There are a range of factors that contribute to language, literacy, numeracy and digital literacy (LLND) skills gaps among Australian adults. Evidence in Chapter 2 showed that socioeconomic status is associated with LLND skills attainment, and that children whose parents have strong skills or who value education, are more likely to develop strong LLND skills themselves.
The Committee’s previous inquiry into education in remote and complex environments found that some of the greatest barriers to education are beyond the capacity of education systems to address, and include issues relating to geographic isolation, health challenges, and access to information and communications technology. Furthermore, a range of factors that impact on education attainment, such as limited access to formalised early childhood learning and allied and mental health services, increase as remoteness increases.
For there to be improvements in adult LLND skills attainment, factors that contribute to low LLND skills must be addressed across all educational systems, at every stage of a person’s life course.
The Committee heard that far too many Australian children fall through the cracks and disengage from education because their needs are not supported. Some have experienced disrupted schooling for any number of reasons and struggle to catch up, while others:
have undiagnosed and unsupported dyslexia, a type of specific learning disability (SLD)
have an intellectual or physical disability but do not receive the support they need to thrive at school
do not speak English outside of the classroom but are taught and then assessed as if they do
live in a remote community and have no pathway to a meaningful secondary school education without leaving their families and communities.
In each of these cases, the experience of shame and stigma associated with students’ perceived failures acts as a barrier to seeking support and engaging in school and in further education and training later in life.
The Committee heard concerning evidence about the impacts of COVID-19, including that individuals and families with low digital literacy and poor access to the internet and internet-enabled devices experienced poorer educational outcomes than other Australians, and had difficulty accessing vital services and online education and training.
Specific learning disabilities
SLDs include dyslexia and dyscalculia, and a range of other speech, language and communication disabilities. Many individuals with SLDs struggle throughout their lives with literacy and numeracy and this presents a significant challenge for families, educators and the community. Individuals with SLDs are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicide and feelings of shame, disengage from school, and interact with the juvenile justice system than other Australians.
Dear Dyslexic Foundation (DDF) noted that individuals with SLDs ‘can bring many strengths to the workplace such as creativity, analytical and critical thinking, innovation, big picture thinking, strong problem solving, high emotional intelligence and are stronger leaders and social influencers’. However, ‘these strengths are generally overshadowed by the day-today challenges of their disability.’
Code Read Dyslexia Network Australia (Code Read) reported that ‘approximately 10 per cent of Australians may have dyslexia, however, only an estimated 4 per cent on the continuum are severe, requiring longer term remediation.’
The Committee heard that there is low awareness in the Australian community, among teachers and in the medical profession about SLDs. DDF said ‘there's still an awful lot of ignorance about dyslexia’ and, as a result, ‘many young adults and children fall off the radar and end up in incarceration or in youth detention.’ DDF commented:
You've got to train teachers. You've got to train educators. You've got to train trainers and employers about what dyslexia is. Without that knowledge, people are ignorant, and, unfortunately, the child or the young adult does not get the positive attention that it requires and ends up in a negative situation.
DDF also suggested that general practitioners, health centres and community nurses could be educated in the signs and symptoms of SLDs so they know what to look out for.
Many Australians are disadvantaged in education, from their earliest days of schooling, because their SLDs are undiagnosed, and their needs are unsupported. Addressing barriers to learning early in a child’s life is critical for their long-term educational development, particularly if they have a SLD.
This Committee’s previous inquiry found that children in regional, rural and remote areas, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, are more likely to be developmentally vulnerable and have less access to screening and early intervention than their peers in metropolitan areas.
These issues were again raised in evidence to this inquiry. For example, the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association of Australia (ICPA Australia) reported that many children with specific education needs in geographically isolated regions have little or no access to screening and early intervention services.
Screening and assessments
There was support for children to be screened for SLDs and for improved access to assessments so that children’s learning can be appropriately supported.
The partner of an individual whose learning difficulties were not identified early called for standardised screening, prepared by remedial reading specialists, for early primary school aged children.
Ms Amelia Jones, Founding Member of the Tasmanian 100% Literacy Alliance and Chair of Square Pegs Dyslexia Support and Advocacy Inc, advocated for children to be screened for learning disabilities from the age of three. Ms Jones suggested that interactions with child health nurses and preschool programs could be opportunities for screening to occur.
The Committee heard that cost is a factor prohibiting individuals and families seeking assessments for learning disabilities and support. The Community Adult Literacy Foundation reported that ‘a standard assessment for dyslexia costs approximately $1,800 which is out of reach for too many.’
To address the cost barrier to receiving an assessment, DDF advocated for dyslexia to be added to the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS).
The Committee notes that while the MBS does not subsidise SLDs, MBS items 82000 to 82035 provide Medicare-rebates for allied health services to children with autism or any other pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), and to children with an eligible disability.
Early childhood education and care
Early childhood education and care is important in the context of this inquiry because it gives children the best chance for success in education and can free up time for parents to undertake study or training to improve their own LLND skills.
In Australia, early childhood education includes:
child care services, which provide education and care to children up to age 13.
preschool services, which involve structured, play-based learning programs delivered by qualified teachers to children in the year or two before they start full-time schooling.
The Child Care Subsidy (CCS) is the main way the Australian Government helps families with child care fees. The CCS is paid to approved providers who pass it on to families as a fee reduction. Families pay the difference between the provider’s fee and the subsidy amount, and there are rules about what fees providers can charge.
The current CCS was established in July 2017 in response to reforms recommended by the Productivity Commission in its 2014 inquiry into childcare and early childhood learning.
Families must meet certain requirements and parents need to be undertaking a recognised activity to be eligible for the CCS. Recognised activities include employment/self-employment, looking for work, volunteering, being on leave/maternity leave, or undertaking study or training. This provides an incentive for parents to improve their LLND skills while their children are in early childhood education and care.
The level of CCS a family receives depends on their combined annual family income, activity level, and type of child care used. Additional assistance for vulnerable and disadvantaged families is available through the Child Care Safety Net.
The Australian Government funds state and territory governments to provide preschool programs through the Universal Access National Partnership (UANP). The states and territories are responsible for the provision of preschool or kindergarten in their jurisdictions.
The aim of the UANP is to ensure every child can participate in a quality preschool program 15 hours per week (or 600 hours per year) in the year before school. Under the UANP, preschool programs should be delivered in accordance with the National Quality Framework and the Early Years Learning Framework in a form that meets the needs of children, parents and the community, and be affordable.
The Australian Government committed $452.3 million to extend the UANP until the end of 2021. A new $2 billion, four-year national reform commitment will be established to strengthen the delivery of preschool and better prepare children to start school, through to the end of the 2025 calendar year.
The Australian Council of TESOL Associations (ACTA) said that the Committee’s previous report on education in remote and complex environments documented the ‘clear and well-established evidence that quality early childhood education is probably the most effective foundation for on-going educational attainment across all sectors of the population.’
The Committee again received compelling evidence on the importance of early childhood education to the development of strong LLND skills in adulthood. For example, the World Literacy Foundation referred to research suggesting that quality early childhood programs have a 13 per cent rate of return on investment per annum because of improved education, health, social and economic outcomes.
