Tuesday, January 19, 2021

We need a billion-dollar educational stimulus, not just an economic stimulus

Do we want our education system to continue to churn out 46,000 illiterate students annually?

Reading Time: 3 minutes
literacy and numeracy

We sit at the threshold of choice.

The crucial question is: what sort of country do we want to create, emerging from a period of shutdown and forced reflection?

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Do we want thousands of our children to leave the system after twelve years unable to read, write or add? Is this what ‘education’ is meant to do?

Our National Literacy and Numeracy Benchmarks are so low that many kids who “achieve” (but not exceed) the standards cannot actually read or write or spell or add.

At least 46,000 children annually leave our school system being unable to read, write a sentence, add a bill or read instructions on a medicine bottle.

They are therefore defined into a life of invisibility and systemic complacency.

Can you imagine if we said that a child treading water and gasping to breathe, met a national benchmark for swimming? Would we accept that?

Do we want children to spend twelve years of time at school to be at risk of living on welfare payments?

What is the point of their schooling?

The shutdown and learning loss

The shutdown led to learning loss for most students leaving many behind in their scheduled learning. The most disaffected students faced, and still face, double disadvantage. Without access to technology or individualised support, these students were not able to access education at all over eight weeks. The message to these students has been that they do not matter.

Surveys are now showing that parents are concerned for their children and the effect of their learning loss. Of course the surveys do not ask the most disaffected of kids.

The data and the darkness

This message of being ignored is, in fact, what they experience annually. We just need to look at the level of literacy and numeracy disadvantage revealed by annual NAPLAN data. According to the data around 5% of students do not meet the National Benchmarks – however the benchmarks are misleading. The ‘standard’ is set so low that it defines away any problem. However international PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies data reveals a different picture – up to 45% of adult Australians are functionally illiterate. They cannot read a menu, follow a map, or read instructions. I am pretty sure they did not become functionally illiterate after leaving school – they must have spent their entire schooling functionally illiterate.

If this data were averaged across the school system, it would equate to at least 1,780,000 students needing literacy and/or numeracy support.

The economic imperative

The pandemic has clearly affected the economy and has led to a need for economic stimulus. To date this stimulus spending has primarily targeted employment-related spending for individuals and also business support.

The necessity for spending is evident with large-scale job losses and low consumer and business confidence. However, consideration needs to be brought where money is directed. It is great to renovate homes, but what about the psyche and skill levels of illiterate children? These are the master builders of our future society and should not be constrained to living on transfer payments.

Do we want children to sit in schools for twelve years just ‘doing time’ only to leave and live a life on welfare? Or do we believe that education should empower students to become active participants in a society that cares enough to educate properly? That all children should leave school being able to read, write, think critically, express ideas, be number literate and be digitally adept?

It is economically and socially crucial that this be attended to as a national emergency, free of political ideology.

A Pupil Premium

We need at least $700m invested into education for targeted literacy and numeracy support – but not given to schools. The money needs to go to parents but allocated to accredited tutors who are literacy and numeracy specialists. A Pupil Premium of this nature would require tutors to partner with schools for accountability. This would bring a level of accountability to literacy and numeracy interventions that have not been present to date.

I think $3,500 annually should be given to parents of identified families to assist their children to become literate and numerate. This is a small investment in the scheme of things and would bring individual, social and economic benefits for decades.

What is required is an educational stimulus, not just an economic stimulus.

READ ALSO: Six reasons why high school students should never return to school full-time

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Mohan Dhall
Academic Leader, Dymocks Tutoring and CEO of Australian Tutoring Association and Global Tutoring Association

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