Despite a similar proportion starting their formal schooling in Tasmania ‘developmentally vulnerable’ to those in Australia, the Tasmanian education system produces considerably lower levels of educational attainment compared with the national average by the time the respective cohorts have completed their schooling.
Analysis of NAPLAN data over a 10-year period shows that the literacy and numeracy skills of Tasmanian students as a cohort have declined as they progress through their schooling from lower primary to upper primary and to secondary schooling. This is despite students being regularly identified through a range of assessments as either at risk or below the expected standard throughout their schooling.
In 2012, around 1 in 5 (21.5%) Tasmanian children in their first year of school were identified in the Australian Early Development Census as being ‘developmentally vulnerable’ (1,308 students), similar to the proportion nationally. At least a further 15.6% were considered ‘developmentally at risk’.
By 2021, when this cohort was in grade 9 (around 6,634 students), 1,891 (28.5%) could not read above* the level expected to engage in the wider curriculum, 2,753 (41.5%) could not express themselves in written form above the level expected and 1,552 (23.4%) were not numerate.
Compared with 10 years prior (the 2011 grade 9 cohort), 2021 grade 9 students are considerably less proficient in literacy and numeracy knowledge and skills. The 2021 results also show an alarming decline in the high proficiency bands (9 and 10) and an equally alarming increase in the proportion below the expected standard in the range of literacy skills.
While policy priorities exist to improve both retention to year 12 and educational attainment in Tasmania, the implications of low and declining literacy and numeracy skills for successful school completion as well as participating in further education and training and securing meaningful work are dire, particularly for boys and those from low socio-economic backgrounds.
Research has consistently found that results of year 9 NAPLAN tests across the five learning areas – reading, numeracy, writing, spelling and grammar – are strong predictors of year 11 and 12 performance. While writing is the best predictor of successful school completion, spelling, grammar and punctuation are the best predictors of writing competence. Yet, in 2021, 2 in 5 Tasmanian grade 9 students do not have the writing skills above the level expected.
For those year 9 students from a lower socio-economic background (using a proxy of highest level of educational attainment for parents and/or the skill level of their occupation) around two thirds do not have the expected writing ability which predicts successful school completion (64.3% for those whose parents have completed year 11, and 67.4% for those whose parents were not employed in the previous 12 months).
While in the past, those will poorer literacy and numeracy skills have been able to secure employment in lower skill or manual work and/or pursue vocational education and training, these jobs are either transforming or disappearing with the infiltration of the technological revolution into work and life. As a result, the demand for strong foundational and occupation-specific language and literacy (communication) and numeracy skills is ever-increasing across the skill spectrum for all industry sectors and in a more highly-skilled, technology driven economy and society.
In its Workforce Development Needs 2018 report, the Australian Industry Group found that 99 per cent of employers are affected in some way by low levels of literacy and numeracy in their workforce with 39 per cent highly affected. The employers reported dissatisfaction with the use of English and basic numeracy and literacy levels of over one-fifth of school leaver workforce entrants. The most significant effects on the business were cited as poor completion of workplace documents and reports followed by teamwork and communication problems. The impact of these low levels of literacy and numeracy include time and/or material wastage, unsafe work practices, financial loss, teamwork challenges, and lack of confidence. Furthermore, due to a lack of specific workplace literacy and numeracy programs, employers are increasing their internal resources to militate the effect of the problem in the workplace, at considerable cost.
While the business community actively expresses dissatisfaction with the outcomes from vocational education and training in Tasmania, particularly by the public provider; TasTAFE, its voice is absent in the need to improve language, literacy and numeracy outcomes in our schools. If the Tasmanian schooling system ensured that all school leavers met the expected levels of literacy and numeracy, TasTAFE and other VET providers would be able to focus on delivering industry and occupation specific skills, education and training, rather than on skills which should have been acquired in school.
The cost of poor language, literacy and numeracy skills of school leavers are borne over the long term not just by the individual themselves, but by all Tasmanians, the economy and society. Low literary and numeracy affects the type of jobs we can offer, the industries we can attract, support and sustain and the level and distribution of revenue for public services and infrastructure.
These life-long- and long-term costs to the economy and society of Tasmanians not acquiring the necessary language, literacy and numeracy skills throughout their schooling is substantial, but it is also entirely preventable.
*Students who are below the national minimum standard have not achieved the learning outcomes expected for their year level. They are at risk of being unable to progress satisfactorily at school without targeted intervention.
Students who are performing at the national minimum standard may also require additional assistance to enable them to achieve their potential.
**An edited version of this blog was printed as a Talking Point article in the Mercury Newspaper on 21 December 2021