Labor's Education Challenge


Seven million Australian outsiders played a big but still barely recognised part in the election of the Rudd Labor Government.

They knew far better than Australia’s self-centred elites that too many people are being left behind in the rapid advance of Australia’s modern knowledge-based economy. They wanted better prospects for their children.

A new report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics confirms their suspicions. Australia has reaped a bitter harvest from the exclusionary educational policies that John Howard watered so carefully over the past eleven and a half years.

The Bureau’s report shows that Australians are ‘middling’ performers in today’s modern high tech world. Mediocre, at best. The survey from which these conclusions were drawn was part of an international stock take of public knowledge, sponsored by the rich nations’ club, the OECD.

The Bureau’s Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey sought information on public literacy, numeracy, problem solving skills and health knowledge, but, oddly, not computer literacy.

This initial operation, part of a wider and longer global study, was also conducted in six other countries, including the United States and Canada.

It showed that some 7 million Australians aged between 15 and 74 don’t have the reading skills at ‘the minimum (standard) required to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy.’

In other words, these people some 46 per cent of Australia’s adult population are rapidly becoming the nation’s new outsiders.

Others did far better than us. The Norwegians, for example, performed best in both the prose and document literacy tests and problem solving while the Swiss performed best on numeracy.

Australia ‘s outsiders are acutely aware that they are being left behind they showed that in the recent Federal election. Kevin Rudd has acknowledged their aspirations, but there is still a very real danger that their legitimate needs will be buried under Julia Gillard’s heavy workload, beyond her role as Deputy Prime Minister.

So who, precisely, are these 7 million outsiders? They are the people who cannot read well enough to understand articles in newspapers or magazines and who find it difficult even to understand a brochure.

They might also lack the skills to complete job applications, payroll forms, read bus timetables, or even to understand maps, tables or charts. Many cannot count their change at the shops correctly, or look after their own health effectively.

Solving even relatively simple problems might be beyond them. So they wander about as dazed strangers in today’s slick, modern world. Barry Jones warned of the likely rise of this new underclass years ago, in his seminal book Sleepers, Wake!: Technology & The Future Of Work.

Small wonder then, that these people were hugely attracted by Kevin Rudd’s promise of an ‘education revolution’ in Australia. For them, that revolution will not be coming a minute too soon.

But what, if anything, will it do for these people, and how might that help be delivered? How can any government improve the reading skills of so many adults when most of them have left the educational system years ago?

Labor’s Skilling Australia plan has been designed to include the most disadvantaged. Sixty per cent its places will be set aside for current workers who need intensive training to be job ready, while the remainder will target those outside the workforce.

Of course, many of those 7 million Australians whose literacy skills fall short of the needs of the modern job market already have jobs. A substantial number, too, would already be retired. Others would be outside the workforce, either studying at school, a technical college, or university.

But even these people are not getting as much from modern life as they might, and Labor’s plan will only help some 515,000 Australians over the next four years. Many people who desperately need help will miss out.

The first step in tackling any problem is to measure it. So what exactly is the situation here? The Bureau divides the Australians it surveyed on what it called ‘prose literacy’ into five groups, ranked by their respective competence levels.

Some 7 million in levels 1 and 2 did not meet today’s ‘minimum standards.’ Almost 7.1 million also failed on ‘document literacy.’ And 7.9 million or 52.5 per cent of the adult population failed the Bureau’s numeracy test.

Our worst results though, came in the problem solving section, in which some 10.5 million got failing grades. Our ‘health literacy’ rate was poor too, with almost 60 per cent of Australian adults placed in similarly low grades, in the survey results.

The Bureau doesn’t allocate blame, but there will be plenty to go round.

Some, predictably, will say that this sad situation has arisen because schools have lost sight of the three Rs preferring instead to teach soft social sciences.

The former Education Minister, Julie Bishop, put this view forcefully when she famously said that Australia’s government schools teachers were tainted by ‘Maoist’ ideologies.

But these theories are not supported by the survey results. The prose test, for example, shows that young adults in the 20-24-year-old age group scored better than older Australians of what we might call managerial age.

Less than 42 per cent of Australian men aged 20-24 scored failing grades on the prose literacy tests. Their female counterparts did even better less than 33 per cent of them flunked. But more than 46 per cent of Australia’s 50-54 year olds did, despite the celebrated benefits of ‘old school’ teaching methods.

Young adults also coped better with government and other forms than older people. Just 38 per cent of young men and 36 per cent of young women failed the form test. Their results were roughly 10 per cent better than that of the entire adult population.

Their numeracy failure rates too were significantly better than those of the total adult community, as were their problem solving and health literacy results.

So Australia’s school teachers might well be doing something right, after all.

But our report card has certainly been marked with the words ‘Australia can do better’ and in today’s competitive world, that is serious.

Mines alone won’t keep us rich forever. We need to be more than just hewers of rock.

The new Labor Government has a huge task before it, and Julia Gillard will need all the help she can get from new Employment Participation Minister, Brendan O’Connor, and Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion and the Voluntary Sector, Senator Ursula Stephens.

Finally, it’s worth asking why computer literacy wasn’t surveyed. Perhaps it’s because the study was commissioned by older people, who knew that they would be seriously embarrassed by the huge gap that now exists, in computer skills, between young citizens of the modern world and the old fogies who commission surveys. Still, it’s a conspicuous gap in the survey’s design, and another arena in which Australia will have to lift its game if we are to thrive this century.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.