Focus on adult literacy and numeracy – Australia needs a national policy and a whole of government commitment

Australia needs a national policy on adult literacy and numeracy, and a whole of government commitment to addressing persistent literacy issues.

Around 44% of Australian adults lack the literacy skills and 55% lack the numeracy skills to cope with the demands of everyday life, according to the 2011-2012 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

“These are staggering percentages, which underline the importance of expanding adult literacy provision – both funding and availability – as Australia recovers from the Coronavirus pandemic. This means we need suitable funding, suitable governance structures of delivering organisations, suitable trainers and a long-term commitment to a perennial national issue,” said Dr Don Perlgut, CEO of Community Colleges Australia (CCA).

In part to tackle these issues, CCA has placed “foundation skills” – language, literacy, numeracy, employability and digital skills – as one of two major focus priorities (along with the aged care workforce) for its National ACE Summit, to take place in Sydney and online on 29 June 2021.

“Our discussions are aimed to ensure that Australia’s not-for-profit for-purpose adult and community education (ACE) sector has the resources and capacity to help meet these national literacy priorities. Australia’s ACE sector is one of the major providers of literacy, along with TAFE,” said Dr Perlgut.

“Literacy and numeracy are not just about reading, writing, and mathematics; sometimes overlooked are the core skills of learning, using technology, problem-solving, as well as communicating with others. Development of literacy skills is a lifetime process; we are likely to require new or enhanced skills each time we move into a different position, take on new roles and responsibilities, or as a result of changes to the environment, such as new work processes and technologies,” says the Reading Writing Hotline.

The Hotline has just released details where no appropriate literacy provision is available (see graph below): more than 13% of callers nationally, with up to one-third of callers from the Northern Territory. Only Western Australia and Tasmania sit below 10% of callers; there are extensive volunteer tutoring networks in place in those two states.

Literacy and Numeracy Statement

A coalition of organisations led by Adult Learning Australia (ALA) has issued a Declaration statement in support of literacy and numeracy for all adult Australians. The statement reads:

“All Australian adults, regardless of their employment status, must be supported to develop literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills to achieve productivity gains and live healthy, autonomous, and full lives. Adults need sufficient literacy to be work-ready, maintain social connections, and comprehend information, including health and government information and services. Those with insufficient skills are vulnerable to social isolation, mental health issues and unemployment as the jobs market adjusts and changes in the face of technological advancement, globalisation, and COVID-19.”

The coalition of signatories has requested that Australian governments:

  1. Take a whole of government approach to developing a national adult literacy and numeracy strategy in consultation with key stakeholders that is targeted and resourced; and which prioritises socially and economically marginalised communities.
  2. Commission research that provides a deeper analysis of the characteristics of all adults with low literacy and numeracy and explores regional differences in terms of place and population cohorts, including a focus on remote Indigenous communities.
  3. Commit to attracting, supporting, developing, and retaining quality literacy educators and building the capacity and capabilities of the sector.
  4. Recognise and acknowledge the diverse range of informal and non/pre-accredited and literacy and learning pathways that occur in community settings and expand the offerings available.
  5. Renew the Ministerial Declaration on Adult and Community Education and outline strategies to support Adult and Community Education organisations as they continue to support adults with low levels of literacy and numeracy.
  6. Promote and implement strategies that facilitate partnerships and collaborations amongst adult literacy and numeracy providers i.e., VET, TAFE, and community providers that support adults with low levels of LLN.
  7. Make the connection between early literacy and adult literacy by identifying whole of community, family literacy and learning approaches, as well as library-based literacy programs, that break cycles of low formal education and literacy.
  8. Ensure nationally consistent support for adult learners requiring literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills to achieve vocational competence. 9.Implement a comprehensive suite of communication and marketing strategies that de-stigmatise adult literacy and numeracy issues in the community and influence national attitudes and behaviours.

The statement concludes: “Addressing the stigma and inequality associated with low levels of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills will ensure a fairer and more productive Australia post COVID-19.”

(Statement signatories include ALA, Australian Library and Information Association, Australian Council for Adult Literacy, ACOSS, Literacy for Life Foundation, Australian Neighbourhood Houses and Centres Association, Reading Writing Hotline and Australian Coalition for Education & Development.)

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