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2.04 Literacy and numeracy

Why is it important?

There is a two-way association between health and education. People with low educational attainment tend to have poorer health, fewer opportunities, lower incomes and reduced employment prospects (Johnston et al. 2009). In turn, poor health is associated with lower educational attainment (Conti et al. 2010). Vision or hearing loss (measures 1.15 and 1.16) is associated with linguistic, social and learning difficulties and behavioural problems in school. These problems can lead to reduced educational performance (Hopkins 2014) and have life-consequences for employment, income, and contact with the criminal justice system (Williams et al. 2009) (see measure 2.11).

Early education experiences and school readiness are important as they influence future academic performance. The Australian Early Development Census measures how children are faring as they enter school. Key findings from the 2012 collection indicate that Indigenous children are more than twice as likely to be developmentally vulnerable than non-Indigenous children. In 2012, 43% of Indigenous children were vulnerable on one or more domains (Australian Government 2013). NAPLAN test results decline with any absence from school and this accumulates over time (Hancock et al. 2013). Low-performing students have a propensity for poor attendance in later years, and are also less likely to complete Year 12 (Hancock et al. 2013).

In December 2007, COAG agreed to a target of halving the gap between the proportion of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students achieving reading, writing and numeracy benchmarks within a decade. In May 2014, COAG agreed to a five-year target of Closing the Gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance. School attendance is key to school outcomes for Indigenous students. Around 20% of the gap in school performance between Indigenous 15-year-olds is explained by poorer school attendance by Indigenous students (Biddle 2014a).

The NAPLAN Minimum Standard represents a performance standard in literacy and numeracy, below which students will have difficulty progressing satisfactorily at school.

Findings

Between 2008 and 2014, the proportion of Indigenous students at or above the National Minimum Standards in reading and numeracy has shown no statistically significant improvement nationally in any of the eight measures (Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in reading and numeracy). For Year 5 reading, there was a large apparent rise in the proportion of Indigenous students meeting the national minimum standards from 2012 to 2013 (from 64.7% to 83.3%). However, this proportion fell back to 70.3% in 2014.

In 2014, NAPLAN results at the national level showed two of the eight areas (Year 7 reading and Year 9 numeracy) were consistent with the required trajectory points. In the other six areas, 2014 results were below the required trajectory points. Around 75% of Indigenous students met the Year 3 national minimum standard in reading, 70% in Year 5, 77% in Year 7, and 71% in Year 9. Around 76% of Indigenous students met the national minimum standard for writing in Year 3, 63% in Year 5, 59% in Year 7, and 49% in Year 9. Around 78% of Indigenous students met the national minimum standard for numeracy in Year 3, 71% in Year 5, 80% in Year 7, and 76% in Year 9. Around 74% of Indigenous students met the national minimum standard for spelling in Year 3, 74% in Year 5, 73% in Year 7, and 70% in Year 9. Around 73% of Indigenous students in Year 3 met the national minimum standard for grammar and punctuation, 68% in Year 5, 70% in Year 7, and 63% in Year 9. The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students achieving the national minimum standards for each of these areas in all school years tested remain below corresponding proportions for non-Indigenous students.

Proportions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students achieving literacy and numeracy benchmarks remain lower for students living in remote and very remote areas. This relationship was also evident for non-Indigenous students, but was much less marked, resulting in a much larger gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous results in remote areas than in metropolitan areas. For example, in 2014, 85.7% of all Indigenous students in metropolitan areas met or exceeded the National Minimum Standards for Year 7 reading compared with only 34.9% of Indigenous students in very remote areas.

The gap in school attendance rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students widens as children age and is significantly greater in remote and very remote areas. In 2013, Indigenous attendance rates in government schools were lower than non-Indigenous rates for each jurisdiction and all grades from Year 1 to Year 10 (SCRGSP 2014a). The NT had the largest attendance gaps, ranging from 21–22 percentage points in the primary school years (Years 1–6), to 31 percentage points in Year 10. In 2008, Indigenous parents reported that school attendance was affected by their child being bullied for 29% of children in Year 3 and 34% of children in Years 5 and 7.

Hearing and vision loss due to high rates of otitis media and trachoma also impact on literacy difficulties for Indigenous students. Regardless of ear health status, Indigenous students' literacy skills remain consistently poorer compared with non-Indigenous peers (Timms et al. 2014). Poor literacy achievement is more common among students who do not speak Standard Australian English at home, while poorer numeracy is more evident among students with parents in less skilled occupations (Purdie et al. 2011) (see measure 2.07). While the 2011 Census reports 83% of Indigenous Australians speak English at home, many Indigenous Australians use a distinctly Aboriginal form of English that differs from the Standard Australian English used in educational settings (Hall 2013; Eades 2013).

