly. So the approaches across each of the jurisdictions as to how they are resourced is very disparate. I would look to the Victorian model as probably the most strongly resourced model of all of the states.

Have there been effective comparisons? It comes back to the point that I wanted to make before: because each jurisdiction has so many different parameters about how it utilises its analysis, it makes it very difficult to make a comparison of the effectiveness of the dollar contribution that goes into that. If we had consistency in the standards, I think we might have a better platform to able to have a look at how that is actually implemented and evaluated across all of the various jurisdictions.

CHAIR: You mentioned two concurrent conditions: ADHD and dyslexia. Are there delays in getting youth ADHD diagnosis and treatment while they are incarcerated due to access to psychiatric diagnosis?

Dr Wilson : Yes, there is. Most of it is because, again, it's becoming an emerging awareness, particularly in the area of dyslexia. I understand you're having a representation Dear Dyslexia, and they'll probably explain further. The knowledge base of the impact on identification of those people with different aphasia—you've mentioned aphasia in your previous conversations—and neuroplasticity issues is becoming more scientific, so therefore people are becoming more aware of that and are therefore starting to bring more treatment programs and aligning treatment programs.

Probably another point, if I may, is that currently we're finding—again, from our members—the alignment of the programs and connections between the education programs, the psychological programs and the treatment programs does not occur effectively within a prison environment; they tend to work in silos. Therefore the potential to benefit the client, the prisoner-student, the youth, by integrating those services would be of greater benefit. Currently it does not happen that way.

CHAIR: My specific question—possibly to our researcher—in theory, because you need a psychiatric diagnosis of ADHD, is it quicker because you're incarcerated within a system that can organise that, or is it slower, sadly, because the general medical attention to those who are incarcerated is poorer than in the community?

Dr Martinovic : I would say slower. That is anecdotal. It is not based on any scientific data. Maybe Ron would be aware of some better data. Ron?

Dr Wilson : I am aware of the work that's being done in New Zealand at the moment. There's been a very strong push in terms of the broader term of neuroplasticity and assessment of people in custody and the provision of those services. In the past, if I may—again, this is anecdotal—the focus on the psychiatric treatment has been more on identification areas of psychopathy or sociopathy, rather than looking at the underlying structures of neuroplasticity issues.

CHAIR: Neurodiversity, yes.

Dr Wilson : Correct.

CHAIR: Over to you, Ms Hammond.

Ms HAMMOND: Thank you both for your paper and for your discussions here today. I have to say I'm alarmed that there's a lack of reliable data and research in Australia. We've got a number of research bodies, criminology institutes and the like. Have they not done any localised research in this area?

Dr Wilson : I'll answer first, and then I'll pass over to Marietta, if I may, to follow up. There have been pockets and bits and pieces of research, but there has not been consolidated research. I draw your attention in the submission to the significant seven-state study that occurred in the US, which was a consolidated approach, looking at a longitudinal study over a seven-year period of time, really getting some strong evidence that's used in policy, resourcing and so on. We've not had anything like that implemented in Australia; there have been pockets and bits and pieces of research. We would love, as an association, to help getting strength and bringing a lot of that research together. It would help in terms of the evidence base that we have that comes back into practice and comes back into quality of provision of services and quantity of services. Unfortunately, very, very little of that type of research has occurred in Australia.

Dr Martinovic : I will second Ron's comments. Very, very limited research has been conducted, and that's due to a few reasons. One of the reasons is that there is no unified way of measuring anything. If a researcher approaches a jurisdiction, they have to go through many, many steps to be able to get access to any kind of data. Doing that probably would take a year or two. If you then times it by seven jurisdictions, you're looking at a huge study. Who is going to do that? So I think there is real appetite and people are interested and there are enormous benefits, as has been discussed already, but I think that people single-handedly simply wouldn't be able to do it without proper support from a higher organisation.

Ms HAMMOND: Both individual and societal benefits, I would imagine, and economic benefits.

Dr Wilson : Correct.

Ms HAMMOND: You're the peak body. What's your membership? Who are the members? I apologise if you covered this at the beginning; I was delayed for 10 minutes.

Dr Wilson : No worries at all. We did cover that. Our members cover education practitioners—by that I'm talking about people who are teachers, trainers, assessors. It covers those people who provide support to the education space, like vocational counsellors. It does include people who work in libraries—again, you would have had a library representative, or you're going to have one. It includes the people who manage the education programs, both where that's contracted out in some jurisdictions and education providers who are members of the corrections facilities and the corrections agencies. It also includes people who drive policy and influence policy in the state locations. Again, often the management of the education space and the policy people are one and the same. It includes also academics and researchers who are involved.

Our membership is spread out right across Australasia. We have a membership structure—at the moment we have 1,500 members, but a lot of them are organisation members which will have up to 10 or 20 individual members within them. The membership covers each jurisdiction within Australia and New Zealand and also Pacific islands. We have had representation in the past from Singapore and Hong Kong, but Hong Kong has really dropped out of the picture for us at the moment; they're not engaging in any of the discussions. But it does cover the Pacific rim.

Ms HAMMOND: You answered every single question about membership that I was going to ask. I heard you talking about Victoria having a process or a program that was probably leading the way in Australia. Am I verballing you there?

Dr Wilson : I mentioned Victoria having a strong program in terms of its resourcing. Each jurisdiction has some unique strengths. The Western Australian system had a very strong relationship when the mining industry was strong. Its ability to connect people who were leaving the prison industry and picking up work was particularly strong. Once the mining industry reduced—I suppose I can use that term—that made that part of it difficult. Victoria at the moment has got a very strong infrastructure program, so some of the programs they're running are supporting people straight from prison into working within transport infrastructure. I know that the ACT is also considering that in infrastructure areas.

Some of those areas that have got strong relationships with industry are supporting and working innovative ways of being able to connect. But, again, there are only small numbers of people who are actually able to go through those processes. There are a lot of people who are really struggling to get work and to engage in employment and who need that support. It's one of those things we did raise earlier that is such a critical area in the whole process and its effectiveness—that is, how to manage the transition of the education space and the learnings that develop within the corrections and custodial environment into community. We know—and Marietta can talk about that from the programs that she runs with RMIT across each of the Victorian prisons—that point of transition is where so many struggle and where the risks are. That's a common point, I think, across all education spaces—the points of transition are where the weaknesses are.

Ms HAMMOND: Can I just ask a final question? Are conditions of parole ever linked to continuation in education in any of the jurisdictions?

Dr Wilson : No.

Ms HAMMOND: Is that something worth thinking about?

Dr Wilson : It's something that certainly is, and it's something we would encourage really strongly. I do know that there has been some consideration of that, but it's not the current practice.

Ms HAMMOND: Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Thank you, everyone. What a great point to finish on, Ms Hammond; you might have a recommendation there ready to go. Thank you very much to the Australasian Corrections Education Association. We appreciate your input. It's a really fascinating area. We'll be in touch with you with the transcript, and you can contact us with additional information, if you choose to, in the next seven days via our secretariat.

Dr Wilson : Thank you very much for your time.