One in five adult Australians have low literacy and/or numeracy. This means that around three million adults do not have the skills to meet the demands of work and life.
Australian governments are committed to improving the literacy of adult Australians, particularly those with low levels of proficiency. This commitment highlights the contribution that literacy makes to the income and productivity of individuals and businesses, and to the Australian economy.
The response of Australian governments has largely been to provide programs and funding for adult literacy education to help people find employment and to raise income and productivity. While this perspective is important, there are other reasons why low levels of literacy must be addressed, including to ensure all Australians are able to enjoy their basic economic, social, legal and political rights.
In addition to funding employment-readiness programs, the Australian Government provides subsidised English language education to migrants to assist with good settlement outcomes.
Based on these areas of policy focus, it may be assumed that most adult Australians with low literacy are either from a non-English-speaking background, unemployed or both. This is not the case:
In 2011-12, 80 per cent of Australians with low literacy skills came from a household where English is spoken at home.
Statistically the typical caller to the Reading Writing Hotline, Australia’s national literacy and numeracy referral and advisory service, is an Australian-born male, aged 25 to 44 who left school before Year 10.
Between 2005 to 2017, an average of 69 per cent of Reading Writing Hotline callers were either employed, self-employed or not looking for work, while the proportion of unemployed callers averaged 17 per cent.
Nothing should therefore be ‘taken as read’ - that is, be accepted as true without seeking evidence or proof. In this inquiry, the Committee sought an evidence-based understanding of why so many Australian adults have low literacy, and what can be done about it.
Scope and conduct of the inquiry
On 3 February 2021, the Committee adopted an inquiry referred by the Minister for Education and Youth, the Hon Alan Tudge MP, to inquire into and report on adult literacy and its importance.
The terms of reference are set out at page xvii of this report.
The Committee initially called for submissions by 5 March 2021. The Committee put out a second call for submissions by 23 April 2021, with particular focus on the following areas:
the relationship between early childhood education and development, and adult literacy
the relationship between youth literacy training and adult literacy
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literacy
rural and regional literacy challenges.
The Committee also requested further submissions from stakeholders identified in responses to requests for information from state and territory governments by 25 June 2021.
The Committee received 111 submissions, 22 supplementary submissions and one exhibit, which are listed at Appendix A and B respectively.
The Committee held 10 public hearings. A list of those hearings and the witnesses and organisations that appeared at the hearings may be found at Appendix C.
As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the public hearings had to be held remotely via teleconference and/or videoconference, including hearings originally scheduled for Melbourne and Hobart.
COVID-19 restrictions did allow the Committee to hold a hearing in Caboolture, Queensland on 19 July 2021 and a hearing focussing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literacy in Darwin on 29 July 2021.
The Committee appreciates the participation of dedicated and knowledgeable contributors to this inquiry, and notes that many of those who invested their time in writing submissions and appearing at hearings were doing so in a volunteer capacity. The Committee is grateful to the individuals and organisations who generously contributed their time and expertise to this inquiry.
The Committee notes that literacy is commonly referred to in the context of a broader suite of related skills including language, numeracy and digital literacy (LLND). These skills are often referred to as ‘foundation skills’.
Several contributors urged the Committee to consider digital literacy as part of the current inquiry because of the increasing importance of technology in our everyday lives. For example, Swinburne University of Technology said that literacy today is about ‘more than simply the ability to read and write at a basic level. Literacy is the possession of all skills needed to navigate information and mediums in our rapidly evolving culture and economy.’
For the purposes of the inquiry and this report, the Committee interpreted ‘literacy’ to encompass LLND.
The Committee is also aware many people with low literacy experience shame and stigma, and that this can deter them from seeking support to improve their skills. In this context, the use of derogatory terms such as illiterate to describe people with low literacy is unhelpful.
Therefore, this report refers to adults with literacy gaps or low literacy. This is consistent with terminology used within the adult literacy field, and the Committee views this an important first step in recognising concerns around adult literacy.
Recent reviews and policy context
Australian governments have sought to take steps to improve the education and employment outcomes of people with low LLND skills, including by commissioning several recent national reviews.
Australia is a signatory to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and beyond. Goal Four is the education goal, which aims to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.’
Australia is also a member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has held International Conferences on Adult Education, known as ‘CONFINTEA’, every 12 years since 1949.
At the most recent CONFINTEA in 2009, UNESCO member states adopted the Belém Framework for Action (BFA), which sets out a strategic guide for the global development of adult literacy and adult education within the context of lifelong learning. In relation to adult learning and education, the BFA calls on member states to develop policies and programs, improve governance, increase funding, improve quality, and promote participation, inclusion and equity.
