This chapter examines Australia’s language, literacy, numeracy and digital literacy (LLND) challenges. It begins by examining evidence of the current status of LLND skills in Australia, including the most recent national data on adult LLND proficiency and the performance of school students.
The chapter also examines the benefits of addressing LLND skills gaps for individuals, and the broader Australian economy and society.
Concerns around the availability of recent data and research on adult LLND skills, particularly in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, are then examined.
Evidence of LLND skills gaps
The main sources of data on LLND skills proficiency suggest that Australia’s skills are not keeping pace with the demands of work and life in the 21st century, and that proficiency declines with socioeconomic status.
The most recent national data available on adult LLND skills proficiency is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey. The 2011-12 PIAAC survey measured the skill levels of Australians aged 15 to 74 years and found that:
One in five Australians had low literacy and/or numeracy skills.
There was a significant gap between the most proficient and least proficient adults in literacy and in numeracy.
Numeracy represented a particular challenge in Australia and poor numeracy performance could be traced back to initial schooling.
Literacy and numeracy proficiency peaked in a person’s early 30s and then declined with age. Older adults, particularly those aged 55 and over, had significantly lower-level skills.
There were only minor differences between men and women for literacy and problem solving in technology-rich environments (PSTRE), however the difference in numeracy proficiency was significant, with 49.4 per cent of males at Level 2 or below and 59 per cent of females at Level 2 or below.
While migrants had lower levels of literacy and numeracy than people born in Australia, the difference was among the lowest across participating countries, and migrants in Australia had better skills than migrants in other countries.
Figures 2.1, 2.2 and 2.3 provide the distribution of PIAAC survey respondent’s skill levels in literacy, numeracy and PSTRE in 2011-12.
Figure 2.1: Proportion of adults at each literacy level, PIAAC 2011-12
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Australia: Statistics about the competencies of Australians in the domains of literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills in technology-rich environments, October 2013
Level 2 literacy and numeracy, as defined by the Australian Core Skills Framework (ACSF), is considered as the level required to meet the basic demands of work and life. Level 2 literacy and numeracy in PIAAC is broadly equivalent to ACSF Level 2.
Figure 2.1 shows that 3.7 per cent (620,000) of Australians aged 15 to 74 years had literacy skills at Below Level 1, 10 per cent (1.7 million) were at Level 1, 30 per cent (5 million) were at Level 2, 38 per cent (6.3 million) were at Level 3, 14 per cent (2.4 million) were at Level 4, and 1.2 per cent (200,000) were at Level 5.
Figure 2.2: Proportion of adults at each numeracy level, PIAAC 2011-12
Source: ABS, Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Australia: Statistics about the competencies of Australians in the domains of literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills in technology-rich environments, October 2013
Figure 2.2 shows that 6.5 per cent (1.1 million) of Australians had numeracy skills at Below Level 1, 15 per cent (2.5 million) were at Level 1, 32 per cent (5.4 million) were at Level 2, 31 per cent (5.2 million) were at Level 3, 11 per cent (1.8 million) were at Level 4, and 1.4 per cent (230,000) were at Level 5.
Figure 2.3: Proportion of adults at each skill level for PSTRE, PIAAC 2011-12
Source: ABS, Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Australia: Statistics about the competencies of Australians in the domains of literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills in technology-rich environments, October 2013
The use of PSTRE in the 2011-12 PIAAC survey was the first internationally comparable measure of digital literacy. At PSTRE Level 1, survey participants would be able to use widely available and familiar technology applications, such as email software or a web browser. At PSTRE Level 2, participants would be able to use generic and more specific technology applications, for example using a novel online form.
Figure 2.3 shows that, for PSTRE, an estimated 25 per cent (4.2 million) of Australians aged 15 to 74 years were not classified. Just over 13 per cent (2.2 million) of Australians were assessed at Below Level 1 and 31 per cent (5.3 million) were assessed at Level 1. Around 25 per cent (4.1 million) had skills at Level 2, and 3.2 per cent (540,000) at Level 3.
The PIAAC survey found there were small differences in proficiency in literacy, numeracy and PSTRE by state or territory, ‘with the exception of the Australian Capital Territory, which had a larger proportion of people at higher levels’.
Concerns were raised about adult LLND skills gaps in Tasmania. The Tasmanian Government noted that only half of Tasmania’s adult population were found to have functional literacy and numeracy skills in 2006, and that this result was confirmed by the 2011-12 PIAAC survey. Tasmania’s response to these survey findings and investment in raising adult literacy is examined in Chapter 4.
PIAAC did not sample adults living in very remote locations and ABS published results do not provide a distribution of adult LLND skills by geographic remoteness. However, evidence from the Committee’s previous inquiry into education in remote and complex environments showed 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. They are around 40 per cent less likely to gain a higher-level tertiary education qualification and less than half as likely to receive a bachelor and above qualification by the time they are 35 years old, compared to people from metropolitan areas. This gap is most pronounced in remote and very remote areas and at university level.
Given individuals acquire LLND skills from early childhood, it is also important to look at the performance of Australian students to understand why so many adults have low LLND skills. There are two main national sources of data on the performance of Australian students:
OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey
National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN).
The 2018 PISA survey measured the performance of students aged 15 years in mathematics, science and reading, and found that the literacy and numeracy skills of Australian students had declined over the preceding 10 years.
In relation to NAPLAN data which assesses key literacy and numeracy skills in Australian students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) said the ‘overall picture shows some improvements; however, data shows that achievement is not equal across sectors of society and NAPLAN results for students from low socio-economic areas remain below those of other students.’
DESE also noted that NAPLAN data shows a ‘substantial gap in student achievement in both reading and numeracy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students across all year levels.’
Socioeconomic status and LLND skills gaps
The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) noted that both the PIAAC and PISA surveys showed inequalities in the distribution of achievement in LLND:
In terms of socio-economic background, the pattern that emerges from the PIAAC survey is very clear and in line with the findings of previous surveys: adults from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds have higher scores on average than those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The effect of socio-economic background on education trajectories and the development of literacy and numeracy skills is well-documented. Evidence from the PISA also reveals an association between socio-economic background and the performance of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics and science across Australia.
The Australian Education Union (AEU) referred to this growing gap in education outcomes as ‘increasing residualisation’, in which ‘students from low socioeconomic status households are highly segregated from their more advantaged peers and up to three years behind them’.