The Australian Education Union (AEU) said that quality early childhood education is ‘a fundamentally important contributor to a child’s school readiness. It provides the knowledge and skills that enable children to succeed at school, and throughout their lives.’
The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) said ‘[i]t is vital to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to get the best start in life through culturally appropriate and trauma-informed programs delivered by community-controlled organisations.’
NACCHO advocated for improved linkages between early childhood centres and Aboriginal community-controlled health services. This would help ensure that neurological and other childhood milestones are monitored and supported in a coordinated, culturally respectful and safe setting for those children.
Access, equity and workforce issues
There is strong evidence showing that families in Australia have variable access to quality early childhood education, depending on their location and circumstances. The Committee’s previous inquiry into education in remote and complex environments found that:
children in regional, rural and remote communities are less likely to access early childhood education and are more likely to experience disadvantage and developmental vulnerability than children in cities
the quality of early childhood education in regional, rural and remote areas is lower than in metropolitan areas
early childhood education providers in regional, rural and remote locations struggle to recruit and retain quality staff.
These findings are consistent with evidence to this inquiry. For example, ICPA Australia commented:
For geographically isolated families who live in rural and remote parts of Australia, access to consistent, adequate and affordable early childhood education services is marred by a myriad of challenges which impede fulfillment of the National Partnership on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education recommended 600 hours of early childhood education the year before full-time school. These challenges include staff shortages and high out of pocket costs exceeding the family budget, resulting in a lack of services as Early Childhood centres struggle to remain viable in rural and remote areas.
Concerns were raised about the affordability of child care for many Australian families. For example, Civil Liberties Australia commented:
Presently, in Australia child care centres are fee-paying and many are run by for-profit organisations. Many families are unable to afford the fees. The consequences are that many families where the primary carer wishes to work cannot afford to do so because the cost of attendance exceeds the income from employment. These early years for the child/children are also the most challenging for families, often times of the main income earner being in the early years of employment and the early years of paying off housing through mortgage or rent.
Civil Liberties Australia also noted that ‘[r]emuneration for staff at child care centres is low and a disincentive for people to enter the workforce. In the event of expansion of childcare/early learning, recruitment and training will be a major issue.’
ACTA was concerned that the early childhood education and care system did not make the distinction between learning English and learning literacy. ACTA said that ‘[s]pecial attention is needed to promote and ensure access for children from homes where the home language and/or informal educational and literacy practices do not provide a clear preparation for formal schooling.’
ACTA also reported that a lack of access to early childhood education and care impacts on parents’ ability ‘to pursue positive settlement outcomes in regard to learning English, undertaking training and gaining employment.’
The Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) provides childcare for school age children while their parents are in class. ACTA said that similar arrangements are not available for adults enrolled in Technical and Further Education (TAFE) classes and training programs, and the Skills for Education and Employment (SEE) program. The Committee notes that Australians who are enrolled in TAFE or participating in SEE meet the activity test for the CCS, and are eligible for subsidised child care so long as they satisfy the other CCS requirements.
There was support for expanding access to preschool to children from the age of three. AEU recommended the Australian Government ‘guarantee ongoing funding to preschool for four year olds and extend this offering to three year olds nationally to further increase participation in early childhood education and, to give children the best start in education.’
State and territory governments are responsible for delivering school education in their jurisdictions. The Australian Government contributes funding and helps shape national education policy by setting a vision for Australian school education and seeking agreement for common commitments and national standards.
Funding responsibility for school education is shared between the Australian Government and state and territory governments, and national education policy is decided by all governments working together through the National Cabinet.
In Chapter 2 the Committee concluded that educational attainment is associated with socioeconomic status and geographic remoteness, and this trend is becoming more pronounced. Chapter 2 also showed that:
the literacy and numeracy skills of Australian students aged 15 years have been declining
there is a substantial gap in student achievement in both reading and numeracy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students across all year levels.
A number of issues relating to the school system were raised that may contribute to the significant proportion of Australians leaving school with low LLND skills. These include:
concerns relating to school resourcing
concerns about approaches to the teaching of English literacy
concerns about levels of support for learners of English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D)
the need for more specialist teachers, including those qualified in the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)
the need for greater support for bilingual education in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schools
concerns about the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN)
the need for a better measure of proficiency for EAL/D learners and improved indicators to ensure that funding for EAL/D learners are better targeted.
There are different arrangements for the funding of public and independent sector schools. States and territories are the majority public funder of public schools, while the Australian Government has historically been the majority public funder of the independent sector, which includes Catholic and independent schools. On average, around three quarters of funding for Catholic schools and less than one half of funding for independent schools is from public sources.
In 2018, the Australian Government introduced a funding model based on the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS), which is a measure of the amount of public funding needed by schools to meet the educational needs of their students.
The Australian Government is moving towards consistently funding 20 per cent of the total SRS for government systems and 80 per cent of the total SRS for non-government schools and systems. Schools currently funded below their target Australian Government share of the SRS will transition to the target by 2023, while schools that are currently funded above their target Australian Government share will transition to it by 2029 at the latest.
States and territories must meet minimum funding contribution requirements for both government and non-government sectors as a condition of receiving Commonwealth funding under section 22A of the Australian Education Act 2013. Minimum state and territory funding requirements from 2018 to 2023 are outlined in bilateral reform agreements which commenced on 1 January 2019.
The Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) said that ‘[t]he schooling system recognises the relationship between adult parental literacy and engagement and school funding’ and explained:
The school funding arrangements have a number of student loadings which recognise parental disadvantage. There are two in particular which are of relevance. One is the parents who have English as a second language and the second loading is what is called socio-educational advantage. So it's those student who have parents who have low educational attainment themselves. That information is collected across the system. It's pooled by our assessment agency, ACARA [Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority], and they then use that information to assist with how we fund schools. So, at a really fundamental level in the system, we pay more per student for states to deliver education for students who come from a family that's disadvantaged … That's quite a significant amount of money. It's about $30 billion for that particular loading.
Concerns were raised about public school funding. AEU said there was a shortfall in funding for public schools to the minimum mandated SRS of $4.75 billion, or more than $1,700 per student per year.
AEU were also concerned the current model of school funding distribution ‘fails students who struggle with literacy and numeracy, who are overwhelmingly disadvantaged in one or more ways, and who overwhelmingly attend chronically underfunded schools.’
AEU recommended that public schools be funded to 100 per cent of the SRS and that the Australian Government lift its ‘arbitrary’ 20 per cent cap on contributions to public schools.
The Australian Council of State School Organisations (ACSSO) said that the COVID -19 pandemic caused the largest disruption in the history of Australia’s education system and that, before the pandemic, Australia was already facing formidable challenges in the delivery of quality school education outcomes. ACSSO called on the Australian Government to increase funding to public schools and address inequities in school funding, stating this will help Australia to respond to current and future challenges. ACSSO said the Australian Government should ‘focus on access, equality, equity of outcomes and inclusion at all levels of the system.’
