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Thursday, 9 December 1976
Page: 3648

Mr BEAZLEY (Fremantle) -I should like to ask the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Viner) who represents the Minister for Education (Senator Carrick) whether the Department of Education has reacted to the report of the Select Committee on Specific Learning Difficulties. I imagine that the report has been submitted to the Department of Education and to the Australian Schools Commission. It is likely that by this time there has been some reaction from them. If the Minister is not in a position to indicate to the House what their reactions are to the report, I would be grateful to receive from the Minister for Education a letter indicating the reaction of the Education experts of the Commonwealth Government to the recommendations of the Committee. In the opening part of its recommendations, the Committee referred to an important point. It stated:

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 1 Literacy and Numeracy in Australian Schools '.

When I was the Minister for Education I authorised the investigation into the literacy and numeracy in Australia-n Schools, particularly directed at 11 -year olds and at 14-year olds. It is possible to stand up in Australia and say that reading standards are improving; that reading standards are getting worse; or that mathematical standards are improving on getting worse. There has been no base year to make comparisons. The report of the Australian Council for Educational Research made available this year- as a result of decisions made when I was Minister for Education last year, has given us a base year. But we are not yet in a position to make comparisons. I contrast this situation with paragraph 585 of the report entitled Children and their Primary Schools- the so-called Plowden report- published in the U.K. It states:

Successive investigations into reading ability undertaken by the Department of Education from 1948 to 1964 make it clear that, despite the dismal reports that appear from time to time in the press, the standard of reading m the country as a whole has been going up steadily since the war. Children of eleven have advanced by an average of 1 7 months since the first report was made, and backwardness now has a different connotation from that which it had in 1948. For this improvement the schools can take much of the credit, but it does not dispose of all the questions asked about reading. The most important which remain are: what can be done to help the minority of children for whom learning to read is a slow business and for a few never achieved? What use is made of the skill once it is acquired?

Without putting it quite so specifically, the Select Committee has really been aiming in Australia at trying to find the answers to those questions. It is important to note what has happened in the United Kingdom since the Plowden report in 196S. When I was in the United Kingdom in June and July of this year I went to the College of Education at Edgehill and also to the Thomas Coram Child Research Unit of the Faculty of Education of London University. I learnt a number of things. One was about the standards of reading in the United Kingdom. I learned that the standard of reading had stood still since that revelation in the Plowden report. It had not gone back, it had not gone forward, but the demands of people in the United Kingdom had risen. For instance, in 1948 it required a reading age of nine to read the London Daily Mirror. Even the London Daily Mirror, which is about as revolting as the Sydney Mirror in its standards, now requires a reading age of thirteen. That increased requirement has really gone through the English Press. A tertiary reading age is required to read the London Times, but the reading age required to read it in 1948 was not so high. They have been making assessments of what is required.

Amongst the most difficult reading, of course, is any sort of instructional or inquisitorial reading such as forms. A person who died in the United Kingdom in 1975 in his lifetime had filled in 17 times as many forms as a person who had died in 1945. Therefore there is a considerable demand on reading skills. I have already mentioned in this House that sometimes a difference is made between requirements of reading skill in technical education and in academic education. These differences are quite false. For instance, if one reads the house manuals of Mercedes, Ford or Holden, such as are studied by a person doing mechanical engineering at one of our technical schools, one will quickly find that the. reading requirements of those motor firm manuals are fully at tertiary level. Even if someone is doing a chef's course at the Canberra Technical College- a very important course- the instructional reading m books of recipes and so on has to be understood. There is almost no sector of education which does not require reading skills.

I hope that the Department of Education will take note of the recommendations of this year's and last year's exercise of the ACER in its report on literacy and numeracy in Australian schools. I hope its study of the capacity of Australian children in that regard will be noted. If it is we will then have objective tests of whether reading is advancing. A report has been issued to us today entitled Poverty and Education in Australia.Dr Ronald Fitzgerald, who was the commissioner, when referring to the Interim Committee of the Australian Schools Commission stated:

The terms of reference directed to the Interim Committee-

That is the Karmel Committee- . . to determine the minimum needs ofthe schooling system and to define those needs according to the extent of cognitive, physical, social or economic disadvantage of students. In its report of the following May, the Committee redefined equality of opportunity in the Australian context. First, it rejected the established principle of uniform provision of services and asserted that governments should discriminate positively in favour of disadvantaged groups. Second, the Committee argued for diversity and asserted that criteria other than academic success ought to be accepted for recognising student achievement