While there is an association between socioeconomic status and LLND skills proficiency, it is important to recognise that LLND skills gaps are not limited to any particular group or socioeconomic status. The Australian Council for Adult Literacy (ACAL) said:
… while strong correlations have been drawn between limited literacy and numeracy skills and social disadvantage, unemployment—including intergenerational unemployment—and limited parental literacy and numeracy skills, these are not necessarily causative factors.
Employment status and LLND skills gaps
The PIAAC survey found that, in 2011-12, employed Australians generally had higher skills in all three domains (literacy, numeracy and PSTRE) than Australians who were unemployed or not in the labour force. Among employed people, 61 per cent had literacy skills at Level 3 or above, compared to 54 per cent for unemployed people and 40 per cent for people not in the labour force.
However, ACER noted that the proportion of Australian adults who are employed and are performing at lower levels is ‘quite significant’, with 38.8 per cent of employed people at Level 2 or below for literacy and 48.9 per cent for numeracy.
The PIAAC survey found that skills in literacy, numeracy and PSTRE were highest for Australians working full-time, particularly those working in professional, scientific and technical services; education and training; public administration and safety; and information media and telecommunications. Scores were lower for Australians working in industries such as manufacturing; construction; and administrative and support services.
LLND skills gaps in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
Estimates of LLND skills proficiency in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities vary widely. The National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) said ‘it is estimated that 40 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults have minimal English literacy and that this figure can rise to as high as 70 per cent in remote communities.’
Professor Bob Boughton, an adjunct professor in the School of Education at the University of New England, advised that 68 per cent of adults reported low or very low literacy levels in eight New South Wales Aboriginal communities.
The Literacy for Life Foundation reported that up to 87 per cent of Northern Territory Aboriginal adults were below Level 3 in reading and writing and up to 94 per cent below Level 3 in numeracy.
Ms Ruth Ratcliffe, who has been conducting research on adult literacy alongside the Literacy for Life Foundation as a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) candidate at the University of New England, commented:
Despite significant effort by governments, schools and communities, the aim to halve the gap in literacy and numeracy outcomes as called for in the Close the Gap initiative has not been achieved meaning that across all states and territories a significant and persistent ‘gap’ exists between the literacy and numeracy outcomes of First Nations students and their non-Indigenous peers. First Nations communities continue to be ‘locked-in’ to educational inequality and this inequality becomes more marked, the more ‘remote’ a community is …
Demand for LLND support
The Reading Writing Hotline is the national referral and advisory service for adults seeking support with literacy and numeracy. It maintains a database of all current adult literacy and numeracy providers in Australia, and statistics on its callers, which provides an indicator of the availability of and demand for adult LLND services.
The Reading Writing Hotline reported that, in 2019-20, it received 4,200 calls from Australians seeking help with literacy and numeracy, including a 30 per cent increase in calls during COVID-19 lockdowns. Of these callers:
71 per cent were from an English-speaking background
40 per cent were currently employed
8 per cent were currently studying
38 per cent were from regional and remote areas
39 per cent left school before Year 9 or earlier.
The Reading Writing Hotline reported that there was significant unmet demand for LLND support. In 2019-20:
there was no appropriate provision available for 13 per cent of callers
81 per cent of callers were not eligible for a national adult literacy program because they were not jobseekers.
Appearing before the Committee, the Reading Writing Hotline said that ‘[i]n the past 25 years, we have gone from being a world leader in adult literacy to having a situation where many adults are unable to find classes’, and noted that ‘[o]ur specialist literacy and numeracy teaching workforce is also declining rapidly.’
The Productivity Commission estimated that ‘every year up to 75,000 people arrive in Australia or leave school with low LLND’ and that ‘Commonwealth LLND programs and VET [vocational education and training] seem to help about 53,000 people to significantly improve their skills.’
ACAL said that ‘[c]urrently there is insufficient availability of different types of programs within Australia to meet demand.’ ACAL reported there was unmet need for LLND support during the COVID-19 pandemic particularly among parents of young children and older people. ACAL said that ‘[p]arents were very challenged during the pandemic shut down period when their children were learning remotely - this caused high levels of stress amongst the parents, the teachers, and the students.’
ACAL commented that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown people there is a need for ‘a wider range of literacy skills to negotiate a world of online engagement which requires a greater variety and higher level of literacy than in previous years when many transactions were carried out face to face.’
The Association of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Northern Territory (ATESOLNT) said that ‘[i]n the few communities where adult education programs exist [in the Northern Territory], they are in demand.’ATESOLNT reported that the adult education centre at Yuendumu received over 1,600 requests for informal language, literacy and numeracy support over an eight-month period in 2017.
Box 2.1: Impact of LLND skills gaps on Australians’ lives
It was important for the Committee to understand how LLND skills gaps impact Australians’ everyday lives. The Committee received a few submissions from people living with low LLND skills and appreciate the courage of those who came forward to tell their stories. The Committee is also grateful for the contributions of those who described the impact of low LLND skills on their family members, and the many volunteer tutors who described the challenges experienced by their students. These are some of their stories:
I had to stop helping out at the school that my children attended because the year one children wanted me to write on the bottom of their drawings that it was a picture of a Ballerina or an Astronaut or a firefighter or something that I could not spell. I was so embarrassed because I could not spell the words without looking it up in the dictionary first. That day I left my son[‘s] class room in tears and so embarrassed … I have gone out of my way to make sure that my children did not have the same problems, which I have had to live with.
Having such a gap in my reading and writing made it hard to
further training in hospitality
first aid training courses
getting a driving licence
pretty much anything to do with reading and writing I would try to avoid, just blame it on the course or say it’s just too hard.
Some of the daily living challenges my daughter faces and needs help with due to her poor literacy – completing forms at medical appointments, reading and understanding simple letters and forms that require a signature, reading bills and bank statements, reading agreements and contracts, reading emails, writing emails, reading medical advice, participating in therapy programs that require good literacy skills, managing medication and navigating the Centrelink system.
From finances to health, every facet of my husband’s life, and that of our children, would be precarious if he did not have the ready assistance of a willing reader and scribe – me. Here are some tasks from the last few days that would be more difficult, or impossible, for my husband to perform alone:
Baby wakes up sick – can you read the labels on the medicine bottles on the fridge to check the contraindications and the dosage?
Baby needs a doctor’s appointment – can you google local GPs [general practitioners], navigate to the booking page, register as a new patient and book an appointment for the right day?
Toddler’s teacher sends home a newsletter – can you read essential information about the new sickness policy, and see the part about a new teacher joining your toddler’s room?