Support for students with disability
Students with disability require adjustments to be made in their schooling so that they can participate in a way that suits their abilities. The majority of Australian students with disability are enrolled in the public school system.
Students with disability are provided additional funding for their schooling through the SRS student with disability loading. The student with disability loading is based on the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability (NCCD). The NCCD groups school students with disability by the level of support they need to access and participate in learning.
Students with disability who are counted in the top 3 levels of the NCCD (supplementary, substantial and extensive) attract additional funding through the student with disability loading. The amount of the loading reflects the level of support students with disability need to participate fully in school, with higher funding for those who need higher levels of support.
The Australian Government is increasing school funding for students with disability through the SRS student with disability loading by, on average, 5.7 per cent each year until 2029. This represents an investment of an estimated $30 billion between 2018 and 2029.
Despite this, the Committee heard that many Australians with SLDs and other disability are not receiving sufficient support in school to develop strong LLND skills. AEU said that there has been serious deficiencies in resourcing for students with disability over the past two decades and that, despite changes to funding, there has not been any improvement.
AEU said that ‘changes to disability loading categories in recent years have left many students without any support, or with inadequate support’, and provided the following statistics on gaps in access:
In 2018, over half of all children with disability who attended school accessed support or a special arrangement, around one third accessed special tuition and one quarter accessed a counsellor or special support person. Of those children who received support or special arrangements, over one third reported that they needed more support than they received.
In 2019, there were approximately 359,000 students with disability in public schools in Australia. At least 150,000 of these students were not in receipt of any loading.
AEU made several recommendations about ensuring students with disability are provided with the resources they need to learn at their best, including adjustments to pedagogy, staff training, funding certainty, and appropriate staff allocations. AEU also recommended that a review of loading mechanisms for students with disability should be undertaken to ensure that resources are appropriately deployed.
Secondary school provision for remote communities
In its inquiry into education in remote and complex environments, the Committee found that there are many Australian children who cannot access secondary school education in, or at a reasonable distance from, their home communities, and that boarding school education may not be a desirable alternative for a range of reasons. The Committee heard that there is a strong preference among families living in geographically isolated areas and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for access to locally accessible, quality education at all levels.
The Committee noted that, in the Northern Territory, students in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities who wish to continue with their schooling after Year 7 must either leave their homes to take up a place at a boarding school or be offered a limited curriculum at their local primary school. Concerns were raised that:
boarding is too difficult for some students to adjust to, which may then result in students disengaging from school
boarding schools lacked the cultural competency and the additional support that is needed to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students thrive.
These findings were reinforced by evidence to this inquiry. For example, the Association of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Northern Territory (ATESOLNT) reported that secondary schooling pathways for students in very remote communities are increasingly limited, which acts as a disincentive for students to succeed academically and fosters a sense of alienation among students and their families from formal schooling.
Associate Professor John Guenther, Research Leader, Education and Training at the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, reported that students on remote homelands were provided only two days of schooling per week. He said, ‘[t]he teacher flies in in the morning and starts classes at 10 o'clock, stays overnight and flies out at 2 o'clock the next afternoon. That's not a quality education.’ This may mean that the Northern Territory Government is not meeting its legislated minimum requirements for school provision.
ATESOLNT said that the increase in students from remote communities attending boarding schools had led to concerns in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities about increased suicide rates among young people. ATESOLNT also reported that remote students who return from boarding schools can experience low self-esteem and depression and that there is evidence of some former students ending up in the youth justice system.
ATESOLNT was concerned that there ‘is no data saying that boarding schools are good. There's no data that tracks the students who are currently in boarding school. There's no tracking of how students go when they return to community.’
The Northern Territory Government said that every child in a remote community is interviewed in Year 6 ‘from the point of view of what their parents want in terms of a full-blown secondary education’, and reported:
For about a third of those kids, the parents don't want them educated in their community. They want them outside of that community and they want to pursue a full boarding education, and we support that. In fact, we support about 1,000 kids a year across the Territory to go to boarding schools all over Australia. We case-manage those kids very heavily and we keep them on that pathway.
ATESOLNT was concerned about the quality of education provided for those children who did not choose to go to boarding school and who instead stayed in their communities. It reported that the employment pathways program was ‘abruptly cancelled’ in 2020 and that students who had completed units had nothing to show for three to four years of study because the employment pathways program ceased to be an accredited course. According to ATESOLNT, this change meant that 537 students across 32 remote schools were no longer ‘taught from a recognised curriculum.’
Funding for remote schools in the Northern Territory
Chapter 2 showed there are significant LLND skills gaps in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and that skills attainment decreases with remoteness. The reasons for this are diverse and complex. Evidence to this inquiry suggests that poverty, experiences of trauma, poor health, a lack of access to services, and education systems that may not adequately serve the needs of communities all play a part.
Concerns were raised that inadequate funding and the way the Northern Territory administers school funding negatively affects staffing and school attendance in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schools. ATESOLNT said this has eroded the ability of remote schools to retain staff and offer effective programs and that a ‘vicious cycle has been created that results directly in reduced student attendance.’
ATESOLNT cited evidence that, by 2023, Northern Territory public schools will be underfunded by 20 per cent, which amounts to $6,000 per student and is triple that of the other lowest performing jurisdiction. ATESOLNT reported that very remote schools have lost up to 50 per cent of their budgets since 2011 and most remote schools have lost teaching positions.
ATESOLNT also reported that the percentage of students attending school four days a week in very remote communities dropped from 19 per cent in 2016 to 14 per cent in 2019.
The Djalkiri Foundation explained that, in the Northern Territory:
Schools only get money for the kids that are coming to school. So, you can imagine that, if there's some kind of event where there's a big funeral and students haven't come to school, attendance drops off and money gets taken away or there's a gradual disengagement. Money is actually taken away from the school, whereas in other jurisdictions money is given to those schools through extra loadings to re-engage those students.
Associate Professor Guenther said that the reason why some remote schools were only able to operate two days a week on a fly-in-fly-out basis was because of attendance-based funding.
In addition to expressing concerns about attendance-based funding, ATESOLNT said that one-line global school budgets provide little accountability in how schools spend money and means there is a lack of coherence and focus on the professional development of staff because schools decide how to allocate money for professional learning.
ATESOLNT made nine recommendations in relation to school funding for remote schools, including that Australian Government funding for remote schools should be:
allocated based on enrolment, not attendance data
contingent on transparent data from the Northern Territory Government around school funding, enrolment and attendance, and the employment status and qualifications of teachers working in remote schools.
Evidence-based literacy instruction and teacher training
Prevailing theories around best practice in the teaching of English literacy have varied considerably over time. There has long been a debate around the extent to which students should learn to sound out words, referred to as systematic phonics, or focus on the meaning of words as they appear in stories, referred to as whole language approaches to teaching. Both approaches feature, to greater or lesser extents, in Australian schools and adult education settings.
The Committee heard that, over the past 50 years, ‘whole language’ approaches and strategies to teaching reading have been prioritised both in Australia and internationally. These strategies did not teach students systematic phonics.