In 2015 the General Conference of UNESCO adopted a new Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education (RALE). This recommendation calls upon member states to take action in the areas already defined in the BFA and emphasises lifelong learning to ensure all adults can participate in society and work. The RALE states:
Literacy and adult learning and education contribute to the realization of the right to education that enables adults to exercise other economic, political, social and cultural rights, and which should meet the key criteria of availability, accessibility, acceptability and adaptability in conformity with General Comment No. 13 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (21st session) referring to Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights …
Noting Australia’s obligations under the RALE, Professor Bob Boughton said:
While Australia meets this obligation for the majority of its citizens, there remain a significant minority who do not enjoy this basic human right. In the case of First Nations peoples … the number of adults who do not enjoy this most basic right, as a proportion of the total population, is comparable to some of the most disadvantaged countries of the Global South. Under international law, the rectification of this situation is considered a responsibility of the State i.e. the Commonwealth of Australia, which is the signatory to these instruments.
Closing the Gap
In July 2020, the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap (Closing the Gap Agreement) was released, which includes four Priority Reform targets and 17 socioeconomic targets to reduce the disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The Closing the Gap Agreement represents a partnership between the Australian Government, state and territory governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations (the Coalition of Peaks). The purpose is ‘to overcome the entrenched inequality faced by too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so that their life outcomes are equal to all Australians.’
The Committee heard from members of the Coalition of Peaks, who emphasised that policy responses to low LLND skills in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities must be in keeping with the principles of the Closing the Gap Agreement. For example, the Lowitja Institute emphasised the following four priority reforms in the Closing the Gap Agreement:
Building and strengthening structures that empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to share decision-making authority with governments to accelerate policy and place-based progress against Closing the Gap.
Building formal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled sectors to deliver services to support Closing the Gap.
Systemic and structural transformation of mainstream government organisations to improve accountability and respond to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Shared access to location specific data and information.
Similarly, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation said:
The national agreement commits this country to a new direction and is a pledge from all governments to fundamentally change the way they work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations across Australia. If we want to see real and sustained improvements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and improvements in their ability to participate fully in the education of their children, to contribute to the wellbeing of their communities, to experience better health outcomes and to improve social and emotional wellbeing, this is how it must be done.
National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults
In 2012, all Australian governments endorsed the National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults (NFSSA). The NSFSSA is a 10 year framework with a ‘focus on improving outcomes for working age Australians (aged 15–64 years) with a view to moving more people to higher levels, but with a particular focus on those with low levels of foundation skill proficiency.’
The NFSSA defines foundation skills as the combination of:
English language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) – listening, speaking, reading, writing, digital literacy and use of mathematical ideas; and
employability skills, such as collaboration, problem solving, self-management, learning and information and communication technology (ICT) skills required for participation in modern workplaces and contemporary life.
The NFSSA sets ‘an aspirational target … that by 2022, two thirds of working age Australians will have literacy and numeracy skills at Level 3 or above.’
The Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) said that a scoping study is currently underway to consider the currency of the NFSSA and commented:
It will look at the roles and responsibilities for delivery between the different levels of government. It will be pulling together data on need, demand and success and current funding, so that we have a more fulsome picture. Importantly, we'll be looking at gaps in availability of support for learners or where we have overlaps in support. We are also seeking through this scoping study any evidence of innovation from jurisdictions and best practice, and then issues and options to support the VET [vocational education and training] foundation skills workforce.
On 28 November 2018, an independent review of Australia’s VET sector was announced, to be led by the Hon Steven Joyce. Mr Joyce delivered the final report, Strengthening Skills: Expert Review of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training System (Joyce review), in March 2019.
The Joyce review made 71 separate recommendations around a six-point plan for achieving change in the VET sector, including:
strengthening quality assurance
speeding up qualification development
simpler funding and skills matching
better careers information
clearer secondary school pathways
greater access for disadvantaged Australians.
Significantly, the Joyce review recommended that:
The Commonwealth and the States and Territories to commit, over time, to supporting fee-free foundation-level education for all Australians who need training to bring their language, literacy, numeracy and digital literacy levels up to Level 2 in the Australian Core Skills Framework.
The Joyce review noted that the Australian Government offers dedicated programs to provide foundation skills training to certain cohorts, including the Adult Migrant English Program for migrants and humanitarian entrants and the Skills for Education and Employment program for eligible jobseekers. However, the Joyce review found that the Australian Government does not ‘offer this level of targeted support for employed Australians or those currently out of the workforce and not registered with Job Active providers for income support.’
The Joyce review stated that ‘[c]learly, interventions that build people’s employability and productivity before they become redundant are in the best interests of government, employers and the affected individuals alike.’
On 2 April 2019, the Australian Government released its Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow package which responds to recommendations of the Joyce review. The package included establishing the National Skills Commission and two new foundation skills programs: the Foundation Skills for Your Future Program and the Foundation Skills for Your Future - Remote Communities Pilots program.
Review of senior secondary pathways
In June 2019 the Education Council commissioned a review, led by Professor Peter Shergold AC, to examine how students can be better supported to choose the best pathway into work, further education or training. The final report, Looking to the Future: Report of the review of senior secondary pathways into work, further education and training, was released by Education Council on 23 July 2020. Education ministers agreed with all 20 of the report’s recommendations.