Implications

Developing strong links between schools, parents and communities to improve attendance, providing culturally competent (measure 3.08) and quality teaching, and ensuring schools help Indigenous students to feel included and supported provides a foundation for improving literacy and numeracy outcomes of Indigenous children. Evaluation of the Smarter Schools National Partnerships has linked positive outcomes with enhancing family and community participation in learning, mentoring programmes, individual learning plans for at-risk students, and enhanced use of student achievement data.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010–2014 includes attendance, literacy, numeracy, readiness for school and post-school pathways as priorities, and includes local, systemic and national collaborative actions to improve the literacy and numeracy levels of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Findings from the 2011 Evaluation of the Home Interaction Program for Parents and Youngsters (HIPPY) found an improvement in children's early numeracy and early literacy skills (the gap observed in HIPPY children's early numeracy and early literacy skills at the beginning of the programme, compared with the Australian norm, had closed by the end of the programme), and improvements in the home learning environment and parent's social connectedness and inclusion.

Reviews of the National Partnerships (NP) for Literacy and Numeracy and Low Socio-Economic Status School Communities (which together, involved 54.6% of all Indigenous students) found that:

  • NP participation was associated with some improvements in NAPLAN primary-level numeracy among Indigenous students compared with similar schools not participating.
  • In the NT, the Indigenous cohort in some schools involved in the 'Maximising Improvement in Literacy and Numeracy' programme outperformed comparative groups with respect to both numeracy and reading.
  • In Qld, carefully designed intervention programmes that focused on Indigenous culture yielded improvements in enrolment and attendance rates. NP participation was also associated with improved engagement among Indigenous students with notable examples including an increase in attendance in SA for case-managed students or students provided with individual targeted support.
  • Higher Indigenous retention rate to Year 10 was also noted in NP schools in WA, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania compared with other schools in these states.
  • NP schools increased the involvement of Indigenous families and community members in student learning, including classroom activities and community events. In Victoria for example, Koorie Education Workers helped to increase participation of local Indigenous community members in teaching and learning forums, as well as guided teacher knowledge and appreciation of Indigenous cultures.

Figure 2.04-1 Proportion of Year 3, 5, 7 and 9 students at or above the national minimum standards for reading, writing, numeracy, spelling and grammar and punctuation, by Indigenous status, 2013
reading, writing, numeracy, spelling, grammar, punctuation national min standards

Figure 2.04-1 shows the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and non-Indigenous Australian children in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 at or above the reading, writing, numeracy, spelling, and grammar punctuation national minimum standards. In 2013 NAPLAN results at the national level showed half of the eight progress points in reading and numeracy were met.

Source: MCEECDYA 2014

Figure 2.04-2 Proportion of Year 3, 5, 7 and 9 students at or above the national minimum standards for reading, writing, numeracy, spelling and grammar and punctuation, by remoteness area and Indigenous status, 2013
reading, writing, numeracy, spelling, grammar, punctuation national min standards

Figure 2.04-2 shows the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and non-Indigenous Australian children in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 at or above the reading, writing and numeracy minimum standards in 2013. Data is presented separately for the following areas: metropolitan, provincial, remote, and very remote. Proportions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students achieving literacy and numeracy benchmarks remain lower for students living in remote and very remote areas. This relationship was also evident for non-Indigenous students, but was much less marked, resulting in a much larger gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous results in remote areas than in metropolitan areas.

Source: MCEECDYA 2014

Figure 2.04-3 Proportion of Year 3, 5, 7 and 9 students at or above the national minimum standards for reading and numeracy, by Indigenous status, 2008 to 2014 and trajectory to COAG target
reading, writing, numeracy, spelling, grammar, punctuation national min standards

Figure 2.04-3 shows the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and non-Indigenous Australian children in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 at or above the national minimum standards for reading and numeracy. Annual data is presented for 2008–2013. Annual trajectory data based on the applicable COAG 2008 Closing the Gap target is presented for 2008-2018. Between 2008 and 2013 results for reading in Years 3 and 5 were the only instances where there was a statistically significant improvement in the proportion of Indigenous students meeting national minimum standards compared to 2008. The gap in NAPLAN results narrowed in all primary school years (3 and 5) for both reading and numeracy. In secondary school years (7 and 9), the gap narrowed for reading but did not improve for numeracy.

Source: MCEECDYA 2014