The Committee was interested whether the move away from a focus on teaching systematic phonics was a contributing factor to low literacy among Australian adults. Ms Jones said that a focus on phonics instruction had declined in favour of whole language approaches to literacy, so that ‘undergraduate teachers are not taught how to teach reading.’
Ms Jones said that there is increasing recognition of phonics-based approaches to the teaching of reading, including in the Tasmanian Government’s literacy framework. Ms Jones reported that change is happening slowly, at the moment, it is ‘pot luck whether you get a school or a teacher who has those skills and is willing to implement them.’
Speech Pathology Australia said that evidence supports strategies focusing on explicit systematic instruction including phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary and language structure, and called for a national early language and literacy strategy that prioritised phonics-based instruction.
Similarly, Code Read called for Australian schools to be mandated to use evidence-based instruction for the teaching of reading, including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.
The Australian Government does not specify the course content of initial teacher education programs. Course offerings are a decision for universities. Under the Accreditation of Initial Teacher Education Programs in Australia: Standards and Procedures (the Accreditation) the quality of initial teacher education programs can be set and improved through changes agreed by all education ministers.
Graduates are required to meet the requirements of the graduate career stage of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (Standards), which requires a knowledge and understanding of literacy and numeracy teaching strategies and their application.
In combination, the Accreditation and Standards provide a framework for ensuring the quality of teacher training in Australia. According to DESE, this also allows higher education providers and schools the flexibility to design and deliver teacher training in ways that meet the needs and circumstances of local communities.
The Australian Government recognises that high quality teaching has a powerful influence on a student’s education and is working with the states and territories on a range of reforms to improve teacher education and quality.
In December 2019, all education ministers amended the Accreditation to add explicit requirements for reading instruction, including phonics, and to increase the time spent on English and literacy in training primary teachers. DESE said this decision was taken ‘in response to national and international evidence suggesting that one of the critical ways of teaching children to learn to read is through phonics’.
DESE described a range of other reforms in initial teacher education including:
more rigorous selection requirements for entry into initial teacher education programs
the testing of trainee teachers to ensure they are in the top 30 per cent of the Australian adult population for literacy and numeracy skills before they can teach
the development of a final-year teaching performance assessment to ensure graduate teachers are ‘classroom ready’.
Teaching English as a second or other language
EAL/D learners begin their education from a different starting point to students whose first language is English and their education needs are therefore different. To learn effectively, EAL/D learners require evidenced-based TESOL instruction provided by suitably qualified, specialist teachers. Where EAL/D learners’ educational needs are not supported in school in this way, they may become fluent in spoken English but still have literacy challenges when they leave school.
In Australia, teachers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and migrant-background EAL/D learners are not uniformly required to hold specialist TESOL qualifications. ACTA said this ‘is a major issue in schools, where no requirements, accountability or even data collection on TESOL teacher qualifications occurs regarding teachers in special-purpose programs for English language learners.’
ATESOLNT expressed concern that, in the Northern Territory, school-based EAL/D specialist positions and EAL/D professional learning for teachers are no longer managed by the Northern Territory Department of Education. This change means that the Department has fewer levers to influence teaching and learning, and has little control over the method and quality of EAL/D data, including assessments, that are provided by each school. ATESOLNT recommended that all remote school budgets should be allocated earmarked funding for EAL/D specialist positions.
AEU advocated for systemic support for public schools to meet student needs including more permanent positions for specialist literacy and numeracy teachers in schools, rather than being brought in as an occasional or temporary resource.
ACTA advocated for all Australian schools to be required to provide and report on specialist tuition and support for EAL/D learners, and for a national approach to assessing English proficiency levels that is appropriate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and migrant EAL/D learners. ACTA said these assessments should form the basis for policies and programs to address the learning needs of EAL/D students and agreements on educational funding between the Australian, state and territory governments.
Use of literacy interventions developed overseas in remote schools
Concerns were raised about the use of commercial remedial literacy products from overseas, including Direct Instruction (United States of America) and Read Write Inc (United Kingdom), to teach EAL/D learners in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schools. Both of these products are structured, phonics-based programs.
ATESOLNT said that, in the Northern Territory, Direct Instruction (DI) ‘relied on American coaches being flown into remote communities several times a year to assess student learning’ and was inappropriate for use in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contexts because it:
required lock-step, scripted teaching
focused on student errors and testing
held students back from beginning ‘DI literacy’ until they had mastered the scripted oral English component of the program, which in some communities meant students were not reading or writing for years
made little sense to students and made them feel like failures.
ATESOLNT said that the Northern Territory Government replaced DI with Read Write Inc in 2017, which it said is also unsuitable, particularly in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schools, because it:
is designed for British students in remedial literacy classes and assumes English is the learner’s mother tongue
teaches decoding skills using nonsense words, which are mystifying for English language learners
assumes England as the school context.
The Northern Territory Government said that Read Write Inc is an intervention approach that provides ‘a strong explicit phonics component to support the teaching of reading, writing and speaking of primary and middle years students’, and reported that training had been provided to 371 Northern Territory educators across 78 schools in the Read Write Inc phonics program in 2020.
DESE reported that the Australian Government allocated $5.8 million in the October 2020 Budget for a pilot program in 10 remote schools for Good to Great Schools, a Cairns-based not for profit organisation founded by Mr Noel Pearson, to expand their DI literacy model to include numeracy and science.
Following the colonisation of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and knowledge systems were treated as inferior and primitive, and have historically been, to greater and lesser degrees, excluded from education systems.
In the Northern Territory, bilingual education was provided in up to 25 remote Aboriginal schools from the 1970s to the 1990s when it was wound back and effectively dismantled in 2009 by a policy that mandated the teaching of English for the first four hours of a school day.
More recently, the Northern Territory Government has been supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to engage in local decision-making agreements about their children’s education, and nine remote schools now have some form of bilingual program. These schools are in Lajamanu, Maningrida, Galiwin'ku, Yirrkala, Milingimbi, Numbulwar, Yuendumu, Willowra and Areyonga.
The Northern Territory Government reported that in 2020, it had 3,886 students studying in Indigenous languages and cultures programs across 46 schools and 26 language groups. There were 1,643 students in bilingual programs.
According to the Northern Territory Government ‘there's been a significant move into that space’ and ‘[c]ommunities make decisions on whether they're going to take it up, but they take it up at the level that their community thinks they're ready for.’
The Northern Territory Government reported that it is working with local communities to develop bilingual programs in four schools in the Groote Archipelago. According to the Northern Territory Government, the aim is to strengthen the bilingual programs in those schools and build understanding.
The Northern Territory Government considered the development of bilingual programs to be a long-term investment that requires significant capacity building. However, it said this work is important because it is ‘genuinely being driven by community, not by government, which is the turnaround that's needed in this, because that changes the motivation.’
Other stakeholders disagreed with the Northern Territory’s evidence that nine schools were fully bilingual, with ATESOLNT describing four schools as having ‘operational’ bilingual programs, and another four having ‘nominal’ bilingual programs. ACTA said that only three of the schools in the Northern Territory could be described as currently having truly bilingual practice: Yirrkala, Areyonga and Yuendemu.
