The ABS literacy levels by state data published today confirm what the OECD PISA study released in December found – that young Victorians’ literacy levels are well behind what their contemporaries in other states are achieving.
Victoria 15 to 24 year olds are a full 10 percentage points behind (51%/61%) their equivalents in New South Wales in achieving levels 3, 4 or 5 in prose literacy. As I noted when the summary literacy report came out last month,
…level 3 skills [are] regarded as the ‘minimum required for individuals to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy’.
The Victorians are also behind the Western Australians (57%; WA was slightly ahead of NSW in PISA), the Queenslanders (53%), and are about level with the South Australians (who round from the other direction to be also 51%). Only the Tasmanians on 49% are lower, but they have the excuse of a relatively low SES population.
Victorian educational policy is sometimes compared favourably with that of NSW in matters such as reporting school-level performance, but the positive effects aren’t evident in these results. I was told that a better curriculum explained why NSW did better than Victoria in PISA, but I have not followed the curriculum wars in enough detail to explain the differences re teaching literacy. But it seems plausible that curriculum is a major factor.
There are potential lessons here for the two big school education ideas current in Liberal politics at the moment.
For the centralists, led by former education ministers Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop, it is a reminder that in choosing a national curriculum you are taking a big gamble: that you will pick NSW or Western Australia rather than Victoria or South Australia. The national curriculum people might get it right first time, because they will have this evidence to draw on, but once a national curriculum is in place these decentralised experiments will be lost. A monopoly national curriculum is a seriously bad idea and should be dropped completely.
For the voucher advocates, a reminder that demand-side initiatives such as more information for parents and more scope for moving kids between schools (Victoria abolished strict zoning long ago) won’t do much good without supply-side reforms as well, such as competitive curricula. Student choice is necessary but not sufficient if we want to seriously improve our schools.