Speech: Adult Illiteracy Costs Us
Rt Hon Winston Peters
Member of Parliament for Northland
New Zealand First Leader
8 OCTOBER 2015
New Zealand First Leader and Member of Parliament for Northland Rt Hon Winston Peters
Speech to the Adult Literacy Practitioners’ Association
10am, 8th October
Adult Illiteracy Costs Us, Just as Greater Adult Literacy Enriches Us
It is a genuine pleasure to join the Adult Literacy Practitioners’ Association at your 2015 Forum, here, in the beautiful and sometimes winterless North.
Your theme is “OUR VOICE – KEEPING IT REAL.” It is a theme which sums up the approach that New Zealand First takes towards what government ought to be.
As the recent Trans Pacific Partnership shows, our voice is not being heard in the values we place around what we produce and export. Instead of viewing ourselves as a global food superpower, government has got us punching below our weight.
Only last week, Massey University’s Professor Paul Moughan estimated that the world must produce 70 per cent more food by 2050. This large increase in food production represents a doubling of what the world currently produces.
Why do you think that the Chinese government, through a State-owned enterprise, is seeking to buy half of our largest meat co-operative, Silver Fern Farms? Somewhat ironically from the TPP, if that deal goes ahead, the Chinese government will end up becoming an unlikely benefactor of the TPP.
This matters to your organisation, because our primary exports generate 70% of our export wealth and the formula is simple: no exports, no economy. So is the TPP nirvana or has Mr Groser channeled Neville Chamberlain with the TPP representing “Trade for our Time?”
Mr Groser, Mr Joyce and Mr Key all promised us a stretch limousine but we may have instead ended up with a lada.
And when the Prime Minister claims there will be $2.7bn of annual benefits after 15 years, he tends to forget that inflation alone wipes out 30% of that sum.
Fifteen years is also a long time, because 15 years ago, neither the iPod or Twitter or Facebook had been invented. Even TradeMe was barely one year old in 2000.
So it is important to keep all policies real and grounded, especially since we have a government of contradictions.
On one hand it extols the virtues of small government and of decentralisation while it concentrates economic activity on Auckland while political power, local and central, is increasingly centralised into the hands of very few.
What you do as practitioner’s matters
As Adult Literacy Practitioners you represent the ambulance at the top of the cliff in many respects. And this is why.
When people in our communities have the literacy and numeracy skills they need to succeed in their lives, they will be making informed decisions about their lives, their futures and the futures of their families.
Several years ago the World Literacy Foundation estimated that the Economic and Social Cost of Illiteracy to New Zealand was a staggering NZ$3 billion a year. A 2008 study found that 40% of New Zealand's working population were below the minimum level required to participate in a modern economy.
It is a crying shame that in the seven years since, this survey has not been repeated. We must ask why because sound data ought to be the basis of good policy.
Since these alarming numbers were confirmed, a year later, came massive cuts to funding by the National Government in 2009.
What has been the true effects of these financial cuts? Has the number of New Zealanders with low literacy increased or decreased? Here is just one example from 3News last December you’ll no doubt remember.
Ed Emery is a 51-year-old South Waikato farmhand who is virtually illiterate. The Maori Trust he works for introduced a diary system, which, to Mr Emery, is akin to Arabic.
He seems to have a good work record but lacked the skills to record the work he does. As a direct consequence this led to his pay being docked.
The question that must leave us asking is this: How could someone born in the 1960’s emerge from school without the basic ability to read or write their own name?
Low literacy levels is a poverty trap limiting people like Mr Emery to jobs that require them to be biological machines. These roles are inevitably low paid, which, in turn, may lead them to poor quality accommodation.
Something, sadly, the electorate of Northland has far too much of.
For those who are illiterate, even applying for a benefit or a means to escape this trap of deprivation is as daunting as climbing Mr Everest. Herein lies the perfect conditions for frustration, violence and crime.
This is something you as practitioners can alleviate with policy that is real.
New Zealand First does not subscribe to the belief that such people are not bright, just that there has been a roadblock that could and should have been overcome, if the resources were invested early enough.
As the American futurist Alvin Toffler once said, “the illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.”
Clearly Mr Emery demonstrated the ability to learn given he seems to have been a popular and valued member of staff. So what went wrong?
A lack of early intervention is what happened.
Without people like Mr Emery being identified early in the system and by early, we mean early on at school, they are condemned to a lifetime of hardship. All because as a child, a young person and as an adult, they lacked literacy and numeracy.
Mr Emery represents the one-million New Zealanders who struggle with such skills.