Looking back on my experience as a Minister I can remember being under fire about schools. The truth about our Australian community is that the most articulate sections of the community regard education as a weapon to their advantage and to the advantage of their own children over other children and not as the instrument of every child's dignity. I was never attacked about expenditure on universities. Let us face it: Expenditure on universities represents shifting purchasing power upwards in the community. It costs $67m a year to run the Australian National University for 6000 students, which is $1 1,000 a head. There are many taxpayers who are much poorer than many of the students at the university and who are paying taxes for the students' education. I believe it is very important that university education is free. I am not attacking that principle. I am stating that there is a social effect on shifting resources upwards in the community. It is significant that the Labor Government was never under attack about that. But my goodness, the attacks that came when a differential was made between, say, a Geelong Grammar school and a Marist Brothers college in the non-government sector were significant. That was where the real battle came in. If a government does anything in education expenditure that starts shifting resources downwards in the community it will find itself under fire from articulate sections ofthe community.

I say one thing about what is, after all, a superficial look at Fitzgerald's report. I dislike his imprecise use of the word 'elitism'. I believe that the Specific Learning Difficulties Committee avoided confusion of terms. I believe it is elitism in education if you are trying to socially privilege an economic or social group. For instance, Palmerston, in his days at Oxford University, was considered to be a man of exceptional selfrestraint because he did not take out a Master of Arts degree to which he was automatically entitled as a peer. Being a peer and just breathing the atmosphere of Oxford entitled him to an M.A. immediately. That is what I would call elitism in an extreme form in education. But when people start talking about intellectual capacity and say that it is elitism, if someone for instance a student at a secondary college in Canberra, with high intellectual capacity can go ahead at his own pace, what they really are speaking about is academic and intellectual skill. If they are going to attack that as elitism I think they are making a mistake. Of course, it is elitism if you try to confine opportunities to socially privileged groups or if you leave others to rot because they are not in socially privileged groups.

I think we would be very wise in the field of education to confine the expression elitism to the question of social and economic privilege and not make it an instrument of attack on quality. After all, if I am going to be operated on by a surgeon I hope to God he belongs to an elite and can do the operation skilfully and with good discernment. There are many things for which we require the services of an elite

The Specific Learning Difficulties Committee was trying to find reasons why some children do not succeed. They are not all economic reasons. At the Thomas Coram Research Unit, Professor Tizard had students who had done a survey of English children at Dagenham. They had excluded from the survey children of West Indian background or Indian and Pakistan background because their command of English was different from that of the general run of English children. They analysed the reading capacities of English children in the Dagenham area and they found this very interesting thing, that children who read regularly to their parents now were in the top reading group. Children who read occasionally to their parents now were in the second best reading group. Children who had regularly read to their parents in the infants group, but had not done so since were in the next group, and children who had read occasionally to their parents in the infants group were next. The children who had never read to their parents were in the last group. This is a very interesting aspect in establishing a correlation between the factor of parental interest in listening to the child's achievements and the child's results. In other words, children and young people do catch from adults a value placed on education.

The secondary colleges which came into existence in Canberra this year have a number of things about them which have led to them being very intense learning communities. One is that children have deliberately chosen to transfer to them because they want to get on with work. Secondly, under our adult secondary student scheme, adults who missed secondary education opportunities may come back to school. So there we have 2 1-year olds and 25-year olds who have come back to matriculate in those colleges. They, as young adults, put a high value on the opportunities which the 17-year olds and 18-year olds get naturally. The younger students have caught these values from the older students and the presence of these older students has been a tremendous factor in motivation. It is the same thing with the parental stimulus. We cannot eliminate that factor, but the vital parts of this report do speak of the quality of teachers of the handicapped. The beginnings of a transformation in that area came about by the funding which arose out of the Karmel report.

There are many comments in this report on specific learning difficulties which are extremely valuable and that is why I would like very much to have the reactions of the Commonwealth Department of Education and the Schools Commission to it. I am not an objective viewer, being a member of that Committee, but I regard this report as being a very valuable educational document brought down by a committee of this House.

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