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Speech - Adult Literacy Day Forum

Workbase Trust
Adult Literacy Day Forum
Sorrento in the Park, One Tree Hill Domain, Auckland
Wednesday 8 September 1999, 9.15am


For decades, one of the key indicators of a nation's place in the world has been its level of literacy. Reading, writing and an ability to do basic maths have been an essential prerequisite to the advancement of society and commerce. As we face the new millennium, we are having to cope with the technology revolution and the impacts that it is having on our workplaces, our homes and our fundamental economic and society structures. The demands of this new age are in turn creating demands for the basic skills that we must have if we are to take part in this revolution, and get something out of it. This is causing us to re-evaluate where we are, and what the basic benchmarks and thresholds should be when measuring our ability to read, write and do maths.

Over the past few years, we have placed a big emphasis on making sure that our children are equipped with the basic skills they will need to get on. In the literacy area, the main push has been in defining the literacy goal, and developing strategies to help us achieve it. The culmination of this work has been the goal of having every 9 year old able to read, write and do maths for success by 2005. A range of innovative programmes has been put in place to ensure that this target is reached. The 'Feed the Mind' campaign is targeted at involving families, whanau and community in an effort to encourage young children to enjoy and succeed in nurturing their literacy skills.

This is all good stuff. Early research shows that already the literacy rates of our pre-schoolers are rising quite markedly. Now it is time to shift the spotlight to the other end of the age range, and focus on where our adult literacy is, and what are we going to do to improve it.

In 1996, the Ministry of Education commissioned a comprehensive survey to try and ascertain just where our literacy standards were, and whether there were any common factors or causal links. The results are interesting, to say the least. Over 4,000 people were surveyed, using methodology developed in the US and Canada. The survey found that our adult literacy skills were similar to those of other developed countries. It also found that just about 20% of our adult population had a very poor level of skills, that would give them real difficulty in understanding much of the material that you would consider essential.

Mind you, when it comes to literacy, you have to wonder with some printed material whether the fault is all on the reader's side. A feature of the last 20 years is a writing and speaking style which can best be described as 'bureau babble', and which can stymie any attempt to actually understand it. If you want further evidence, I invite you to listen to Parliament occasionally. Perhaps our legislators have taken inspiration from one of the greatest pieces of regulatory material in the English language, from the UK Groundnuts Act of 50 years ago. Consider this, and I quote, "In the Nuts (unground), other than ground nuts Order, the expression nuts shall have reference to such nuts, other than ground nuts, as would but for this amending Order not qualify as nuts (unground) (other than ground nuts) by reason of their being nuts (unground)."

So literacy is a two-sided story. However, the research did indicate a couple of interesting trends. One is that literacy deteriorates rapidly in the over 45 age group, suggesting that our education system has improved markedly in the last 30 years. Another is that literacy rates are much higher among those who had a 6th form or better education, confirming that raising the school leaving age will have a beneficial downstream effect. Less understandable is the finding that around 20% of tertiary graduates have literacy deficiencies, although a glance at a legal document or a doctor's handwriting gives us a clue. What is completely understandable is that among unemployed people, poor literacy is quite prevalent, and that 40% of the inmates of our prisons are fundamentally illiterate.

As a final reflection on this research, I would note that our literacy is markedly better than that of Ireland, which has of course been much touted recently as a paragon of a nation to whose economic achievement we should aspire. So clearly literacy is a relative thing, and we should not be too despondent. However, there are enough grounds to suggest that we should do something about it. On the most basic level, we cannot exhort parents to help their kids with reading and writing if the parents are behind them in ability.

So what are we going to do about it? Upfront it has to be said that there are no easy answers. When dealing with adult literacy, we must remember we are not dealing with a 'captive market' like school children. Adults are all ages and abilities, with a myriad of different objectives and requirements. Yet equally it must be said that there are many very successful adult literacy programmes and initiatives being run right now in communities and work places. I know that some of you are leaders in this field, and I want to take this opportunity to both congratulate and thank you for the work that you do.

Today, I am pleased to announce that Government will be developing an Adult Literacy Strategy – Unlocking our potential, as part of the Five Steps Ahead Package. As we look towards developing this strategy, perhaps we should start by asking some basic questions.

How will we know when we have reached the literate society? How can we give expression to this goal? At the heart of this discussion is the question of what we mean by "literacy ". In the context of the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy for children, the definition focused on "reading, writing and doing maths for success." This was complemented by the Information and Communications Technology strategy, which focused on supporting children to become comfortable with different information and communication technologies, and improve their ability to do such things as independently find and use information, organise their thoughts, and present their ideas. There is much in these strategies that could be carried over for adult literacy.

How do we balance the need for individualised literacy goals against the need for transferable skills and some sort of objective indicators? Given the very diverse potential target audience, should we have one broad national definition of literacy, or several more specific definitions? For example, would there be any value in having a 'family literacy' definition, or a 'workplace literacy' definition?

Should we have a minimum competency standard, or should we try to reflect levels of literacy skills? How high should we set the desirable level of literacy competency or standards? We have to balance the need for realistic goals, against the need to provide some 'stretch' for learners. Given the growing rate of change, we also need to think about how often literacy definitions or goals are reviewed or updated, and how this process is carried out.