There was support for greater access to quality bilingual education programs in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The Committee heard that bilingual education is backed up by international and local research and evidence of success. This research shows that building a child’s skills in a first or home language can provide the best foundation for the learning of English language and literacy.
The effectiveness and importance of bilingual programs were examined and supported by this Committee in the report of its previous inquiry into education in remote and complex environments, and by the former House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs in its 2012 report, Our Land, Our Languages: Language Learning in Indigenous Communities.
The importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages is now recognised and embedded in the National Agreement on Closing the Gap (Closing the Gap Agreement), which has a target to achieve a sustained increase in the number and strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages being spoken by 2031.
The Committee notes that the Closing the Gap Agreement represents a commitment by the Australian, state and territory governments ‘to listen to the voices and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and change the way we work in response.’
The Committee also recognises that programs and policies are more likely to be successful if they are co-designed to reflect the needs of the communities they serve.
However, there is evidence that the value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages is currently not being recognised by widespread policy and funding support. ATESOLNT said that governments need to ‘address the current disadvantage of students not being taught to read and write in their home language … This disadvantage is currently evident across all educational jurisdictions in the NT [Northern Territory].’
Stakeholders also highlighted the importance of local literacy production centres to the success of bilingual education programs so that teaching resources can be developed in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.
ATESOLNT recommended that ‘[a]ll remote schools should be funded to run local literacy production centres to enable these schools to generate their own resources to support bilingual and English language and literacy teaching and learning.’
Need for more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers
In its previous inquiry into education in remote and complex environments, the Committee heard that there is a shortage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers and a need to provide meaningful pathways for existing or aspiring local school staff to receive training and accreditation as teachers. The presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teaching staff has a positive influence on school attendance rates, student outcomes, and connections between schools and their communities. Similar themes were raised during this inquiry.
ATESOLNT was concerned that that school funding arrangements have led to a loss of permanent positions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers and assistant teachers, noting evidence showing that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in very remote schools have ‘the biggest effect on attendance.’ ATESOLNT recommended that all remote school budgets should be allocated earmarked funding for Aboriginal assistant teacher positions.
The Djalkiri Foundation reported that, currently, organisations such as remote schools are being asked to train staff while at the same time delivering education. Mr Daniel Yore, Interim Project Manager for the Foundation and a teacher at Yirrkala school said:
As a teacher at a bilingual school, my job is not only to deliver a bilingual education with the Yolŋu teacher in the room but also to mentor and train her up. In terms of the substantive opportunity to do that, I haven't got the time to do that.
The Committee heard that the Northern Territory Government has re-established the Remote Aboriginal Teacher Education (RATE) program, which provides support for existing and aspiring Aboriginal educators to progress their learning and careers while living and working in their communities. According to the Northern Territory Government, ‘RATE provides participants with education career pathway opportunities with entry and exit points that lead to meaningful employment in schools and early childhood education and care settings.’
A pilot of the RATE program commenced in Galiwin’ku, Yuendumu, Milingimbi and Angurugu in 2021 and will be rolled out in additional sites in 2022.
The Djalkiri Foundation reported that the new RATE program has had mixed results but noted that ‘it was purring back in the day in the eighties and nineties.’
A similar program to RATE is available in Queensland. The Remote Area Teacher Education Program (RATEP) offers locally based teacher education programs so that participants can remain in their communities while they study. RATEP enables teacher aides and other school employees to study part-time for their Certificate IV and Diploma of Education (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) through TAFE Queensland.
Each year, all Australian students in Years 3, 5, 7, and 9 sit a NAPLAN test, which is part of Australia's National Assessment Program. NAPLAN tests students' ability in three areas of literacy: reading, writing and language conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation), and numeracy.
The purpose of NAPLAN is to monitor and report on student achievement in a comparable and consistent way. NAPLAN is the only current test that provides nationally comparable data about literacy and numeracy achievement in schools across the country.
AEU raised several systemic concerns about the use and influence of NAPLAN within Australia’s school education system. AEU reported that the vast majority of principals and teachers are opposed to NAPLAN and that it is seen as ‘ineffective for diagnosis and comparison, as a major contributor to student stress and anxiety, not benefitting student outcomes, increasing workload and distracting educators from their core purpose.’
AEU recommended that NAPLAN be replaced, and a new comprehensive assessment framework be developed that ‘restores teachers’ professional judgement of student learning as the prime consideration in its design’.
The need for a better measure of proficiency for EAL/D learners
According to ACTA, NAPLAN is a poor measure of the performance of EAL/D learners because:
it is an English literacy measure, not a measure of proficiency in learning EAL/D
NAPLAN data is disaggregated and includes problematic identifiers such as language background other than English (LBOTE)
students with low English proficiency are discouraged from or avoid sitting NAPLAN tests.
ATESOLNT said that ‘NAPLAN data is wrongly used to inform system wide targets for Indigenous EAL/D learners and to determine both policies and pedagogies for these learners.’ According to ATESOLNT, NAPLAN targets position Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander EAL/D learners as failures and this negatively affects students, communities, teachers, school leadership and the culture of education departments.
ATESOLNT advocated for revised assessment policies and practices that acknowledge most English language learners:
can take up to two years to develop social interaction skills in English
can take up to seven years to achieve English proficiency that will support real academic achievement
depend on rigorous, professional EAL/D teaching and support to achieve these timelines.
ATESOLNT said that twice yearly EAL/D learner assessments should be made publicly available for schools supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
The language background other than English identifier
The index of community socio-educational advantage (ICSEA) is a scale of socio-educational advantage that is calculated for each Australian school. ICSEA allows visitors to My School to make meaningful comparisons of NAPLAN achievement by students in schools across Australia. ICSEA is calculated using a range of variables including parental education levels, whether a school is in a metropolitan, regional or remote area, and the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and students with a LBOTE.
The Committee heard that the current LBOTE identifier in ICSEA does not provide useful information about the proportion of EAL/D learners in schools and because of this there is no national evidence base regarding EAL/D learners in Australian schools.
Since 2012, governments have been aware of the need to develop an alternative identifier to LBOTE that better identifies students whose language background has a measurable effect on their outcomes.
In 2013, a New South Wales Department of Education and Communities study found that a new national proxy indicator of English language proficiency was needed and said that the LBOTE identifier should not be used because it ‘did not identify the right students’ and ‘bore little relationship to the size of the cohort needing support.’
It was reported that there has been some movement in replacing the LBOTE identifier in recent years, however, there has yet to be any real progress. According to ACTA, ACARA has now proposed that further work be put on hold because of a ‘lack of a policy incentive to resolve the difficulties associated with jurisdictional differences in collecting data about learners of English as an additional language or dialect.’
ACTA advocated for this work to be brought to a productive conclusion to ensure that funding for EAL/D learners is better targeted and so that qualified TESOL teachers can be appropriately deployed.
Disengagement from education, shame and stigma
Children with SLDs or other disability, and children from homes where a language other than English is spoken and/or whose first language is not English, may disengage from education if their education needs are not adequately supported.
