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Thursday, 9 December 1976
Page: 3642

Mr INNES (Melbourne) -The report of the House of Representatives Select Committee on Specific Learning Difficulties is one of the most important documents in the field of education to come before this Parliament. It is concerned with a single aspect of education- the group which does not achieve 'minimum acceptable standards' in numeracy and literacy. It is a humane and compassionate document, containing practical and worthwhile recommendations, many of which could be quickly implemented with little expense, to deal with the vital question of under-achievement in the basic educational skills. But while it is not acted uponthere is little evidence to suggest other than passing notice by the Government- it remains another 'interesting' document and the problem of under-achievement remains unassailed. The fact that there is no Minister at the table to hear my views on the issues arising out of the document is not to the credit of the Government.

The reason I rise in this debate is to ask the Government why there has not even been the beginning of action on the Committee 's recommendations. One sees from the report that the Aboriginal community organisations course at the Swinburne College of Technology is about to be discontinued. The funding for that course will cease in 1977. There have been about 30 applicants for the course for 1977, including 4 Aborigines from as far away as Roper River in the Northern Territory. The Government has shown scant respect for the very important work that should be got under way in the near future.

Together with the report of the Australian Council for Educational Research, the report of the Select Committee forms the basis of an alliance for literacy. The Opposition welcomes the report of Dr Ronald T. Fitzgerald entitled Poverty and Education in Australia which was tabled today. So we have ample evidence of the problem and a range of recommendations which would give some serious government ample opportunity to do something about the problem. Until the emergence of these reports, research material on these subjects was sparse. Having got them, let us do something about them. The Opposition urges the Government to take urgent action to implement at least some of the recommendations of the Committee and to commit itself to the longer term objectives of the report.

Let us look at the problem in its most fundamental human terms. Failing to teach a child to read is among the more serious injuries which one human being can inflict upon another. The child has closed to him the excitement and information of the world of books. He also has closed to him most of his chances of taking full advantage of the opportunities which education could otherwise have afforded him. The following figures come from the nationwide survey of literacy and numeracy in Australian schools carried out by the ACER, and they are stark: Twentynine per cent of Australia's 10-year old children and 27 per cent of 14-year old children are unable to understand written material which is no more difficult than the text books and reference books they use in their classrooms. Up to 20 per cent of 14-year olds are unable to comprehend either the literal or inferential meaning of passages taken from daily newspapers. Between IS per cent and 25 per cent of children are passing from primary school into secondary school and ultimately leaving school altogether without ever acquiring an adequate mastery of the basic educational skills which they need in order to function successfully as citizens and as members of the work force.

Children who are not brain damaged or otherwise the victims of a major handicap should have picked up the mechanics of reading by the time they are aged seven. Teaching a child to read is the most fundamental responsibility which is owed to him by bis school and by the education system generally. Unfortunately, one thing which can be said with complete certainty is that enormous numbers of today's children are not mastering the reading skills which research shows clearly could be taught to them. Britain's Bullock Committee report called A Language for living had this to say:

If children are apparently unable to learn, we should assume that we have not as yet found the right way to teach them.

But in Australian schools these children are as likely as not to be classed as dyslexics, and the moral responsibility for teaching them is offloaded on remedial reading staff outside the normal classroom. Many will have left school before an actual remedial reading place is so much as offered to them. There are, of course, many areas and levels in the community where the problem of under-achievers can and must be tackled. These include parental education, pre-school education and television.

Let me for a moment tackle the very core of the problem, and that is teacher training. At school level the most important factor setting literacy back has been a disastrous collapse in the practical content of teacher training. According to the British Bullock report, preparing a teacher for the passing on of reading skills should occupy at least 100 hours of training course time, and preferably ISO hours. But the Select Committee discovered that in Australian teacher training colleges the following was the position:

The median values are quite low, at 10 to 20 hours, and even the maximum values of 60 to 75 hours are less than internationally recommended standards.

As the Select Committee was told, it is not dyslexia or specific learning difficulties which have landed us with the literacy problem, as much as teaching which fails to identify precisely where breakdowns have occurred in the child's acquisition of reading, to tackle them, and then retest to make sure that success has been achieved. As the Committee's report makes clean

The teaching of reading, numeracy and language should be the responsibility of all teachers. A child who is failing in subjects such as geography or history because of difficulties with basic skills should be taught these skills within the subject areas of the subject teacher.

From the research evidence, the whole idea of taking children out of their classrooms for separate remedial teaching should now be seen as deeply suspect. The Select Committee was told that, while there had been spectacular initial gains in performance on the part of great numbers of children, often in the long term these gains declined or even disappeared. Too frequently, withdrawal from the normal classroom setting leads to the child 's problem being seen as in his own ability or personality rather than in the qualities of the teacher or of the classroom itself, as is so often really the case. When the remedial process has run its course, the child simply returns to the conditions which gave him his difficulties in the first place.

