Lag­ging lit­er­acy cost­ing us bil­lions

The Timaru Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

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).

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