These are some of the key issues on which I will be seeking assistance from you. As with many other aspects of adult literacy, these are issues we could spend considerable time debating. While I am keen to have the best possible definitions and indicators developed, I am also conscious of the need to reach some sort of agreement relatively quickly, so that we can start to make progress towards the goal of the literate society. As we work through these issues, I hope that we can keep our eye on the ultimate goal and not get too caught up in detail.

The next question is how and where the Government should put the bulk of its effort. As you are all no doubt aware, meeting the literacy needs of adults is a qualitatively different matter from assisting school children. For a start, we don't have such ready access to adults - they have other priorities, such as jobs, and looking after their own children. This requires a very flexible and imaginative approach to raising literacy levels.

There are also issues of resourcing. Should the Government put its funding first into helping the most disadvantaged, or first into assisting those who are closer to competency? There are equity and efficiency arguments for both options.

My initial thinking on this matter is to have a varied approach to adult literacy skills development, depending upon the client group. The available statistics on adult literacy skills in New Zealand indicate that the potential client base is large and very diverse.

Given this potential client base, the barriers to participation, and the need to make literacy attractive and relevant to learners, it would seem pretty obvious that a 'one-size-fits-all' approach is not going to work. There is a range of possibilities open to the Government. For those already in employment, Government could promote initiatives like those undertaken by Fisher & Paykel and Tasman Pulp & Paper, which have invested heavily in learning centres for their employees. Government could also focus the use of some of the Industry Training Fund on literacy skills acquisition. I understand that some Industry Training Organisations are working on some of these matters now, and I am keen to see these reach fruition. As most of the New Zealand workforce is employed in small and medium-sized enterprises, we will also need to think about interventions in this area. The Learning in Small Companies Project is a very useful and inspiring model here.

For unemployed people, the Government could adjust the outcomes for the Training Opportunities Programme to better target literacy. It would appear that there is also a need for some specific initiatives focused on Maori learners. Again, there are plenty of resources out in the community we can promote and, hopefully, emulate. The Whaia Te Ara Tika project in Gisborne is just one example that springs to mind.

We need to consider an information campaign, targeted at different audiences, to raise awareness of literacy issues and difficulties, and promote demand for literacy education.

We must also ensure that the needs of recent migrants and refugees are brought into the strategy. Although ESOL is conceptually different from literacy, the outcomes are broadly the same - namely, the ability to participate fully in society and in the workforce. I hope to be able to tap into the knowledge and expertise of agencies and individuals that provide assistance to migrants in this field.

If we are to take a varied approach to the issue of adult literacy, it is important that we have some sort of underpinning common principles to give the strategy cohesion and direction, and to ensure fairness. Any Government initiative should:

 provide transferable literacy skills, in a relevant setting;

 have clear indicators, with which the quality of literacy education can be measured;

 be integrated with other policies and the wider community.

It is this third principle of integration that I think is the key to a successful adult literacy strategy. I'd like to see the adult literacy strategy complement the efforts of the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy for school children, so that parents can better help their children to learn. The current 'Feed the Mind' campaign has shown how easy it is for parents, relatives and family friends to assist and empower children to learn. If we are to make an ongoing and lasting difference to children's education and life choices, then it is vital that children's first teachers and primary sources of knowledge and help - their parents and families - have good literacy skills too.

Literacy skills development should also be better integrated with social assistance policies. Improving literacy skills can play a major part in enhancing people's ability to become independent, and could have a multiplier effect when carried out in conjunction with other help. I see potential here for the sort of cross-agency co-operation that the Government has put into place with such initiatives as Strengthening Families.

I'd also like to see adult literacy defined more widely than employment training. Learning to improve career options is extremely important, and the Government will be focusing on literacy in employment-related training and in educational assistance for unemployed people. However, I think it is important to realise that improvements in adult literacy across the community can have significant impacts. For example, grandparents with higher literacy skills can act as role models and tutors for their grandchildren. Improving the ability to access, process, and judge information allows people to understand and get involved in issues of community and national importance. Above all, good literacy skills are crucial to a good quality of life. The failure to acquire these skills can be an important factor in social exclusion, and can have seriously negative impacts on the community at large.

So where to from here? Unless we have clear timelines then we will still be debating this in ten years time.

I have asked the Ministry of Education to prepare a consultation document by the end of January next year. In particular, I want them to
 clarify and qualify the size and nature of the adult literacy issue,
 establish a definition of adult literacy,
 develop measures and indicators of adult literacy,
 analyse the Government's role in terms of priorities, links to other initiatives and policies, and new responses.

It is then my intention that this discussion document be available for community consultation at the beginning of February next year. This is your opportunity to give the benefit of your wisdom and experience, and I will look forward to your contribution. At the end of March, the Enterprise Education Taskforce will consider the collated responses from the consultation, explore the wider linkages and report to Cabinet by 30th of June next year.

This is a big vision and a substantial task. I am the first one to admit that there are many challenges ahead. But there are also many opportunities in this process, and benefits for everyone who is involved. In a world which is ever more interlinked, our fortunes increasingly rise and fall on those of our next-door neighbours, friends and colleagues. Skilled labour forces are more prosperous. Well-informed communities and individuals are an essential part of strong democracies. And educated, informed families are the best contributors to healthy, independent and confident children. We can all win from better adult literacy. I'm looking forward to this challenge. I hope you are too.

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