Your workplace needs everyone to renew their responsible service of alcohol training – can you google an accredited course provider, sign up and complete the written exercises in the course?
The morning news was talking about interest rates going down – can you search for banks’ best offers and apply online? Can you read terms and conditions in the loan documents?
You’d like to go away for the long weekend – can you book an Airbnb, where you might need to message back and forth with the owners?
Soccer season has started – can you figure out how to register your child as a player online, and stay across all the team emails with requirements, match fixtures and banter?
There are 20 new messages on your phone in your work team chat – can you get away with waiting until you get in to ask someone what has happened, instead of [trying] painstakingly to decipher them? Can you get away with responding as a voice message?
The children want you to read them a story – is it one with pictures or one that you already know, or will you have to have to make it up?
Older child needs help with their homework – can you read the instructions and help them write their short answers?
There’s an email from the ATO [Australian Taxation Office] in your inbox – or at least, it has the logo and looks official. Is it really the ATO, and if so, what do they want?
As a tutor, I get to hear the myriad reasons why an individual finally asks for assistance. These are always touching and often heart breaking. Struggles such as the inability to make sense of notes sent home from their child’s school, migrants unable to shop effectively for their family, to be able to respond to communiqués from Centrelink and the consequences of not complying with those.
Benefits of addressing LLND skills gaps
LLND skills gaps limit the capacity of Australians to apply for jobs and earn higher wages, and negatively impact the economy. Conversely, improved LLND skills are associated with increased labour force participation and improved wages.
In addition to helping individuals secure employment and earn better wages, and Australia becoming a more prosperous, competitive economy, addressing LLND skills gaps will help 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.
A stronger economy
Investments in the LLND skills of Australians have economic benefits for individuals, through higher wages and increased employment, and for the nation through increased productivity and economic growth.
The Productivity Commission reported that ‘there is a lot of work that demonstrates the high returns, both public and private, to investment in lifting LLND skills’. The Productivity Commission said ‘if you could lift the PIAAC level by one, you would improve the likelihood of employment and you would also find that it is associated with about a 10 per cent increase in wages.’
The Tasmanian 100% Literacy Alliance noted that the economic return on investment of improving LLND skills is significant, sustainable and cumulative, ‘through not only increased productivity but also reducing costs in high public-spend areas such as health, justice and welfare.’
The World Literacy Foundation said that LLND skills gaps represent costs to national economies through ‘welfare, unemployment, and social programs, as well as reduced government tax revenue, and productivity.’ The World Literacy Foundation commented:
… as the global economy moves more towards a knowledge economy, literacy is an essential skill for individuals and states to compete in the global economy. However, when a high proportion of the adult population has poor literacy proficiency, many positions remain vacant as insufficient individuals are adequately skilled to fulfil those roles. This results in slower GDP [gross domestic product] growth in the long term.
While acknowledging ‘there is a well-established relationship between literacy and individual earning potentials, and between the average literacy levels of a community and its economic well-being’, ACAL said this ‘causal connection is complex and involves a range of factors other than literacy’, including inter-generational poverty, unemployment, health, mental health, race and gender. ACAL commented:
There is a strong argument that productivity and development of human capital should not be seen in a binary relationship to development of social and individual capital. Each reinforces the other in complex ways in development of adult literacy and basic education competence, and in developing the confidence to use newly acquired skills.
The Committee heard that modern workplaces require an increasing level of skills due to technological developments. For example, ACER stated that ‘[f]or many Australians the literacy they were taught in school is not enough to keep up with changes in the society we now live in.’
Professor Joseph Lo Bianco, a professor emeritus of language and literacy education at the University of Melbourne, said that ‘we're facing a really historic moment with even what literacy is.’ He noted that technological developments such as cyber-physical systems and artificial intelligence are ‘going to require much higher levels of literate comprehension and functioning than we've ever had for practically most of the population.’
In its analysis of the 2011-12 PIAAC results, the OECD commented:
Taken together, although Australia’s average results are not poor, the challenges presented by adults with low basic skills may lead to Australia being left behind in terms of innovation and economic growth by countries that have been more successfully investing in the skills of all their people.
The Committee is aware that this challenge is even more pressing as countries emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Lo Bianco said:
… the exposure of our economy once everything opens up is going to be much greater because we're going to have to compete now in a system in which many countries are going to be trying to recover ground that they have lost.
Supporting children’s education
The importance of adult literacy for children’s education was raised, with evidence showing that children who are read to have improved educational outcomes, particularly when it is their home or first language.
The Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) reported that a strong predictor of children developing low literacy, numeracy and problem- solving skills is where ‘parents have not had an opportunity to develop an understanding of the value of education.’
ACER stated that ‘[i]ntergenerational literacy is strongly linked and improving foundation skills in both parents and children can reverse intergenerational patterns of low achievement.’
Civil Liberties Australia linked intergenerational patterns of low literacy to poverty and commented:
… unless there is corrective intervention to support both parents and children, the poorly educated parents raise poorly educated children who have children who lack opportunities to gain enhanced education in a vicious circle.
The NSW Adult Literacy and Numeracy Council (NSWALNC) said that studies show ‘it is common for children from highly literate family environments to engage in dialogic literacy practices with one or more of their parents/ caregivers through activities such as bedtime reading.’ These activities model ‘the teaching practices that children would experience in the school classroom’. NSWALNC commented:
Such dialogic literacy practices are limited when the adult members of the household have very poor literacy. On the other hand, children from highly literate family backgrounds start school with a level of familiarity with the discursive practices of the school classroom. Additionally, if the adult members have only had minimal experience of formal schooling, their spoken English may reflect a particular variety of English of their community that is not the ‘standard English’ valued and promoted in schools. These socio-cultural factors mean that children from households where adults have poor literacy themselves experience a discontinuity between language and literacy use in the school and at home, a discontinuity that is much less pronounced for children from highly literate family environments.
ACAL acknowledged ‘that parents and carers with low literacy can experience difficulties supporting education and providing a literacy-rich home environment.’ However, ACAL stated:
… it must be acknowledged that many parents and carers who experience literacy barriers strive to provide an experience that allows their children to thrive, often to overcome the barriers their own literacy presents and to ensure it does not become an intergenerational issue.
The Settlement Council of Australia noted evidence showing that building a strong foundation in a child’s home language first is the best way to support a child’s learning and said that parents with low English language proficiency should be ‘encouraged to take an active role in their children’s learning by reading to, conversing with, and engaging children in the home language.’