There are many reasons why other students disengage from education. These include illness, undiagnosed eyesight or hearing problems, disrupted schooling due to constant relocation, the experience of bullying and exclusionary behaviours, or the need to support family members or family businesses (for example, on a farm).
Students who experience barriers to their learning often talk about the absence of appropriate learning support to help them overcome these challenges, which can be a source of regret. The NSW Adult Literacy and Numeracy Council said a common statement is ‘[i]f only I had had some extra help when I was young.’ Other students describe the experience of falling through the cracks and of not being able to catch up to their peers in school.
Experiences of shame and stigma around SLDs and LLND skills gaps are commonly reported. These experiences deter many Australians from seeking support and reengaging with education after leaving school.
The importance of providing safe, non-threatening and welcoming learning environments for adults was emphasised as way of engaging learners who had previously experienced shame and stigma in education for their LLND skills gaps.
Some of the ways to break down the shame and stigma that many people with LLND skills gaps experience are to normalise speaking respectfully about literacy gaps, to communicate the benefits of improving LLND skills, and to let people know where they can get support.
The 26TEN Coalition in Tasmania has a focus on raising awareness of the benefits of improving literacy. The Tasmanian Government said that a review of 26TEN found ‘there has been a measurable increase in awareness of the issue, the campaign and the positive outcomes that have been—and continue to be—achieved for individuals.’
Libraries Tasmania reported that the communications campaign of the 26TEN Coalition has evolved from raising awareness to having what they call a 26TEN chat, which can involve directly talking about the subject of ‘low literacy and numeracy with their neighbour or the person who comes into the doctor's office or wherever it might be.’
The Reading Writing Hotline said that Australia needs a national public awareness campaign to reduce the shame and stigma experienced by people with low LLND skills and to provide information about where they can get help. However, the Reading Writing Hotline also noted that there was little point raising people’s expectations if they were unlikely to receive support due to gaps in service provision.
As previously noted, there is support for raising awareness in the community, and among education and medical professionals, of the signs and symptoms of SLDs, how these impact learning, and where families can receive assessments and support. Increasing public awareness of SLDs will assist in reducing the shame and stigma experienced by Australians with SLDs.
Family Planning NSW advocated for medical professionals to be provided with training and resources that raise awareness of the needs of people with low literacy.
The Productivity Commission reported that a range of factors including stigma, social isolation and self-doubt can deter people from seeking help with LLND skills gaps and said that ‘training providers will need to deliver effective community outreach to attract and retain students.’ It said that ‘[i]mproving foundation skills is a long-term task which will require strong engagement with students.’
Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to significantly disrupt the lives of Australians in 2022 and has exposed the vulnerabilities of people with low LLND skills who may have difficulties accessing and interpreting health information to keep themselves and others safe and may not be able to recognise misinformation.
More Australians have had to engage with services online, including government services, during the pandemic because offices and shopfronts were closed. Navigating online systems requires a certain level of LLND competency and many Australians were not able to access vital services as a result. These issues are discussed further in the Chapter 4.
In its previous inquiry into education in remote and complex environments, the Committee found that the COVID-19 pandemic had significantly disrupted the education of Australian school students in 2020 and placed strain on the capacity of education systems, schools, and teachers to deliver education outside of classrooms.
Many students were disadvantaged by the shift to online learning, particularly vulnerable children and those in their early years of schooling. Home learning also exposed the digital divide between families with access to the internet and internet-enabled devices, and those without. This experience suggested that while online education has the potential to bridge gaps in education access, it is no substitute for in-classroom teaching.
Similar issues were raised in this inquiry. The Committee heard that while COVID-19 disproportionately affected schools in low socioeconomic areas, these inequalities existed prior to the pandemic and were simply exacerbated as a result.
ACSSO commented, ‘COVID-19 has made social inequalities such as disability, employment status, income, language, and social status – more visible and piercing.’
There was strong evidence that children of parents with low LLND skills were disadvantaged compared to children of parents with strong LLND skills. For example, the Victorian Adult Literacy and Basic Education Council said that the shift to home learning disproportionately affected children in households with lower levels of LLND skills, which demonstrates the critical importance of adult literacy for children’s education.
Many parents with low LLND skills were worried that they would have to assist their children during lockdown periods, and many reached out to support services for assistance. In some cases, children were able to help their parents improve their digital literacy skills. AMES Australia reported:
We had a lot of our students with very limited English trying to support their children, who were also studying at home. There were quite a significant amount of issues there in not being able to support and help their children with their studies from home because of their limited levels of English. Having said that, their children, though, were able to support the parents with their own studies. We found that there was an increased level in digital literacy as a result of the lockdown because they did have more support from home, from their own children, which allowed them to also participate and continue to develop their language skills from home, which was a positive outcome for us.
Adult LLND learners
COVID-19 disadvantaged many adult LLND learners because the shift to online modes of education delivery required both a certain level of digital literacy proficiency and access to technology. Existing social inequalities have also deeply affected access to and participation in adult education during the pandemic.
The Reading Writing Hotline reported that it experienced a 30 per cent increase in calls for assistance during lockdown periods. It noted that some workers were unable to cope with working from home due to struggles with isolation and low digital literacy. Other Australians who had lost their jobs were unable to re-enter the workforce due to limited LLND skills or were unable to take advantage of having more time and study opportunities due to literacy barriers.
The Committee heard that the shift to online learning exposed a gap between Australians with strong digital literacy and access to technology and those without the relevant skills or resources. This gap was experienced acutely by Australians working or learning from remote locations with poor internet access, those who could not afford digital devices, or who only had access to digital devices outside of their home, such as at learning centres, libraries, or work. The Settlement Council of Australia said this affected many refugees and migrants, where access to digital technology was difficult, and learning English from a distance posed a significant challenge.
In some cases, households only had access to one digital device, which may have been a mobile phone. Furthermore, access to sufficient internet or wi-fi access varied significantly across Australia, especially in rural or remote areas. Other individuals and families did not have access to a digital device at all, and some did not have internet access. For families who only had access to a single computer during this time, parents had limited opportunity to use it during the day if their children had online learning commitments.
The Committee heard that online education for adults in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is not currently a practical or effective mode of delivery because of gaps in digital literacy and access to technology. Associate Professor Guenther said:
… access to the internet is patchy, people don't have devices to access the internet, it's too costly or it's unaffordable. That inhibits many adults from being able to access online courses. They just don't have the tools. They don't have the access. The infrastructure isn't there. In some of the more remote places that I work in, the internet is so patchy because it's dependent on satellite connectivity, and there's a very limited amount of downloads you can do. That means you can't really do online learning in a meaningful way. The moment there's a bit of cloud cover or rain, the satellite dish doesn't work properly, and that's it for the internet for the day.
COVID-19 affected not just adult learners, but also organisations’ ability to deliver education. For example, the Caboolture Community Adult Literacy Group stated their ability to deliver support had been diminished during the pandemic due to tutors either leaving or taking a break.
AMEP moved to online delivery in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Home Affairs said that ‘[d]espite the many challenges imposed by COVID-19, significant innovation, flexibility and COVID-safe benefits were realised through these alternative delivery arrangements.’
