Lagging literacy costing us billions
pieces, Williams says.
There is some support. The Government offers subsidies to help businesses upskill their workers. But very little of that is targeted at the A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s.
‘‘$2.8 billion is invested in postschool subsidies for education and training,’’ says Williams, ‘‘and about $23 million for workplace literacy. As a proportion of the total investment in tertiary education it’s very much at the margin, scratching the surface.
‘‘If I was to do only one thing with Vote Tertiary Education I would look at literacy because that is where we can make the biggest difference for the most people.’’
That would get a big thumbs up from Professor Dugald Scott too.
Universities New Zealand is the ‘‘sector voice’’ for the country’s eight varsities, and Scott is deputy chairman of the University Academic Programmes Committee.
He says the country’s highest academic institutions are also struggling with the gap in students’ functional literacy.
‘‘Universities spend a lot of money and time making sure students have appropriate skills,’’ he says. ‘‘All universities are putting more effort into that kind of thing than they used to.’’
He too believes the problem is a lack of focus on literacy in high school, even for students qualified to enter university.
‘‘In simple terms you can either study a subject like English and pass achievement standards at an appropriate level, but what was brought in a few years ago was the idea that if you were studying some other subject which ought to require literacy, then you could gain literacy credits that way.
‘‘When teachers are marking some subjects other than English, which demands literacy, they may be focused more on the content, say in geography or history or something, other than the literacy skills; their primary job is to see whether the students understand the subject, rather than how good they are at reading and writing.’’
The Ministry of Education declined an interview, but it did answer a number of questions sent via email.
It acknowledges there’s a problem and says it’s working on solutions.
Ellen MacGregor-Reid, Deputy Secretary Early Learning and Student Achievement, admits ‘‘we are hearing from employers and others that our technology-rich world is making increasing demands on skills and understanding in language (and mathematics)’’.
Changes were made to the NCEA qualification between 2010 and 2014 ‘‘as part of work to strengthen literacy and numeracy skills across the education system’’.
‘‘This included the staged introduction of achievement standards aligned to the New Zealand Curriculum levels 6, 7 and 8, the development and introduction of literacy and numeracy unit standards, and progressive strengthening of the NCEA Level 1 to 3 literacy and numeracy credit requirements between 2012 and 2014.’’
MacGregor-Reid believes these changes will take a few years to embed and produce improvement. ‘‘The current NCEA review . . . terms of reference include specific reference to literacy and numeracy requirements and what these functions might entail in the 21st century.’’
The latest news on the review suggests the number of Level 1 credits needed will be halved, with a sharper focus on literacy and numeracy. Also, the path leading from learning to either higher education or the workforce will be clearer.
That will be good news to the many industries seeking a smarter, more skilled employee.
But it’s probably too little, too late for tens of thousands of people whose hard work at school qualified them for a life of function, rather than flight.
Juken NZ mill manager Paul Jordan says plenty of his employees, even the well-educated ones, need help with literacy and numeracy.
Professor Dugald Scott, of Universities New Zealand, says varsities are having to work harder to get students up to speed for their studies.
The age group with the lowest scores (reasons given include declines in cognitive ability as we age and lower participation in the workforce).