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

FINFINIS, Ms Mary, Teacher, Adult Multicultural Education Services Australia [by audio link]

SCARTH, Ms Catherine, Chief Executive Officer, Adult Multicultural Education Services Australia [by audio link]


CHAIR: Welcome. Your evidence is not under oath, but the hearings are a proceeding of parliament, and the same respect is required. False or misleading evidence would be regarded as a contempt of parliament. Rather than going through your submission, which we all have, could you identify in the 10 minutes or so we have two or three of the key points that we need to be focusing on this afternoon.

Ms Scarth : Yes. Thank you for the opportunity to appear today. I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the country we are coming from today, and I pay respects to their elders past, present and emerging. AMES provides a comprehensive range of initial settlement support, including English language literacy, vocational training and employment for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. We provide a number of those programs through things like Skills for Education and Employment, Adult Migrant Education Program and a number of Victorian funded training programs, and we're also a panel member of the Foundation Skills for Your Future program.

For the purposes of the inquiry—as you said, you have our full submission—the couple of key points that we would like to make today are that adult literacy for us is not only reading, writing and numeracy but, importantly, things like digital literacy and a range of other multi-literacies that people require, such as financial, health, workplace and consumer rights literacy, all of the broad literacies that people will require. We're particularly focused at the moment on digital literacy in the context of COVID and, having switched many of our programs to online delivery, that's becoming increasingly important for us. We also note, given we're an employment provider, that the increasing digital component of the new employment systems will raise that issue even further. For us also, English language and literacy tools are there to support social and economic participation, and the motivation behind gaining these skills will be different for each individual. We're very much of the view that programs need to be able to respond in appropriate and flexible ways, particularly contextualised learning in the context that matters to different motivations. So combining language and literacy, for instance, with employment skills development is something that we see as critical, whether it's in the workplace or before people gain employment, still being able to contextualise that in terms of learning—learning English for what, learning literacy for what—that economic participation is obviously quite critical.

The other point we wanted to make was the relationship that's drawn between literacy and numeracy and problem solving skills. That's an interesting connection for us working with refugees and migrants, many of whom are not literate in their own language. We don't see that impacting on their problem solving skills at all. They're incredibly entrepreneurial, and in many cases have navigated all kinds of problems to be able to find themselves here. Literacy hasn't necessarily been a barrier in terms of them being able to do that. Having said that, increasing language, literacy and numeracy skills is inherently a good thing for social and economic participation in the Australian context.

Finally, we just want to put language, literacy, numeracy and digital literacy in a broader education ecosystem. Governments across the board, including, obviously, the Commonwealth, are making significant investment. What we see as perhaps missing is a greater level of coordination between those different programs, the settings in which it makes most sense for different learners to learn and maybe a stronger connection for us particularly to schools and adult education. The best setting, for instance, for parents to increase their literacy skills may be in conjunction with supporting their children's literacy skills. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you. I will jump in, and others can message me if they have questions. I want to ask about the perception that the appetite to engage in education services might vary by destination economy, might vary by age in particular. We have rudimentary data dating back to a consultant report from 2012, which said there were significant variations in workplace engagement based on nationality of origin. I want to know whether there has been further work done on that. There is this general question about whether providing more services simply fixes this problem, or is there a real issue of migrant arrivals being both ready and willing to acquire local literacy and numeracy skills to enable them to engage the local economy.

Ms Scarth : Gosh, there's a lot in there. Starting at the end, certainly our experience is there is a significant appetite for refugees and migrants to learn English, improve their literacy and participate in training. AMES has undertaken various research studies over the last 10 to 15 years, and I'm happy to provide some of those to the committee—

CHAIR: That would be good, if you wouldn't mind sending that. Thank you.

Ms Scarth : of course—particularly as it relates to those people who are in the Adult Migrant English Program. What we saw were very high levels of engagement in further training, compared to other cohorts. Generally, migrants and refugees are very keen on increasing their skills, participating in education and training so that they can improve their economic position. Likewise, and there is significant research, including some of the work by Hugo, to identify that education broadly is very highly regarded in migrant and refugee communities, and certainly that second generations of migrant and refugee families are likely to perform much better than native born Australians in terms of education. There is a general aspiration amongst refugees and migrants, and education sits in there significantly.

CHAIR: I'll just jump in there. Any other evidence you have—because when you went through it you were just touching on some evidence in your submission—on the location, the destination, the origin economies, and also what is actually working and what the limitations are for specific cultures and ages would be of great help to us. It sounds like it's all pretty good news, but we'd love you to confirm that with some evidence.

Ms Scarth : Yes, we're certainly happy to provide that. Mary's daughter is now home, so, Mary, please jump in with some specifics. Obviously, the starting point is very different for some groups. Older people who have come here after many, many years in a refugee camp, who have had little or no structured education, are not literate in their own languages—that was the point I was making earlier about how important it is to contextualise it—their journey means they're potentially never going to achieve academic English, but they will certainly be able to learn enough to participate economically—

CHAIR: Thank you. Understood. And we're interested in that gain. That gain towards adequacy is our greatest interest. Ms Hammond, over to you.

Ms HAMMOND: Thank you very much for your submission. I want to pick up on something you said. In many ways I know this circumstantially, but it's also counterintuitive to something else that we're looking at in this inquiry. You mentioned second-generation refugee and migrant populations—was it succeeding or going further in education, and in literacy and numeracy?