The Committee heard that parents wanting to assist children with their education is a key reason why many adults seek LLND support. Tricia Bowen, who has worked in the field of adult literacy education, reported that adult literacy students:
… told me how books were not present in their childhood homes, that reading was not part of their formative years, and that they, and their parents, had limited levels of education. These same contributors described this as being a key factor in their decision to attend adult literacy classes. As they put it, they wanted their children’s lives to be better.
Tricia Bowen continued:
Another of the contributors described attending adult literacy classes because she wanted to be able to read to her child. She wanted her child to see the value in reading. She wanted things to be different for her.
The Reading Writing Hotline reaffirmed the importance of adult literacy for children:
There is a lot of focus on children's literacy, but what is often forgotten is that without literate parents, kids can find reading and writing much harder. Not giving adults access to literacy classes, therefore, affects their children and their children's children.
However, the Reading Writing Hotline noted that ‘[t]he relationship between parents’ and children’s literacy is complex’ and said ‘[i]t is important to provide a range of suitable supports rather than attributing blame to parents, teachers or schooling systems.’
The Reading Writing Hotline said that ‘[i]mproving children’s literacy is not as simple as “reading to your kids”’, noting that the ‘Hotline receives many calls from parents desperate for help for their children. Many highly literate parents cannot find help for children with reading difficulties.’ The Reading Writing Hotline also reported:
Some children need specialist support at school and cannot access this help. There is no national service to coordinate and advise.
Parents need explicit examples of activities to improve children’s early literacy.
ATESOLNT commented that the relationship between a parent and child’s education ‘goes both ways’:
… children’s experiences of schooling profoundly impact on adults’ attitudes to their own learning of English and literacy as well as their perspectives on their children’s learning in school. This inter-relationship is especially strong in small, close-knit communities such as very remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.
Healthier individuals and families
Australians with strong LLND skills are more likely to maintain and enhance their own health and wellbeing and that of their family than those who may need support to improve their skills.
The ‘capacity to acquire, understand, and use information in ways that promote and maintain good health’ is referred to as health literacy. Improved health literacy is associated with better health outcomes.
The Sydney Health Literacy Lab said that ‘[e]xtensive research shows that adults with limited health literacy skills are less able to engage in preventive health-care, are more likely to develop chronic illnesses … , experience greater difficulties managing illnesses, and have higher rates of mortality.’
DESE noted research that established links between LLND skills and an individual’s capacity ‘to understand and use information relating to health issues such as drugs and alcohol, disease prevention and treatment, safety and accident prevention, first aid, emergencies and staying healthy.’
Code Read Dyslexia Network Australia said that ‘there are multiple detrimental impacts of poor literacy on health’ including ‘increased risk of depression, hospitalisation and the risks associated with not being able to understand and follow the correct use of prescription medications.’
AEU referred to the findings of a systematic review of over 600 papers, which ‘found that hospital patients with low literacy had poorer health outcomes, including knowledge, intermediate disease markers, and measures of morbidity, general health status, and use of health resources.’ AEU reported that:
Patients with low literacy were generally 1.5 to 3 times more likely to experience a given poor outcome than those with adequate or high literacy levels. Low literacy levels have also been found to contribute to mental health issues, with multiple studies finding that anxieties surrounding reading failure can lead to anxiety and low mood.
The Committee heard that the COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the need for improved health literacy. The World Literacy Foundation said:
During this time, many people were challenged in understanding and applying the health information provided by health professionals and the government. Adequate health literacy is important in ensuring that people are able to understand and correctly apply health information to prevent disease, and the failure to do so increases the risk for disease transmission.
There was support for raising LLND skills as a way of improving health outcomes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) said that low LLND skills:
… makes it harder to navigate the health system—to understand what your medication is for, to ask questions of your doctors and other health providers, to provide informed consent if you need to go to hospital or have an operation and to access support services like the NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme] or aged care. It increases the risk of substance abuse. And all of this has profound impacts on the mental health and the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It makes it harder to participate in our communities and the broader Australian community.
NACCHO also reported that low LLND skills in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is making it difficult to address ‘critical workforce shortages’, stating that ‘[l]ow English literacy levels in our communities directly impacts our ability to recruit our people for local jobs. If we're going to build a strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and care workforce, addressing English literacy levels is critical.’
The Central Australian Aboriginal Congress highlighted the importance of maternal health literacy stating that ‘mothers who are literate may be more empowered and able to advocate on behalf of their own health and that of their children.’
Other contributors highlighted the relationship between low LLND skills and poor mental health. A parent of a daughter with a specific learning disability said that her daughter’s poor mental health began in primary school ‘where she was never good enough, feeling constantly judged, considered a “problem” and a burden.’
Joanne Dickenson referred to research from Canada showing that ‘people with learning issues are 2-3 times more likely to be diagnosed with high levels of anxiety and other mental health issues than are Canadians without learning disorders.’ Other research suggested ‘correlations between cognitive problems in childhood and poor mental health outcomes in later life.’
Participating fully in modern Australia
Strong LLND skills assist individuals to participate fully in modern Australia and make people more resilient and able to cope with technological and structural changes.
Conversely, people with low LLND skills may feel excluded from being able to participate fully. The Western Australian Adult Literacy Council reported:
Many adult LN [literacy and numeracy] clients start a program with limited social confidence, trust in others and/or sense of self-worth. They are often reluctant to enter a public space (e.g. an exhibition, library, service centre) and they can doubt their ability to apply for a job or volunteer their skills. A commonly held belief is that ‘these places and services are for others – not them.’
NSWALNC noted that Australians now must negotiate an ‘increasingly challenging social environment’, including:
… the changing state of the pandemic; the widespread incidence of wage theft, particularly for the most vulnerable and low-paid workers; incidents of domestic violence and sexual assault in workplaces, families and communities; climate change and its health and economic impact on households; the increasing expectations of parents' involvement in their children's education; and the proliferation of misinformation and conspiracy theories, leading to a declining trust in public institutions.
NSWALNC said that adults with low levels of literacy and numeracy are ‘vulnerable in multiple ways’ and ‘providing educational opportunities to improve their literacy so that they can learn about and negotiate these critical social issues … will afford them greater dignity, respect and wellbeing in their lives.’
Swinburne University of Technology said that digital literacy, in particular, is ‘required for full participation in modern life’ and commented:
Most written content that exists is online, with the vast majority of what is created never making it to physical publication. Thus, people with poor digital literacy miss out on many sources of news and other information, including dissemination of public health updates and emergency warnings. They are also excluded from many avenues for self‐expression and communication.
