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Tuesday, 4 October 1983
Page: 1299


Mr CADMAN(9.33) —I rise to speak to the estimates for the Department of Education and Youth Affairs. I wish to express my total opposition to and rejection of the recent decision of the Australian Education Council to discontinue the national testing program which reports on the levels of literacy and numeracy in Australia. The survey commenced in 1975 on the recommendation of the House of Representatives Select Committee on Specific Learning Difficulties. That survey was to that time the only reliable data on learning difficulties in regard to literacy and numeracy in Australia. That Committee reported that, in Australia, one child in every classroom of 10-year-olds is virtually unable to read. One child in every three or four classrooms of 14-year-olds was not an independent reader. The survey conducted in 1975 further indicated that 18 per cent of 10-year-olds were unable successfully to transcribe a passage of 49 words, that 4 per cent of 14-year-olds could not subtract nine from 17 and that 15 per cent to 20 per cent of students were seen by their teachers as needing remedial instruction in reading and number work.

The 1980 survey, which followed the 1975 survey, indicated that there had been some slight improvement in the quality of literacy and numeracy in Australia. But the Australian Education Council in fact has decided to discontinue what was designed to be a longitudinal study over many years indicating to the nation as a whole just where we are advancing in basic skills. The lack of information can cause needless and extensive anxiety when wild accusations are made on the levels of literacy and numeracy in Australia. To have no information is most discouraging for teachers and for schools. It provides decision makers with little information on remediation and programs to assist children in schools. A survey conducted on a regular basis provides information on standards whereas without that information we rely on empirical information which is not sound and which has not been scientifically based. Nor can it be argued against or assessed. A recommendation of the Select Committee was for a regular survey conducted on a four or five yearly basis. The 1980 survey was conducted with a few modifications to the 1975 survey and in fact indicated that there had been some slight improvement in literacy and numeracy in Australia.

A further aspect of this important survey that has now been discontinued is the obvious link with employment prospects. The report of the Myers Committee of Inquiry into Technological Change in Australia and the report of the Williams Committee on Education, Training and Employment both mentioned the important link between levels of literacy and numeracy and employment prospects. The only way in which we can assess how we are coping as a society is to have some objective assessment. How can society, how can we as a community or a nation, accept responsibility? How can members of Parliament accept their responsibilities as elected members of Parliament unless they have some objective assessment by which to gauge the improvement, the advances, the changes in education? A regular four or five yearly survey is essential when one considers that there are between 380,000 to 480,000 adult illiterates throughout Australia today. Sixty five per cent of those adult illiterates are aged under 30 years. They are the recent results of education and the people under threat in the job market. In a report prepared by the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission called 'Learning and Earning', the author makes some remarks about the role and responsibility of those who are teaching young people and decision makers. On page 71 the report states:

The differing levels of school attainment of young people are linked to the variations in their subsequent activities in post-school education and the labour force. There is a very heavy concentration of low-achieving youngsters in the least attractive post-school destinations-low-skill jobs, long-term unemployment, or total withdrawal both from the labour force and from education.

To support further the importance of education and job prospects I refer to what is now a rather old report but one which I think all members of the House would endorse and have regard for. It is the report prepared in 1977 by the Australian Government Commission of Inquiry into Poverty, the Henderson report. I refer particularly to the Poverty and Education Series entitled 'School Leavers: Choice and Opportunity.' In this report Professor Henderson made a very strong plea to educators. He said:

Curriculum design must apply itself to the student's need for increased options in her life choices. Teachers do not have a right to experiment on students, without justifying the program with research and debate. They must be accountable and be prepared to defend curriculum experiments with the necessary logic and evidence.

The decision made by the Australian Education Council to disband the national survey on literacy and numeracy in fact runs completely contrary to the recommendations made in 1977 by Professor Henderson in which he said, and I repeat:

They-

The teachers and those who develop the curriculum-

must be accountable and be prepared to defend curriculum experiments with the necessary logic and evidence.

That has not been done. In my view, it is a scandal that this national survey has been dropped and that it has been seen fit by education Ministers not to continue it. It is important for young people at risk, those 480,000-odd young people who are illiterate, to learn life skills. It is important, whether they become checkout assistants or truck drivers, whether they attend university or whether they take up trade courses. Evidence is available that 30 per cent of students entering technical colleges need some remediation before they can undertake trade courses. What is now needed is a continuation of a yardstick by which basic education can be assessed and proper policies instigated. That yardstick has been removed. We must be able to monitor the achievements of education. We must be able to assess what is happening.

In response to the decision made by State Ministers for education and the Federal Minister for Education (Senator Ryan), the President of the Australian Teachers Federation, Mr Van Davey, is reported to have said in Canberra:

. . . the council's decision to drop the monitoring program was good news and consistent with federation policy.

I quote from the Australian of 10 May 1983:

Mr Davey said the national testing scheme had 'anti-education' aspects to it.

I think that is a despicable comment from a professional who is supposed to be concerned for the well being of his students and the prospect of young people to gain jobs. Education must be evaluated and it must be evaluated with all the sensitivities and skills available to the nation. Australia needs programs, but planning and successes need to be measured.