In the following article, CCA CEO, Dr Don Perlgut analyses the new energy in Australian foundation skills policy and recommends ways to improve it.
Three years ago, at the beginning of the COVID-19 wave in Australia, many commentators quoted a famous saying from Vladimir Lenin: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”
It felt like that.
Since the government changed in Canberra last May, a significant amount of skills policy development has taken place, especially in foundation skills (language, literacy, numeracy and digital literacy), represented by Commonwealth Skills Minister’s Foundation Skills Advisory Group – on which I represent Community Colleges Australia (CCA). I would like to re-write Lenin’s quote, this time about foundation skills: “There was a decade when nothing happened, and there are months when a decade happens.” Because it feels like that, with a driving commitment from both the Minister and the newly named Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR).
The Advisory Group includes a diverse group of stakeholders that have never been in one place before: Aboriginal Health Council SA, Adult Learning Australia, AMES Australia, Australian Council of TESOL Associations, Australian Council for Adult Literacy, Australian Council of Trade Unions, Australian Education Union, Australian Industry Group, Business Council of Australia, Community Colleges Australia, Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR), First Peoples Disability Network Australia, Literacy for Life Foundation, National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, National Association of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers and Practitioners, Reading Writing Hotline, South Australian Aboriginal Education and Training Consultative Council, Training Services NSW, NT Department of Industry Tourism and Trade, Department of Training and Workforce Development (WA), TAFE Directors Australia, Tauondi Aboriginal College, Universities Australia, School of Education at University of New England, VET Development Centre and 26TEN (Libraries Tasmania). Seven of these organisations are First Nations, a great representation which ensures the special literacy challenges faced by Indigenous Australians – who experience low literacy rates at twice that of non-Indigenous Australians – will be addressed.
The Advisory Group has been charged with ensuring “stakeholder views are properly understood and considered during development and redesign of Foundation Skills policy and programs and to support broader work to build the evidence base on levels of these foundation skills among Australian adults.”
The challenges in foundation skills are mighty. Here’s a partial list:
Use of the term “non-accredited”: Although the term might be technically correct, many senior leaders often just hear the word “NON” and immediately assume whatever is being offered is not very good. I recommend we abolish that term and instead use “pre-accredited” or “pre-vocational”, with a specific definition.
Policy and research support: Investment in both academic and practical foundation skills and literacy research and implementation is crucial to ensure evidence-based, dynamic policy development and professional leadership.
“Raising awareness” is not enough. Eventually the Commonwealth will want to re-institute a public campaign (think International Literacy Year 1990), utilising various media (social, broadcast, etc) to reach and encourage people to seek literacy assistance, but I also understand this is not likely to happen immediately. In the short to medium term, as part of a communications strategy, Australia will need a significant strategy and set of tactics centred on foundation skills learner outreach and community engagement. There are some good existing models in Australian skills: the current Victorian Reconnect Program and the former TAFE NSW Outreach program. Part of this should be an “intermediary” strategy, that focuses on reaching and enlisting intermediary organisations, groups and individuals who can, in turn, reach out to prospective learners. Good examples: local councils, councils of social service, financial counsellors and public housing authorities.
The foundation skills workforce – those who can teach writing and writing to adults – is in desperate need for renewal, with large number of teachers close to retirement age. It is hard to find/recruit foundation skills teachers in many locations, especially outer regional (and of course, remote) parts of Australia – but inner regional and metro areas are impacted as well.
Wrap-around learner support is essential for disadvantaged learners. It costs money, certainly, but the pay-offs in learner outcomes are significant.
Digital literacy (DL) needs to be separated from general literacy and numeracy, because it goes way beyond the training/skills portfolio. Economic disadvantage perpetuates the digital exclusion of one in four Australians, and can prevent even the most committed learner from obtaining DL skills, because of lack of access to hardware, software and bandwidth. In other words, DL is partly a social and economic justice matter, and needs to be addressed by a “whole of government” approach. This aligns with Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ view – when he wrote in The Monthly that, “economic inclusion is fundamental to the health of democracies and the safety of nations.”
Commonwealth programs: CCA has long expressed concern that Commonwealth programs that directly fund foundation skills – notably the SEE Program and Foundation Skills for Your Future – usually insist on very large geographic coverage, which is inappropriate for such community-based work and small to medium community-based organisations that operate on a regional or local level. Many of our members have participated – or attempted to participate – in these programs, and have found them too bureaucratic, inflexible, hard to get into and insistent on business models (i.e., requiring large, complex and expensive internal systems, and state-wide coverage) that they, as community-based organisations, simply do not have. The newly revised approach to foundation skills must deal with this inherent challenge. Here are four ways to achieve this:
- Encourage collaboration and partnerships, leaving sufficient time – and providing support – for organisations to develop those partnerships.
- Be open and flexible to regional focus – the insistence on state-wide provision may be how the Commonwealth feels it must operate, but it needs to recognise that foundation skills – adult literacy – is different. For instance, in NSW and VIC, the states where adult and community education providers operate most extensively, large areas could be covered by medium-sized providers operating in large regions through collaborations of two, three or more organisations. This strategy can only be effective if there is funding support to assist smaller co-operatives or provider groups to participate.
- Accept less than immediate national program coverage, which can result in lowered quality. DEWR now also has a precedent in this, in that it has not committed to a “Stage 1” contract of a Jobs and Skills Council that looks after the TAE and foundation skills.
- Set up regional DEWR Commonwealth coordinators, located in the capital cities, an essential means to ensure quality provision and to “stay close” to and support foundation skills providers.