Non-English speaking individuals
The Committee heard that improving the English language skills of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults and migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds is a way of ensuring all Australians can realise their economic, social and political rights.
NIAA said that low rates of English literacy were a ‘significant barrier to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people accessing jobs, assisting their children and being able to fully participate in social and economic life in Australia.’
NACCHO emphasised that English literacy enables Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to walk in two worlds:
… one that recognises our cultural connection to country, community, language, family, kinship, spirituality and our ancestors, and one that the wider Australian community also walks in. We need to be able to walk in both worlds to be effective in both. Good English literacy helps us do that.
Low literacy can exacerbate the impact of broader social determinants. Low literacy makes it difficult for our people to access education, training and employment, which entrenches cycles of poverty and disadvantage. It makes it harder to navigate the health system—to understand what your medication is for, to ask questions of your doctors and other health providers, to provide informed consent if you need to go to hospital or have an operation and to access support services like the NDIS or aged care. It increases the risk of substance abuse. And all of this has profound impacts on the mental health and the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It makes it harder to participate in our communities and the broader Australian community.
While noting that effective governance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations was critical to achieving the Closing the Gap targets, Deborah Durnan who is a practitioner and researcher in Aboriginal adult education, said that it is ‘difficult to direct a community organisation without a good level of English literacy.’ Deborah Durnan commented:
Common challenges faced by those without English literacy at Level 2 or higher include: following the corporation’s Constitution, managing finances, assessing risk, negotiating fair and just agreements with the government and other agencies such as mining companies, ensuring accountability of staff, following good governance practices, understanding government policies, meeting legal requirements and oversighting contracts. Too often responsibility for decision-making falls to the non-Aboriginal senior staff or to one or two literate Aboriginal Directors or staff members. Invariably this means many Boards / Directors find it difficult to make decisions with confidence often resulting in a great deal of stress, conflict and sometimes non-compliance. Consequently, community control and self-determination are compromised from the outset with many communities missing out on having a real say in what works best for their community.
The importance of English language proficiency for enabling migrants and refugees to participate fully in Australia’s economy and society was also raised. For example, the Department of Home Affairs said:
English language proficiency is central to participation for new migrants in Australia's social and economic life. It facilitates access to education, employment, health services, housing and government services. It also impacts community connection and sense of belonging.
The Settlement Council of Australia commented:
English language proficiency specifically is a critical part of good settlement outcomes for migrants and refugees. The ability to understand and speak English has a huge impact on whether migrants and refugees can find work, build social networks outside of their cultural communities and manage their day-to-day lives independently.
The Settlement Council of Australia also stressed the importance of recognising that people who are not proficient in English may be highly literate in their mother-tongue and can still make valuable contributions to their communities.
The Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) recognised ‘the important role of adult literacy in helping people to navigate Australian life, including transport, housing, employment and education, and the health and justice system.’ However, FECCA also stated that ‘knowledge of the English language does not determine someone’s ability to be a good citizen or actively participate in Australian life.’
Several contributors emphasised that learning literacy is not the same as learning English. For example, the Australian Council of TESOL Associations (ACTA) stated that learning literacy is a ‘fundamental learning process’ that can ‘occur on the basis of any language. Being “literate” is not language-specific, although learning literacy is generally built, in the first instance, from oracy in a specific language.’
ATESOLNT said that it is important not to conflate the terms learning literacy and learning English ‘when discussing the learning needs of diverse groups within Australian society.’
The Committee heard that, for people who grow up learning a language other than standard Australian English, proficiency in a home or first language assists in the learning of English. For example, ACTA commented:
Although literacy is non-language specific, research is unequivocal that literacy is normally best developed from a solid foundation in a language the learner can speak, just as occurs, for example, with mother tongue English (or German or Arabic) children who come to literacy on the basis of something like 10,000 hours of spoken language from infancy.
There was strong evidence about the need to recognise and support first languages, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. For example, NIAA commented:
Speaking traditional language has benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in learning contexts and is an asset in terms of employment prospects and income-generating opportunities, particularly in the fields of arts, crafts and cultural activities. The 2020 National Indigenous Languages Report found that throughout the early years of education, lessons delivered through a child’s traditional Indigenous language, with a gradual and staged transition to English as a second language, has been demonstrated to improve access to education, as well as English literacy.
The Djalkiri Foundation commented:
If we work from a constructivist viewpoint in education, which is essentially that you take concepts that someone already has and you put the new concept on top of that—it's almost like Lego pieces attaching. That's the predominant educational paradigm we work through. That's why bilingual both way schools work.
Evidence supporting the need for bilingual programs in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, supported by appropriate English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D) instruction, is examined further in Chapter 3.
Strong LLND skills allow Australians to be active and informed participants in our democracy. Australia’s system of government relies on an informed citizenry for its efficacy and legitimacy.
Macquarie Community College noted that LLND skills ‘play a really critical role in participation in democracy, in economic and societal health’, and remarked ‘[i]f you don't have basic literacy, you lack real opportunities to engage with democratic institutions, make choices and exercise your citizenship rights.’
NSWALNC provided the case study of one adult literacy student, who described becoming more politically engaged and aware of issues in her community through her education:
When you find some success in learning, you can be more open and involved in the community. Say for example with the election and voting. I had never voted before, never, up until five years ago, which is precisely the time that I started coming here. Learning gave me the confidence to want to vote, and to be interested in doing it. Suddenly I took note of what was going on and why it was going on.
Similarly, the Tasmanian Government provided the following example of how acquiring literacy had enabled an adult learner to vote for the first time:
We are lucky to live in a democracy, given that large numbers of the global population don’t enjoy the same right to vote that we do. Yet, to exercise that right, you have to understand who and what you are voting for. Ian spent his whole life donkey voting because he couldn’t read what candidates were promising. After working with his tutor, for the first time in his life, Ian cast a valid vote at the federal election in 2019.
Tricia Bowen said that her ‘work with adult literacy students, has demonstrated the clear link between improved literacy, health, wellbeing, and active participation in civic life’, and recalled one student:
… describing finally being able to understand the processes of elections and voting, and for the first time, being able to make an informed decision as to her preferred candidate. Prior to her attendance in adult literacy classes, she had been denied the basic right to vote.