Ms Scarth : Yes.

Ms HAMMOND: Where are those stats from? Are they from the ABS?

Ms Scarth : Two things: I think ABS have picked it up and I also think Graeme Hugo has done quite a number of longitudinal studies of refugee migration outcomes. I could source those for you.

Ms HAMMOND: That would be wonderful; thank you. One of the elements that we're looking at in the inquiry is the intergenerational impact of poor adult literacy and numeracy. There is evidence to say that in some cohorts there is intergenerational disadvantage, and yet it's not in migrant and refugee cohorts. So is that something that you can comment on, based on your experience or research?

Ms Scarth : I might hand over to Mary, who might have more practical examples. Our experience, in a sense, with the journey that particularly refugees have made is that, whilst they might not have high levels of education themselves, they have incredible aspirations for their children. So they invest heavily in education outcomes, possibly that others in a similar situation wouldn't necessarily have. So they're incredibly driven, if you like, in terms of education being the way out for their children. I suppose that's how I would put it.

Ms Finfinis : I'm going by our experiences during the COVID period where we were in lockdown. We had a lot of our students with very limited English trying to support their children, who were also studying at home. There were quite a significant amount of issues there in not being able to support and help their children with their studies from home because of their limited levels of English. Having said that, their children, though, were able to support the parents with their own studies. We found that there was an increased level in digital literacy as a result of the lockdown because they did have more support from home, from their own children, which allowed them to also participate and continue to develop their language skills from home, which was a positive outcome for us.

Ms HAMMOND: It strikes me, though, that this also comes back to a point that I think has been raised a number of times today, and that is that there's a not a one-size-fits-all model to addressing poor adult literacy and numeracy. We've got to look at the causes in different cohorts to actually get to the bottom of it. As you say, with refugee and migrant populations, there can often be that huge aspiration for their kids. Do have any comment on that?

Ms Scarth : I agree. That was certainly the point we wanted to make—that it needs to be contextualised for the learner, but you need to understand their motivation so that you can then create a model for the mode of delivery that best suits those learners. Not everybody is going to learn best by sitting in a classroom. For some people it needs to be contextualised. If I pick up on two case examples for us, that might help.

A few years ago, we had a number of women from Sudanese and Somali backgrounds—very, very low levels of literacy, pre-pre-literate levels. They were very keen to work. They wanted to participate. They found it difficult just to sit in a classroom for six hours. So, even at that very low level of literacy, we combined it with work in hospitality, as room attendants. We worked with corporate hotels. So, at the same time as learning English, they were learning it in the context of becoming room attendants. At the end of the 10 weeks, they did a three-week work placement at Sofitel in Melbourne, and many of them got work. It was kind of tapping into that motivation which was about working. They needed to learn, but it was contextualised. We actually collected the sheet that the room attendant team would use in the hotel. So that was the English program. Another one was Dollar curtain manufacturing, which was having significant issues with losing lots of material because it was a mainly [inaudible] workforce who weren't able to measure it properly and didn't have the English-language skills. So, in that case, we actually went into the workplace with a teacher so, again, we could contextualise the learning. They were able to keep their jobs, when the employer had been concerned he would have to change out the workforce.

So it is about having programs where the funding, the contractual obligations and the assessment of education obligations are flexible enough to meet those specific needs. As I said, not everybody's going to get up to the level of academic English, but not everyone needs to be at that level. They mightn't even have great written skills, but they've got great aural skills. As you say, it's not a one-size-fits-all approach; we need to be able to adapt and vary things.

Ms HAMMOND: My final question picks up on what you were just talking about: doing it in the workplace. Part of your submission is that the evidence of employer demand and willingness to invest employee time and other resources in this training is not clear, even when the actual cost is being funded by the government. Could you extrapolate on that a little bit?

Ms Scarth : This comes down to some programs that we've been trying to get up under foundation skills. Possibly it goes a bit to the motivations, but we've found it's very difficult to get the employers to go through all the hoops that are required in terms of getting a program together for literacy and numeracy training, where those things aren't really simple. Even going back to AMES's experience under the old programs, like Workplace English Language and Literacy—the old WELL programs—where employers had to pay a contribution, I think there was probably slightly better involvement from employers. We're finding it really difficult at the moment, and I think it's in part because, until COVID, employers could probably get the workforce they needed. I think we might see a bit of a different picture now, with not being able to bring in skilled migrants or labour. But there just doesn't seem to be a willingness to go through some of the hoops and the processes to put it in place.

For us, I suppose it's about how the government can make it as easy as possible for employers to do it. Is there a broader campaign, about why it's a good thing for business? Even if employers aren't paying the cost, what incentives could the government look at other than just the cost of the program? It's also employees who tie that benefit to the business—things like an employer saying, 'But if I train people up, they're just going to move and get a job somewhere else.' So there are a couple of things that are disincentives, not just the cost of training.

Ms HAMMOND: Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Ms Hammond. Time is perhaps beating us and we're towards the end of the day, but thank you so much, Ms Scarth and Ms Finfinis, for your contributions. You had a very tidy submission as well, which we appreciate. If you have any subsequent questions or clarifications—you can look at the transcript—please be in touch with our secretariat in the next seven days. Thank you.