The review found that literacy, numeracy and digital literacy should ‘be recognised as essential skills for every student’ and commented:
At a time of technological transformation, when the future of work is uncertain, these attributes are more important than ever. Students must be supported to attain capability in these areas before they finish school. Every young person who leaves without them is having their economic and social future short-changed.
National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development
In 2012, all Australian governments endorsed the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development (NASWD), which identifies the long-term objectives of the Australian Government and state and territory governments in the areas of skills and workforce development.
The NASWD is associated with the Skills and Workforce Development National Specific Purpose Payments where the Australian Government provides funding of around $1.5 billion annually to state and territory governments to support the delivery of VET services and training systems.
In 2020, all jurisdictions, including the Commonwealth, signed the Heads of Agreement for Skills Reform (Heads of Agreement), committing all governments to work together to develop a new National Skills Agreement to replace the NASWD from 1 January 2022. Under the Heads of Agreement, all governments agreed to providing stronger support for foundation skills and ensuring access for all Australians with low levels of LLND skills as a priority.
In November 2020, skills ministers of the Australian Government and state and territory governments requested a scoping study of the current environment for the delivery of foundation skills to adult learners in Australia. According to DESE, the findings of the study will help governments to better support access to training to improve LLND skills for those who need it most, and the report has been provided to skills ministers for consideration.
Productivity Commission review
On 15 November 2019, the Australian Government requested the Productivity Commission review the NASWD.
The Productivity Commission released its final report on the review of the NASWD in January 2021. Of relevance to this inquiry, the review considered the ‘potential for future funding arrangements to achieve further targeted reforms’, including extending LLND programs to all Australians and other relevant recommendations from the Joyce review.
The Productivity Commission suggested what it considered to be ‘the first steps governments could take towards the aspirational goal of universal access to LLND skills’, and recommended that governments develop a new national LLND strategy covering schools, VET and adult education.
Inquiry into education in remote and complex environments
The Committee’s previous inquiry into education in remote and complex environments (November 2020) examined how education meets the learning needs of students in regional, rural and remote communities and how barriers to education can be overcome. The Committee found that Australians growing up in regional and remote areas have lower educational attainment rates in school, in Year 12 and in tertiary education, compared to those living in metropolitan areas, and that a range of factors contribute to gaps in access and equity across a child’s education journey.
These findings are relevant to the current inquiry because the gap between the educational attainment rates of students living in regional and remote areas, and those of their peers in the cities, suggests that similar gaps may exist in adult LLND skills according to geographic location.
The Committee made 14 recommendations to improve access to quality education and outcomes for students in regional, rural and remote communities, including:
Ensuring all Australian students can access secondary school education, to a nationally-consistent minimum standard, regardless of their geographic location.
Providing greater opportunities for families and communities to have more say in how schools apply the Australian Curriculum.
Ensuring that the education available to children and young people with disability in regional, rural and remote locations is inclusive.
Improving access to mental health treatment and support in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Improving access to quality early childhood education and care in regional, rural and remote communities.
Providing up to 30 hours per week of subsidised early education and care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
Supporting early learning programs provided through distance education, and providing greater flexibility and surety in funding for:
mobile early childhood education services
wrap-around models of early intervention, family support, early childhood education and health care in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Providing adult literacy campaigns in communities with low levels of adult English literacy.
Improving access to English as an Additional Language or Dialect support and bilingual education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
Supporting the development and professionalisation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education workforce.
Establishing trauma-informed, cultural induction and training programs for educators working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
Enhancing the integration of Australia’s VET and Higher Education sectors.
The Committee is concerned that more than 12 months have now passed since the report was presented to the House of Representatives without a response from the Australian Government. The Resolution of the House adopted on 29 September 2010 requires the government to present a response within six months. The Committee calls on the Australian Government to respond to the report and reiterates the need for these important recommendations to be implemented.
Structure of the report
Chapter 2 examines the benefits of investing in adult LLND skills including helping Australia to become a more prosperous, competitive economy, and assisting Australians to:
support their children’s education
improve their health and wellbeing
participate fully in modern Australia and be better able to adapt to the technological and structural changes Australia may experience in the future
actively engage as informed citizens in Australia’s democracy
better access public and private services
make informed legal and financial decisions.
Chapter 2 also examines evidence of significant LLND skills gaps in the Australian population. This data shows that:
socioeconomic status is associated with LLND proficiency for both adults and school students
many Australians, who are not jobseekers, have LLND skills gaps
there is significant unmet demand for LLND support.
Concerns around the availability of data and research on adult LLND skills, particularly in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, are also examined.
Chapter 3 examines factors that contribute to LLND skills gaps among Australian adults, including individual’s experiences of:
specific learning disabilities and other forms of disability
early childhood education
disengagement from school education, shame and stigma
Finally, Chapter 4 examines the range of Australian, state and territory government and community-based adult LLND education programs and providers that are currently available, and their capacity to meet the demand and diverse needs of the community. It also considers options for a new national LLND strategy and examines the support that is available for people with low LLND skills to engage with services, including government services, that may be inaccessible to them, particularly as most services move online.