This government talks a lot about an investment approach yet as Bronwyn Yates of Literacy Aotearoa said only a few years ago:
“The idea that raising literacy levels was an investment hits the nail on the head. The absolute big issue New Zealand has to understand is that we have to invest in ourselves. In terms of literacy it's critical, it'll drive up achievement - not just for adults but for every single person in their family, that's the amazing thing about adult literacy. The moment you address the parents' literacy, you address the family's".
Yet what did government do?
In 2009, more than 500 adults in basic literacy and numeracy classes had their funding cut - $13.1 million dollars in one foul swoop – leaving no time to replan or redevelop – no conversation with your sector. Gone.
At the time of these cuts, the government said that it was cutting out “hobby courses” such as Moroccan Cooking, but it would continue to support literacy and numeracy.
That was false as funding for hundreds of adult learners was summarily cut.
The reality throughout most of New Zealand is that when that funding was cut, the majority of second chance learning disappeared from regional New Zealand.
Most of the providers in the list of the Tertiary Education Commission providers are not in the rural hinterland.
Today, some $34m is spent on adult literacy and numeracy yet that is a fraction of the $3bn cost to our economy.
Since we know the economic cost is in the billions, how many Bill Hamilton’s, Richard Pearse’s, Colin Murdoch’s and in the case of Mr Emery, Godfrey Bowen’s have gone about their lives undiscovered.
These are otherwise bright creative people, given the means they take to hide their lack of skills that we take for granted.
If you want to supercharge labour productivity then you must start with literacy and numeracy for one million New Zealanders.
Today, as you will know, the government says it takes a three-pronged approach to adult literacy with “robust institutional infrastructure” “providing learning opportunities” and “professional development for the workforce.”
As someone deeply involved in industry training told us, that’s the disconnect. Industry learners want skills and tertiary providers providing courses while the government wants qualifications because they are measurable.
What we can all agree on is that funding has not kept pace with population or need.
For Mr Emery, the possibility of learning opportunities in the workplace are limited if the workplace is a sheep station in South Waikato! While distance education can be provided electronically, that slams into a problem of technical illiteracy, broadband and access.
New Zealand First will instead:
Work with your sector to amend the Education Act 1989 clearly stating that lifelong and intergenerational learning are necessary to ensure relevant skills are maintained or acquired as life circumstances and industry needs change.
To us, it is important that Adult and Community Education is properly resourced and funded because that is a community-led response. New Zealand First believes the priority is to remove the stigma from any adult who needs literacy and numeracy.
This also demands the kind of investment we see in driver safety commercials because we must get cut through to adults that help is available.
We should not become obsessed with NCEA levels because this is about skills and building confidence. When it comes to adults, the traditional approach is a turn off, hence the community and voluntary sector have a big role to play.
We will further review where funding and responsibility is best placed. Clearly the TEC is qualifications focused while the Ministry of Education is associated with school where adults may not have had the best experience. Meanwhile WINZ and CYF’s may pick up needs directly as will employers. Which part of government is best? We need your guidance on that.
It also demands a whole of government approach centred on New Zealand First’s Community Wage Scheme as part of our New Kiwi Deal.
It is our belief that people ought to be in training or work. A Community Wage Scheme provides the ideal way to pick up a lack of literacy and numeracy and break that negative cycle.
Arbitrarily cutting off education funding based upon age is both inappropriate and destructive – especially to basic numeracy and literacy for life. Funding these is not just a basic human need but vital to bring one million Kiwis fully into the workforce and society.
As such, we would remove the five-year cap on ESOL support for students inside mainstream schools and continue to support these students until they have reached the level of literacy that allows them to fully participate in New Zealand Society.
Another feature of New Zealand First policy is to put you in the ambulance at the top of the cliff. We would screen and resource adult service provision to the Department of Corrections as well as in schools, to proactively identify and work with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, vision, dyspraxia and autism.
We believe that it is likely that many of the adults requiring literacy support today may be suffering from one of these unidentified challenges. It will have coloured their self-belief and their experience in mainstream schooling. It is imperative to pick it up early at school and equally important, resolve it quickly.
With an appropriate diagnosis, and literacy and numeracy courses, can be tailored to best suit these students. Albert Einstein as well as Sir Richard Branson suffered from dyslexia, so we are robbing ourselves of immense potential by not acting.
New Zealand First wishes to work with your sector on policy solutions and to encourage New Zealanders who require this support, to step forward and seek assistance. We must collectively remove the stigma of low literacy that holds people back from asking for help.
What we wish you to know is that our political party values the work you do and will make the investment, given we know the economic and social costs of not acting.
Adult illiteracy costs us, just as greater adult literacy enriches us.
New Zealand First is committed to a richer New Zealand, and we recognise the role adult literacy and numeracy will play in our economic and social development.