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Focus on literacy

By Victor Perton - posted Friday, 30 September 2005

One-fifth of Victorian school-leavers are functionally illiterate.

Victoria starts last in the race to increase our workforce’s skills. Tomorrow’s workers will have the poorest literacy skills on mainland Australia.

The 2004 report of the OECD Program for International Student Assessment showed Victorian students have lower literacy, numeracy and scientific literacy rates than their Queensland, Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, South Australian and Western Australian counterparts. Just 11 per cent of Victorian students performed at the highest rates of reading literacy proficiency, compared with 22 per cent of ACT students and 20 per cent in Western Australia.


The Premier's vague “Third Wave” call to Australia to "increase the proportion of students achieving benchmark levels for year 3, 5 and 7 levels of reading, numeracy and writing" is admirable, but those living in glass houses should not throw stones. Steve Bracks must first address the problem that 20 per cent of our children leave school functionally illiterate, in many cases with a VCE or VCAL certificate, before he puts his two cents worth into what the rest of the country should do to improve education.

The OECD study is just one of several over the past two years pointing to poor average literacy among Victorian students. Bracks must take responsibility for this appalling report card and focus on improving literacy and numeracy rates in Victoria, instead of producing fluffy rhetoric. If he doesn't fix the problems in his own backyard, the progression of the Victorian workforce will be bleak.

The Setting the Pace report on Victorian youth participation in learning and work, prepared for the Dusseldorp Skills Forum in association with the Education Foundation and the Business Council of Australia, predicted future problems. It said: "Literacy and numeracy is a central foundation on which successful learning and long-term economic participation is built but Victorian students at age 15 perform less well in achievement tests in mathematics, science and reading relative to students in comparable states."

The Bracks Government's own data, released in June, showed that in 25 Victorian secondary schools more than 10 per cent of former students were unemployed 6 months after completing their VCE or VCAL certificates. These schools have poor standards in literacy and numeracy at year 10 level, yet most students are promoted to years 11 and 12 despite not being able to read the prescribed texts.

The Victorian budget acknowledges that one in five year ten students have literacy levels that do not equip them to study at senior secondary school level. It is unfair that many of these students are being encouraged to go on to complete year 12 only to end up without a university or TAFE place, and no job due to low performance in their VCE and no adequate employment skills, such as reading and writing.

Despite these disturbing findings, Steve Bracks, Education Minister Lynne Kosky and Education Services Minister Jacinta Allan have their heads in the sand and continue to claim it is all good news regarding literacy and numeracy levels.


The Victorian Government's literacy programs are remedial rather than proactive. According to the Auditor-General, programs such as “Reading Recovery and Restart” have failed to make any impact despite more than $600 million being spent. The Bracks Government must stop throwing good money after bad and come up with some real solutions to our literacy and numeracy woes.

For a start, we can set higher standards for teacher training and supervision. While we shouldn't blame teachers for a problem that starts before school, there is little doubt we have to demand higher standards from teacher training institutions. We can do that by setting entrance exams as several other countries do.

Automatic progression to the next year level is the norm today despite one in five children being ill-equipped to read the appropriate year level text. This is not good enough and will result in an unskilled workforce. We have to restore consequences for failure. Poor students must be offered after-hours school classes to bring them back up to the benchmark.

The Government should also support non-government organisations, such as OzChild, the Smith Family and the Brotherhood of St Laurence, which operate excellent early reading programs targeting semi-illiterate mothers for support and training.

Steve Bracks has no credibility on increasing literacy and numeracy benchmarks. He must fix the problems in his own backyard before he tells the rest of the country what it should do.

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Article edited by Geoffrey Zygier.
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First published in The Age on September 1, 2005.

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About the Author

Victor Perton is the Member for Doncaster in the Victorian Government. He is the shadow minister for education.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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