There are a range of reasons why many Australian adults have LLND skills gaps that relate to an individual’s experience of education and the capacity of education systems to address their needs. It is the Committee’s view that factors contributing to adult LLND skills gaps can be addressed through early intervention to identify and remediate learning vulnerabilities, and the development of education policies and systems that better respond to students’ needs.
Identifying and supporting individuals with specific learning disabilities
Individuals with SLDs need additional support to acquire strong LLND skills. Ideally, SLDs should be identified and remediated early in life. The Committee heard that the cost of getting an assessment is out of reach for many families, that many individuals with SLDs do not receive the support they need at school or later in life, and that there is a low level of awareness and recognition of SLDs in the Australian community.
The best outcomes for children with SLDs are likely to result from early identification through screening, preferably from age three or at a child’s point of entry into early childhood education, and improved access to assessments and treatment.
Early intervention for children with SLDs is an area of public investment where there is clear evidence of return, both for individuals and the nation. There is strong evidence to support increasing access to assessments and treatment for SLDs and improving public awareness of SLDs.
The Committee notes that the cost of assessment and treatment for SLDs is out of reach for too many Australians because SLDs are not subsidised by the MBS. Children with autism, PDDs or certain other disabilities qualify for MBS subsidised treatment, while children with SLDs do not.
It is the Committee’s view that Medicare rebates should be available to individuals with SLDs to access assessment and treatment from allied health services. This would enable individuals with SLDs to receive the same support as individuals with other conditions that have a significant impact on the ability of children to learn in the classroom.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government provide subsidised assessment and treatment for specific learning disabilities under the Medicare Benefits Scheme by March 2023 for all Australians.
It is unclear whether a program of universal subsidised screening for children with SLDs is feasible or cost effective. There may be merit in conducting a feasibility study to further investigate the provision of universal screening of children for SLDs.
Early interventions in children’s education, such as assessment and treatment for SLDs, are difficult to access outside of the major cities. The Committee continues to support measures that improve access to allied health services in geographically isolated locations.
Ensuring access, affordability, quality and sustainability in early childhood education
Early childhood education is the foundation on which success in education is built. Quality early childhood education is important for all children, particularly those who are experiencing disadvantage or are developmentally vulnerable.
There are a range of concerns around access and affordability in early childhood education, particularly for disadvantaged families and those located outside of the major cities, and evidence that providers struggle to recruit and retain quality staff.
The Committee continues to support amending the activity test in the CCS to provide up to 30 hours per week of subsidised early education and care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
The Committee acknowledges the importance of community-controlled service provision in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as a key element of the Closing the Gap Agreement. The Committee continues to support the provision of flexibility and surety in funding for integrated, wrap-around models of early intervention, family support, early childhood education and health care in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and for mobile early childhood education in remote areas.
The Committee continues to support measures that improve the cultural competency of staff working in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and the development and professionalisation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander early childhood education and care workforce.
The provision of first language early childhood education should be encouraged in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities where English is not a child’s first language.
The Committee is aware that all Australian education ministers have endorsed a new National Children’s Education and Care Workforce Strategy (2022-2031), which supports the recruitment, retention, sustainability and quality of the sector workforce. Governments and sector stakeholders are now working to co-design implementation and evaluation plans to achieve the strategy’s objectives.
The Australian Government is committed to providing financial support to families to access affordable and high quality early childhood education and care. Under current Australian Government policy, the CCS is set at a rate that was deemed affordable by the Productivity Commission. Families receive additional support through the Child Care Safety Net if they are disadvantaged or located in a regional or remote community.
Parents who are undertaking work, study, training, or who are looking for work satisfy the CCS activity test and may be eligible to receive the CCS. This provides an incentive for many parents to improve their LLND skills and enter the workforce. Additional child care assistance is provided to participants in AMEP, which is discussed in the following chapter.
The Australian Government also funds the provision of preschool programs by state and territory governments through the UANP.
There was some support for expanding access to preschool to children from the age of three. The Committee notes that this would be similar to the policy the Australian Labor Party took to the last election, which was estimated to cost $1.75 billion. Under that proposal, children would have been able to access 15 hours a week of education in the two years before going to primary school.
As Australia emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, governments will need to carefully balance spending priorities with budget sustainability over the long term.
While the Committee recognises there is evidence of returns on investment in early childhood education, there was inconclusive evidence on whether subsidising an additional year of preschool education would tangibly improve educational outcomes and result in more parents choosing to undertake work, study or training. A deeper analysis of the proposal, including the likely cost is required to fully inform policy debates and guide any new policy development.
The Committee is aware that circumstances may have changed considerably since the Productivity Commission reported on its influential inquiry into childcare and early childhood learning in 2014, and that it would be prudent and timely to again review access, affordability and sustainability in early childhood education and care to better inform policy development as Australia recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Committee recommends that the Treasurer refer to the Productivity Commission an inquiry into the accessibility, affordability and sustainability of Australia’s early childhood education and care system. The inquiry must consider the proposal to expand access to preschool by having children attend preschool for two years before primary school, and report no later than March 2024.
Improving the capacity of school education to address the needs of all students
The Committee is concerned by evidence that Australia’s school education system may not adequately address the needs of all students, in particular children with disability and EAL/D learners, including children from migrant backgrounds and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
The Australian Government addresses socioeconomic barriers in education through school funding and more resources are allocated to disadvantaged students. The Australian Government is increasing school funding from $18.7 billion in 2018 to $32.7 billion in 2029, which represents a 4 per cent increase in funding for each student each year over this period. School funding arrangements are tied to reforms in the National School Reform Agreement, in which Australian, state and territory governments are committed to lifting student outcomes.
By 2029, the Australian Government will consistently fund 20 per cent of the total SRS for government systems and 80 per cent of the total SRS for non-government schools and systems. Schools currently funded below their target Australian Government share of the SRS will be meet that funding target by 2023, while schools that are currently funded above their target will transition to it by 2029.
The Committee recognises that the Australian Government is also increasing school funding for students with disability by, on average, 5.7 per cent each year until 2029.
Despite this, there was concerning evidence that many students with disability do not receive the support that is required to enable them to learn at their best. The Committee is concerned that the SRS student with disability loading may not factor in the real costs of ensuring students with disability receive a high quality education. As such, it would be prudent to undertake an independent review of the student with disability loading to ensure it is fit for purpose.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government commission an independent review of the student with disability loading to determine whether it adequately reflects the costs of providing a high quality education to all Australian school students with disability. The review must report no later than March 2023.
The Committee is concerned that not all Australian school students have access to secondary school at a nationally consistent minimum standard, and notes that students from remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the Northern Territory must either go to boarding school or be offered a limited program at their local primary school.
While the management of school systems is a matter for the states and territories, the Committee has significant concerns about several other issues relating to the provision of education in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The Committee heard that education systems where funding is provided based on attendance rather than enrolment, or where funding is provided to schools as a one-line budget have a negative impact on school attendance, staffing and staff training. As signatories to the Closing the Gap Agreement, all jurisdictions have an obligation to ensure that their education policies are working to achieve a sustained improvement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education.