Increasingly, the remedial teacher who works apart in a room of his own has to be supplanted by the resource teacher whose programs are conducted shoulder to shoulder with the classroom teacher on a team basis. So long as there are not enough resource teachers to go around- this seems bound to be the case for some considerable time- there has to be a way open for parents to come in and help free the classroom teacher for the actual business of instruction if that is going to be necessary in the first instance. Parents are the great untapped resource of the education system as far as meeting the slow learners' need for warmth and individual attention is concerned. There are problems. Problems were thrown up in the course of our deliberations and in the evidence taken by the Committee. But in the short term, if we do not act and act quickly, children are going to be committed to a lifetime of the emptiness that goes with failing to achieve progress in the literacy and numeracy area. Failing to mount a major research effort into getting the best from parental involvement in classrooms has been a major oversight on the part of the planners and administrators of Australian education.

There is room here for a general comment to be made on educational research. What Australia is getting back from its educational research dollar reflects more the preoccupations of staff of the universities and colleges of advanced education than it does the problems facing teachers in their everyday work. New funding arrangements should be made. These require a setting of priorities each year for educational research by the national Government. Each year a list should be prepared of specific projects which the Education Research and Development Committee lets out to research workers on a tender basis. Research funds should be split between these national interest projects and the proposals which researchers continue to put forward to the Committee on their own initiative.

Let us turn to the report of the Select Committee. In 2 years the Select Committee received more than 400 submissions and took more than 4000 pages of evidence. After all that work, which was conducted in an atmosphere of goodwill and understanding, the Committee came to a general belief that the levels of achievement are acceptable only when they enable the individual to compete in society in such a way that he can, with reasonable effort, obtain for himself a reasonable livelihood, dignity and reasonable social intercourse. The Committee went on to say in its report:

The reason for under-achievement in a young child or person greatly in need cannot set aside his entitlement to extra teaching resources. It should be the aim of our educational system to bring every person to a level where he can at least be a functional member of society. We believe that this objective would be shared by most Australians.

That is a very important quotation from the report. Let me say that the Opposition shares this objective and it cannot see why there should be any delay in implementing the recommendations of the report so that such an admirable objective can be achieved. It is no Utopian objective of equal opportunity for all; it is simply a matter of trying to establish a situation in which the disadvantaged get a run in the race which every day is being made more difficult by the economic obstacles erected by this Government. After asking 2 questions on this matter of the Minister representing the Minister for Education, I received an inane reply that the Government did not have any time to talk to the people in the State. It would not have taken a great deal of time to talk to the people in the State. It would not have taken a great deal of time to implement some of other available recommendations that could have been put into effect very quickly.

Let us look at some of the specific recommendations of the Committee. In chapter 2 of the report the Committee recommends that the incidence of learning difficulties among Australian school children should be determined at regular intervals by a nation-wide survey based on similar principles to the ACER study on 'Literacy and Numeracy in Australian Schools'. It states that the survey should be developed so that it will provide information on an assessment of the comparative performance of school systems and schools to establish whether, historically, standards are improving or declining and to determine the comparative performance of Australian schooling with schooling in comparative countries. The report goes on to state that an organisation such as the ACER should be funded by the Australian Government to conduct the survey and that further funds should be provided through the ERDC to enable research to aid in the development of survey techniques. This is not a radical approach; it would simply find out more about the problem we are trying to solve by using apparatus that is already established

Chapter 3 of the report goes on to propose cooperation between the States and the Australian Government. For God's sake, do we not need it?

It proposes amendments to the legislation of some States which denies the responsibility of education departments to provide educational services to handicapped children. It states that education departments should provide such services. The Committee suggests that funding for special education should be undertaken, as far as possible, through recurrent grants programs. As can be seen, this Select Committee went deeply into the subject and came up with recommendations on a very broad front to tackle the problems of literacy and to make life more fruitful for a vast number of people who at the moment just do not make the grade.

One of the latter chapters of the report deals with teacher education. The Committee has made recommendations which provide for integrated activity by a number of existing institutions. These proposals involve interaction between State departments of education and teacher organisations, the Australian Universities Commission and the Advanced Education Commission, and teacher training institutions. One would have thought that on an important issue such as this the very least the Government could have done at this stage would have been to set the wheels in motion. If they have done so, the Opposition can only be agreeably surprised that there has been any movement at all. If they have not, we can only say that the delay in adopting the recommendations of the report is unforgivable. The longer the delay the greater the number of children there will be whose futures are blighted and whose development will be stunted. Politicians should believe- many very likely do believe- that the way is open for parties to speak out and to make clear whether there is a place for 'the right to read' in their platforms.

There needs to be room for that in political platforms to cover all the issues that are contained in the report. It is a very good report. It is well researched and clearly set out. It provides a blueprint for what the Opposition believes is a very desirable 'alliance for literacy'. Let me conclude by once again quoting from the general conclusion of the Committee in the foreword to its report. It states:

It should be the aim of our educational system to bring every person to a level where he can be at least a functional member of society. We believe that this objective would be shared by most Australians.

Let me say that every member of the Opposition shares this objective. It hopes that every member of the Parliament supports that objective and that there will be no further delays in implementing the recommendations of this most vital report.

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