Deborah Durnan expressed concern that one of the reasons many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do not exercise their right to vote is because of low English language literacy and a lack of citizenship education:
The majority of low literate people with whom I have worked do not have a working knowledge of the Australian 3 tier system of government. They struggle to read political party campaign material, AEC [Australian Electoral Commission] documents and newspaper analysis. But literacy goes beyond reading. Literacy enables one to develop critical thinking, the capacity to analyse and synthesise information to make choices and solve problems. Hence too often the low to very low literate are excluded from deciding who will best represent their interests.
Deborah Durnan also noted that English literacy gaps may limit the capacity of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to make informed decisions about the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution.
There is a level of LLND skills Australians require to access most services without the assistance of family and friends, community centres and interpreters.
For some Australians, reading a bill that arrives by mail may be a challenge, while others may be comfortable dealing with hard copy correspondence but find emails, mobile messaging and online interactions and systems challenging.
The Committee heard that people with LLND skills gaps have difficulty accessing government services, particularly where forms are required to be filled in and submitted online. For example, the Mid North Coast Community Legal Centre (MNCCLC) said:
… there are a number of different processes and systems in play that make it really difficult for someone with low literacy to engage. Some of those things, like interactions with Centrelink around the disability support pension, for example, can be really difficult when there's been a move for people to engage with Centrelink online. If your literacy skills are limited or your access to the internet is limited, it can be very difficult to understand what's expected of you in that context.
The Central Australian Aboriginal Congress reported ‘it is very common for Aboriginal families to not receive their entitlements due both to inflexible and inappropriate program rules and to low English literacy.’ The Central Australian Aboriginal Congress noted research conducted in a remote Aboriginal community found:
Most people do not have sufficient English language and literacy to independently fill in Centrelink forms, negotiate the MyGov website or handle over-the-phone interactions with Centrelink … Those who report to Centrelink by phone often do not understand what is said to them; they often guess the answers, or say yes to obligations they cannot meet because they think it is the ‘correct’ answer.
The Literacy for Life Foundation said:
… many forms of support, government and otherwise, require people to fill out forms, often online. People with low literacy are effectively excluded from such support, due to their difficulty accessing and completing the required applications.
Charles Carroll, who has previously worked in drug and alcohol rehabilitation and provided language, literacy and numeracy assistance to his clients, noted that a person’s inability to engage with Centrelink due to LLND skills gaps can result in punitive actions being taken against them.
During the Committee’s previous inquiry into education in remote and complex environments, the Committee heard that there is a ‘digital divide’ between Australians who have access to the internet, computers and other devices, and those who do not. This gap in access is particularly acute for Australians on low incomes and those living in geographically isolated locations.
Evidence to this inquiry has reinforced the Committee’s understanding that digital inclusion depends, to a certain extent, on your postcode and your income. A further understanding that has emerged is that many older Australians also find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.
VCOSS said that digital literacy ‘should be taken into consideration in light of government’s intentional shift to move to online service delivery and the experience of COVID-19 highlighting the importance of digital inclusion in enabling social and economic participation.’
Making informed legal and financial decisions
Strong LLND skills allow Australians to make informed legal and financial decisions. Conversely, low LLND skills make it difficult to navigate legal and financial issues and mean that many Australians may not be able to fully realise their rights.
Associate Professor Shumi Akhtar from the University of Sydney and Dr Farida Akhtar, a senior lecturer at Macquarie University, were concerned that Australians with low LLND skills are ‘increasingly becoming victims of financial frauds’. They noted that financial literacy is ‘hugely important’ and said:
Given more than 75 per cent of Australians have a superannuation account, it is critical that our adult population is sufficiently educated to be able to make sensible decisions in relation to their current and future financial affairs for themselves and for their children.
NSWALNC noted that ‘workers who do not have access to information about their rights or who do not have adequate literacy to exercise their rights’ are vulnerable to wage theft and other forms of exploitation.
MNCCLC noted that low literacy has a ‘significant impact on individuals’ ability to navigate and self-advocate within complex systems that operate in society’ and noted that the ‘legal system is one of these.’ MNCCLC provided several case studies that ‘highlight the ways in which people with low literacy levels are ordinarily excluded from participating in systems which operate in their lives.’
The need for greater support for Australians with LLND skills gaps, including literacy mediation, assistance with form filling, legal assistance, and financial counselling, is further examined in Chapter 4.
Limited data and research on adult LLND skills
There was support for greater provision of timely data in relation to adult LLND skill levels, particularly in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and for more research into adult LLND skills gaps to better inform future policy decisions. For example, the Lowitja Institute said there is a ‘lack of data at a national level or local level available for planning and program development.’
The Reading Writing Hotline said ‘[t]here is a lack of Australian statistics and research on adult literacy issues’ and noted that the PIAAC survey ‘provides a snapshot but results are limited.’ The Reading Writing Hotline noted that ‘[s]tatistics are especially lacking for people in remote locations (predominantly First Nations people) as PIAAC does not cover these locations.’
ACTA said that the Committee’s inquiry had ‘exposed the lack of data necessary to guide policy-making and provision.’ ACTA commented:
The failure to collect and use these data follow directly from the tunnel vision that is preoccupied with outcomes irrespective of starting points. A major achievement by the Inquiry would be to identify important data gaps and make recommendations on how to fill them.
Concerns about PIAAC
There were concerns raised about the regularity of, and level of detail provided by the PIAAC survey. For example, DESE noted that:
While PIAAC provides a valuable picture at a national level, there is a long interval between surveys and PIAAC does not provide a full breakdown of the data by different cohorts. As a result of COVID-19 the next survey has been delayed with the results due to be published in 2024.
The Tasmanian Government was concerned that the Australian Government had decided to ‘significantly cut participation and sample sizes in the 2022 PIAAC’, which it said ‘will make this survey statistically insignificant in Tasmania.’ The Tasmanian Government called on the Australian Government to ‘consider re-engaging fully in the PIAAC survey to provide reliable data on the state of adult literacy in all states and territories in Australia.’
Similarly, the 26TEN Coalition said that ‘greater investment is required in data collection and research to support literacy and numeracy policy development, including full state by state results’ for the next PIAAC survey. The 26TEN Coalition reported that ‘[t]he Tasmanian sample was reduced from 625 participants in 2011 to 107 in 2022.’
ACER highlighted the importance of the PIAAC survey and recommended:
… that Australia participates fully in the second cycle of PIAAC in order to see and review how Australian adults have performed in relation to adult literacy, numeracy and problem solving. This allows research to be undertaken based around the factors set out in the Terms of Reference of this Parliamentary Inquiry, and provides the evidence to reflect on the results from both a policy level in relation to adult education, but also in relation to how school education is preparing young people for the world as adults.
