The literacy challenge for our part-time education minister

I didn’t think Stephen Smith’s performance as Shadow Education Minister warranted his appointment as Minister, but creating a part-time Education Minister – Julia Gillard will have to combine it with being Deputy Prime Minister, Employment and Workplace Relations Minister and Minister for Social Inclusion – is bordering on bizarre. It has unfortunate echoes of the two Ministers for everything in the early days of the Whitlam government.

While the media was preoccupied yesterday with ministries and Opposition leaders (another eyebrow raising decision), the ABS issued a report showing just why we need a full-time education minister. It was their second adult literacy survey.

It shows a slight prose literacy improvement on 1996, but still nearly half of all Australians are below the level 3 skills regarded as the ‘minimum required for individuals to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy’. The same is true of document literacy. (Prose literacy is understanding narrative texts; document literacy is the ability to locate and use information in various formats, including schedules, maps, tables and charts).

On the numeracy scale, more than half of all Australians were below skill level 3, and for a problem-solving scale, only 30% were at levels 3, 4 or 5.

There is also a further clue as to why 20% of graduates don’t have jobs suitable for graduates (pdf). By interesting coincidence, about 20% of bachelor-degree holders have only level 1 or 2 prose and document literacy. They are slightly worse on the numeracy scale, and much worse on the problem-solving scale. Further information is needed on whether these graduates are migrants, and their disciplinary backgrounds.

Regardless of the situation with graduates, there is clearly much work to be done to improve literacy. But will Gillard have any time to do it?

60 thoughts on “The literacy challenge for our part-time education minister

  1. I must admit the way Derek writes has taken me in. It is really great to talk to someone so positive about our youth. I am fine with this – as long as you are not deluding yourself. It must be an eneormous luck for kids to have someone like Derek as their teacher. I am sure our education would have fewer problems if all our teachers were like him. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as teacher is a mass profession…


  2. Boris – The relevant part of the comments policy in bold:

    “I’m going to take a hard line against those who use bad language, abuse other commenters, digress too far from the thread’s subject, ramble, or engage in prolonged debates.


  3. Boris,

    Thanks, but …. I am not a teacher.

    I am a parent of 5 sons. I’ve just celebrated my 30th wedding anniversary. I do have a background chiefly in middle management.

    Along with others, far wiser people, I was a Founder, and subsequently an annually elected Staff in a human rights and responsibilities based, participatory democratic school and subsequently self-funded Democratic Centre of Learning. Like others I wanted something better than the State system or other schools offered for my children and others who chose it.

    It was a community based school that we built from the ground up, that we resourced, provided a campus for, financed, guaranteed loans, built driveways, rock walled gardens, almost rebuilt a farmhouse as an interim school house, replumbed, rewired, restumped, painted it, installed a library, kitchen, waterless composting toilets, and staffed it – only for the Queensland Labor Government to close it down because we wouldn’t accept their dictates about curricula based on their model of central direction, control, drill and testing. Most staff contributed their time, by choice. Students were achieving incredible outcomes. The School was achieving its democratic Constitutional objectives.

    The people then proved they could operate a self-funded Democratic Centre of Learning where parents offered and accepted full responsibility for the education of their children, and they were thriving and learning. It stopped operating only on legal advice when the Queensland Minister for Education threatened criminal action and fines against Directors of the parent not for profit company. It suspended its operation in July 2006, once again interrupting students’ learning.

    4 months later I was charged by Summons with a criminal offence of operating an unaccredited non-state school. Despite specialist criminal lawyer’s requests, and being on bail for 7 months, keeping a cloud over my head, and designed to instill fear, the government didn’t produce any evidence and dropped the charge in June 2007.

    No-one should wonder why I am critical of government, their intolerable, unwarranted intrusions, and the coercive effects that come with government money. Our school was succeeding. It was our school, we owned it, not government. We sacrificed so much to create and maintain it. Its principles accorded with the democratic and human rights beliefs and values of those families who enrolled their student children and paid reasonable, affordable fees. It was achieving things with young people, and enviromentally on a chemical free organic campus with the aim of sustainability, that other schools could only dream about – because of the nature of mainstream schools, and because teaching is a heavily unionised “mass profession” (even though there are many good teachers out there trying hard in the face of much adversity and restrictions).

    Our Graduates are all independent. they did go onto either further education or worked or established their own enterprises. They contributed to Australia’s social capital.

    We intend and are working towards re-establishing our self-funded Democratic Centre of Learning, preferably with government accreditation. Interestingly, in countries where people have established rights, schools like ours succeed, simply because they are self-funded, self-managing stable and relatively free of government interference. But our government is in denial about that, not accepting what they can’t control or is beyond their party political policies. We need freedom and liberty to prevail.


  4. Derek I am not sure what harm is done by a prolonged debate if it is constructive and civilised, but that’s the policy, so we have to comply. Just like your school:) (Andrew I know it’s private property, I am just whinging). I have a lot to say about this topic. Maybe I will write you an email.


  5. My comments policy was designed to avoid the problems I saw at Catallaxy, with comments dominated by exchanges between a small number of individuals that often went around in circles and were of limited interest to others. I prefer a wider variety of commenters, and most threads should die a natural death within a few days of the original post so people can move on to something else.


  6. Andrew

    I was going to post a comment on one of your last two blogs about public education, but the comments are closed, whereas this post is older but the comments are still open – what’s going on?


  7. Peter – I was going to close this thread because of a prolonged debate between three people, but they stopped voluntarily so I left it open.

    The public school debate with Andrew Leigh will have open comments after it concludes at the end of the week. We decided to do this because commenters would jump ahead of us to issues that will be dealt with later in the two Andrews discussion.

    We are probably mixing different media in a way that won’t work – a blog without comments is not really a blog – but thought it was worth a try.


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