In its previous inquiry report into education in remote and complex environments, the Committee recommended the Minister for Education develop, for inclusion in the new National School Reform Agreement, commencing in 2023, a proposal that ensures that all Australian students can access secondary school education, to a nationally consistent minimum standard, regardless of their geographic location.
Given the evidence to this inquiry about the negative impacts of attendance-based funding on student attendance and outcomes, including that some students are only receiving two out of five days of instruction, the Committee believes that further safeguards must be put in place to ensure universal access to quality education, especially in remote communities with significant LLND skills gaps.
The Committee recommends that, as part of the new National School Reform Agreement, commencing in 2023, the Australian Government seek the agreement of the states and territories to ensure funding for schools is based on student enrolment rather than attendance.
There is strong evidence supporting teaching strategies that focus on the explicit teaching of reading through systematic phonics and this is being recognised by the Australian Government through a range of reforms such as explicit requirements for reading instruction, including phonics, in teacher training. Given these new policies will take some years to produce tangible change, the Committee does not see the need for an additional national strategy that prioritises phonics-based instruction at this time.
It is now well recognised that students from non-English speaking backgrounds require explicit EAL/D pedagogy delivered by qualified TESOL educators to develop strong English literacy.
With respect to EAL/D learners, the guiding principle for Australian education policy should be that linguistically different learners have different starting points and therefore they have different needs. The Committee considered how this principle could be more effectively embedded in school education policy and concludes that change needs to be driven through the assessments and funding framework.
The Committee has found that under current arrangements:
there is little requirement for schools to ensure that EAL/D learners are provided with instruction from qualified TESOL educators and a lack of uniform data collection on the support provided to those students by schools
the learning progression of EAL/D learners is not being appropriately assessed
school funding is not being targeted in the most effective way because the indicator used to resource schools for EAL/D learners is flawed.
Schools must be required to have qualified TESOL educators on staff to address the needs of EAL/D learners.
NAPLAN is ill suited for EAL/D learners and it should not be a measure of their success. However, the Committee is not convinced that NAPLAN should be replaced.
Instead, EAL/D learners should be assessed using an appropriate EAL/D assessment that should be a key part of the National Assessment Program. EAL/D learner assessment results should be published alongside NAPLAN data. To do otherwise is unfair and counterproductive.
Governments have long been aware of the need to develop an alternative identifier to LBOTE that better identifies EAL/D learners, however, there has yet to be any real progress on this issue. The Committee understands that this work is currently sitting with ACARA. This work should now be finalised.
The Committee recommends that, as part of the new National School Reform Agreement, commencing in 2023, the Australian Government seek the agreement of the states and territories to:
require a proportionate number of qualified English as a second or additional language (TESOL) educators to be provided, on an ongoing basis, to the number of enrolled English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D) learners in schools
undertake an appropriate and consistent EAL/D assessment for EAL/D learners in Australian schools, with the results of the EAL/D assessment, along with the number of qualified TESOL educators in schools, to be published alongside NAPLAN data on My School
implement a replacement to the language background other than English identifier in the index of community socio-educational advantage that better identifies EAL/D learners for the purposes of school resourcing.
Reforms to the way that Australia assesses and resources EAL/D learners in school is also necessary to help prevent those students from experiencing the shame and stigma of failure, and from disengaging from education.
Quality TESOL education involves teaching materials that are tailored to students’ cultural and linguist needs. Therefore, it is concerning that various ‘off the shelf’, commercial literacy interventions have been imported from overseas and rolled out in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schools.
Applying the same education policies to students who are culturally and linguistically diverse does not result in equitable outcomes for those students and their communities. Rather, it is setting those students up to fail. In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, this means that many current policies are widening the gap, not closing it.
The Committee is concerned that there has been a lack of government support for bilingual education in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities where English is not the first language. Bilingual education is supported by international and local evidence, and many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have been strongly advocating for bilingual provision in their schools for years.
Closing the Gap requires governments to change how they approach policy-making and service delivery. This means supporting approaches to education that better suit the wishes and needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The Committee welcomes the Northern Territory Government’s increased focus on supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to engage in local decision-making agreements about their children’s education, which has resulted in bilingual education programs in several schools. However, there is much more work to be done, including the further development of local literacy production centres in bilingual schools.
The Committee again calls on the Australian Government, as part of its policy commitments to Closing the Gap, to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students can access bilingual education where English is not the first language spoken, or where school communities have expressed a desire for this to occur.
The presence of local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers in remote schools has a positive influence on student attendance, engagement and the connection between families and their schools, and teaching provides a great career for local people who want to stay and contribute to their communities. Furthermore, local language-speaking Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers are vital to the success of bilingual education programs in remote communities.
The Committee again calls for the Australian Government, as part of its Closing the Gap commitments, to establish programs that support the development and professionalisation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education workforce.
Addressing student disengagement, shame and stigma
Many Australian students disengage from education, or drop out, because their education needs are not met. These students experience significant shame and stigma at school about their LLND skills gaps, and for many this experience continues throughout their life and deters them from seeking support and reengaging with education after leaving school.
There is a need for improving the understanding of SLDs among educators and medical professionals, and for greater awareness of the impact of LLND skills gaps on individuals and where Australians with LLND skills gaps can receive support.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government deliver:
in consultation with the Department of Health, a national campaign to raise awareness of specific learning disabilities (SLDs) among medical and education professionals, employers and the broader community that provides information and resources about the signs and symptoms of SLDs and where individuals and families can go for assessment and support
in consultation with the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, peak bodies and key stakeholders, a national campaign to destigmatise and raise awareness in the community about the challenges people with low language, literacy, numeracy and digital literacy (LLND) skills experience, the benefits of improving LLND skills, where people can receive support and the education options available to them.
Supporting education during pandemics
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted the education of Australian students since 2020 and has strained the capacity of education systems, schools and teachers to deliver education outside of classrooms.
The shift to online learning disadvantaged many students in preschool, school and adult education and training, and exposed the digital divide between individuals and families with access to the internet and internet-enabled devices, and those without.
Parents had to juggle work or study with supporting their children’s learning from home for extended periods of time. Lockdowns had a significant impact on the lives of children and adults, including parents, with low LLND skills, who did not have access to the internet or devices, or who shared devices with other members of their family.
Adults had reduced access to study and training to improve their LLND skills if they had low digital literacy and were unable to navigate online platforms.
The Committee remains concerned that many school students and adult learners may have disengaged from education during the remote learning period and is aware that further work will be required to assess and address this disengagement.
While health advice will guide whether children and adults are able to continue receiving face-to-face instruction in the coming months, the Committee remains convinced that jurisdictions should prioritise the safe delivery of in-classroom teaching over home-based learning across all education systems. This is critical to ensure that students remain engaged with their education and that Australians with low LLND skills, particularly digital literacy, have equitable access to a quality education.
The Committee recognises there is scope for a thorough inquiry into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Australia’s education systems, including the disengagement of students, and the capacity of education systems to respond to future pandemics.