ACER went on to outline what is required in administering the next PIAAC survey:
Australia should make sure that the PIAAC Cycle 2 survey instruments are administered to a random representative sample across Australia including remote Indigenous adults and incarcerated adults, along with continuing to oversample to include a younger cohort (15 year-olds) and an older cohort
(66-74) compared with the minimum international requirements. The oversampling enables state and territory performance to be compared.
When asked whether PIAAC was useful, FECCA told the Committee:
I think that [PIAAC] definitely provides us with some insights across this issue, but for FECCA every single issue we work with nearly comes down to inadequate data collected across the Australian level. The data that is currently collected for the multicultural communities in Australia, not just within this space but also in the health space—every facet at the federal and the state levels of data collection—doesn't adequately capture the multicultural nature of our country and then the specific issues relating to those populations. Without that cross-section of data across education, across these different areas, we lose some of the rich nature of the compounding impacts that affect these communities.
ABS reported that the next PIAAC survey, which is due to be rolled out in 2022, will be administered according to OECD standards and has been funded by DESE. ABS commented:
While the OECD commissions this piece of work, there is an international consortium run by a whole range of international organisations who have various specialties, and Australia, like the other 32 countries, needs to comply with any international requirements around sampling and survey standards. Obviously, the reason for that is that it's an international survey and the OECD wants to be able to compare across the 33 countries, and if everyone did their own thing, that wouldn't be possible.
We've implemented an overall design that meets their [OECD] requirements, but we've applied that to the Australian environment. We've worked together to develop a sample and a sample design that meets the objectives for providing national level reporting that's consistent with the other countries.
ABS confirmed that it will be collecting information from persons aged 16 to 65 years in the next PIAAC survey.
Lack of data on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LLND skills
There was broad concern about the lack of data on the LLND skills of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, in particular that the sample size for the PIAAC survey was too small to identify the LLND characteristics of the adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations. For example, ACER said that ‘there is a scandalous lack of current evidence-based information about the levels of literacy and numeracy among Indigenous adults.’
The absence of data is compounded for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, many of whom are specifically excluded from the limited and intermittent data collection that does take place. This has echoes of the past, a time when our people weren't counted in the national census. I like to think we've come a long way since those days, and we deserve better than being expressly excluded from collection of this critical information about our communities. We must have robust data on adults' literacy levels—and children's, for that matter—so we can understand the depth and extent of the problem and begin to address it. This is important work and good data can help drive it.
NACCHO recommended the Australian Government fund ABS to ‘establish a data collection standard to determine adult literacy levels in both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the wider Australian community, which includes people living in remote and very remote areas.’
Similarly, the Lowitja Institute said:
The Commonwealth has not provided ABS with sufficient funding to produce any results on the level of adult literacy in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and this is the place, the area, of the greatest need. We think this is an extraordinary decision, and it could even be considered discriminatory, in fact. Given how this will be key data for determining policy and programs as needed in the future, there's a whole section of Australian society that aren't going to be included properly enough, and that's I think the work of this Committee.
ABS confirmed that ‘[t]here is no additional sampling for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population’ in PIAAC and stated ‘[w]e will pick up some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in a national sample, but there's no oversampling to get a representative sample.’
ABS also confirmed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in very remote and discrete communities would be excluded from the PIAAC survey. ABS said that PIAAC would sample Australians living in urban, remote and rural areas, but not very remote areas, stating that it is ‘a geographic sample; it’s stratified by geography.’
Professor Boughton said that ‘[t]his problem could be rectified, if the Commonwealth provided the ABS with sufficient funding … to include a more representative sample of First Nations adults’ in the next PIAAC survey. Professor Boughton reported ‘[t]his was done for the last PIAAC survey in Canada, where the Aboriginal population was around 3 per cent of the total.’
For the 2011-12 PIAAC survey in Canada:
Samples were selected in sufficient numbers to provide statistically reliable results not only for Canada as a whole, but also for each province and territory. In addition, Indigenous peoples, immigrants, and official-language minority populations were oversampled to provide detailed information about these groups.
The website for PIAAC in Canada, stated:
The smaller sample sizes used by many countries only provide an understanding at the national level. In Canada, education policy is developed and decided at the provincial and territorial level, so a larger sample is required to obtain statistically reliable results within each jurisdiction.
In addition, Canada oversampled Aboriginal peoples, immigrants, and official-language minorities to better understand skill levels within these populations.
Directions for future research
In addition to the need for improved national statistics on adult LLND skills proficiency, contributors to the inquiry emphasised the importance of further research and data collection more broadly.
ACER was concerned that ABS ‘analysis and available reports based on the PIAAC data is not fully utilised nor analysed by the ABS.’ ACER said it ‘would be willing to work with ABS to produce analyses and reports similar to those that ACER undertakes and publishes in relation to PISA.’
The Australasian Corrections Education Association (ACEA) said ‘[t]here is a paucity of research in Australia and worldwide into the literacy and numeracy needs of those in custody’. ACEA explained ‘this is exacerbated by the lack of uniform approaches to identify, report and review individual language, numeracy, employability and digital literacy skills across Australian jurisdictions.’
FECCA called for improved data and research on culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities:
FECCA suggests that for Government and its services to appropriately respond to CALD communities’ needs effectively, they must first understand these communities through accurate and consistent administrative data. This is essential for evidence-based policy, resource allocation and service planning. Only with disaggregated, consistent, and comparable CALD data can Government ensure that services are accessible, inclusive, and responsive to the needs of all people in Australia.
A broader understanding of the underlying reasons for adult literacy gaps, unemployment and poverty can be reached by collecting appropriate and disaggregated data.
Professor Lo Bianco said that Australia needs to be conducting research on the skills required for the jobs of the future and suggested bringing business groups and the unions together ‘to talk about the ability of workers to compete for the new jobs that will be created in the economy, as is being done very well in Germany’.
The Committee notes that the National Skills Commission was recently established to monitor, research and analyse employment dynamics across different demographic groups, industries, occupations and regions in Australia. It considers how changes in the labour market will impact jobs and how those changes will impact the economy’s education and skills needs.
The creation of the National Skills Commission was one of the key recommendations from Strengthening Skills: Expert Review of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training System (Joyce review). The Australian Government committed to the establishment of the National Skills Commission in the 2019-20 Budget as part of the Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow Skills package.
The available evidence on adult LLND skills shows there is a significant proportion of the Australian population who struggle with tasks that others may find routine. For many older Australians, the skills they have relied on their whole lives do not allow them to participate fully as technology changes. This has consequences for the social and economic lives of individuals, and for Australia more broadly.
The evidence from this inquiry, and the Committee’s previous inquiry into education in remote and complex environments shows that educational attainment is associated with socioeconomic status and geographic remoteness, and this trend is becoming more pronounced.
While estimates of LLND skills proficiency in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities vary widely, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults have low English LLND skills despite the efforts of governments to close the gap. This is particularly the case for those in remote communities.
The Committee notes that Australia is a signatory to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and beyond. In particular, Goal Four emphasises the importance of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. Family and intergenerational literacy programs are an effective way to develop and improve the LLND skills of parents and children, and foster wider benefits including self-esteem, civic participation, and the engagement of adults in further education and training.
The Committee recommends that, by March 2023, the Australian Government resource effective whole of community and family language, literacy, numeracy and digital literacy (LLND) programs that target adults with low LLND skills including in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, culturally and linguistically diverse, and other socially and economically marginalised Australian communities.
The Committee is concerned that there is currently inadequate, timely information being collected about adult LLND skills to inform policy development, and that Australia’s participation in the next PIAAC survey, to be conducted in 2022, may represent a missed opportunity.
The next PIAAC survey could establish a meaningful baseline for measuring the impact of government policies aimed at increasing adult LLND skills, including in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. PIAAC is only conducted once every 10 years and there is a real risk that if we do not get this right now, we must wait another decade to have a detailed picture of Australia’s LLND skills challenges.
Under current arrangements, the 2022 PIAAC survey will not provide statistically reliable data about the LLND skills of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults and does not sample individuals living in very remote locations. This is particularly concerning to the Committee, given that educational attainment decreases with remoteness, and that very low rates of English literacy have been reported in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Similarly, detailed data is required on the LLND skills of immigrants to inform policy development and planning.
The Committee acknowledges the concerns raised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been excluded from the PIAAC survey. It is the Committee’s view that the absence of representative data about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ LLND skills in this survey is incompatible with the Australian Government’s commitment to Closing the Gap.
The Committee is also concerned that PIAAC does not provide statistically reliable data by state and territory. This is important considering that policies are developed and implemented by state and territory governments as well as the Australian Government, and the evidence heard of uneven LLND skills proficiency and outcomes across jurisdictions.
Evidence from ABS suggested that the need for PIAAC to provide comparable national level statistics that meet OECD requirements meant that there was limited scope to adapt the survey to meet Australia’s requirements. By contrast, evidence shows that in the previous PIAAC survey in 2011-12, Canada oversampled Indigenous peoples, immigrants, and official-language minorities to better understand skill levels within these populations. Furthermore, Canada’s PIAAC survey used a sample large enough to provide statistically reliable data for its provinces and territories.
There is clearly an urgent need, as well as both scope and precedent, for Australia to upgrade its participation in the next PIAAC survey in 2022, as well as all subsequent PIAAC surveys. However, it is critical that decisions about data planning, collection and use relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are undertaken with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This goes to the heart of the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap.
The Committee considers that the Australian Government should fund ABS to collect statistically reliable data for all age groups, including extending collection to a younger cohort (15 years) and an older cohort (66-74 years).
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government immediately fund the broadening of data collection by the Australian Bureau of Statistics for the 2022 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey and ensure all subsequent PIAAC surveys are appropriately funded, to include:
oversampling of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations, including those living in very remote areas, and the immigrant populations
samples in sufficient numbers to provide statistically reliable results not only for Australia as a whole, but also for each state and territory
samples in sufficient numbers to provide statistically reliable results for all age groups, including extending collection to a younger cohort (15 years) and an older cohort (66-74 years).
The Coalition of Peaks and the National Indigenous Australians Agency must be consulted in considering how to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations in the PIAAC surveys.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community workers must, where possible, be trained and resourced to conduct PIAAC interviews in their communities.
While the PIAAC survey provides an important snapshot of the LLND skills proficiency of Australian adults, the Committee is concerned about the survey’s regularity.
The National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults (NFSSA) indicated in 2012 that Australian governments will explore options for measuring progress against the NFSSA, ‘including the feasibility of a new Australian Adult Competencies Survey to be conducted at the mid-point of the National Strategy in 2017.’ The NFSSA envisions this survey being comparable with PIAAC. The Committee is not aware of any progress on the development of this survey.
Given that PIAAC is only conducted once every 10 years, it is vital that a new Australian Adult Competencies Survey be conducted at the mid-point of each PIAAC cycle, so that detailed data on the LLND skills of Australians are available every five years. The survey should be comparable with the Committee’s expectations for future PIAAC surveys reflected above and provide statistically reliable data for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including those living in very remote areas, and the immigrant populations, by state and territory, and for all age groups.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government provide ongoing funding for a new Australian Adult Competencies Survey to be conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics at the mid-point of each Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) cycle, with consultation on development to begin by March 2023 and the first survey to be conducted in 2026.
The new Australian Adult Competencies Survey must be:
comparable with the Committee’s expectations for future PIAAC surveys and provide statistically reliable data for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including those living in very remote areas, for the immigrant populations, by state and territory and for all age groups
developed in consultation with the Coalition of Peaks, the National Indigenous Australians Agency, other peak bodies including the Australian Council for Adult Literacy and Adult Learning Australia, and the states and territories.
The Australian Government could consider incorporating the new Australian Adult Competencies Survey into existing ABS data collection programs, for example the ABS Work-Related Training and Adult Learning survey (a topic on the Multipurpose Household Survey), the National Health Survey or the Australian Census.
In addition to increasing the scope and regularity of national surveys, the Committee encourages further research to fully inform policy development regarding adult LLND skills, including:
ACER working with ABS to produce analyses and reports on the PIAAC survey and the new Australian Adult Competencies Survey results, similar to those that ACER produces in relation to PISA
research into the LLND skills gaps of Australians in custody, and longitudinal research into the effectiveness of the education of Australians in custody in improving employment outcomes and reducing recidivism
completing an audit of the current provision of adult LLND education programs around Australia (both accredited and non-accredited)
commissioning research that includes longitudinal data that tracks student progress over time through non-accredited and accredited foundation and LLND skills programs to effectively measure outcomes.