Behind the eight ball

Opinion Article

2007 January, 20

Tania  Major, an Aboriginal Kokoberra woman from the west coast of Cape York Peninsula, is Queensland’s finalist to this year’s Young Australian of the Year Award. In 2003, she famously gave a speech in front of Prime Minister John Howard, describing how she was the only student in her primary school class who had been successful in mainstream society.


Major was the only girl who did not have a child at 15, and she was one of only three students who did not become alcoholics. Seven of her class mates had been in prison and four had committed suicide.


She took another path that led to a university degree. The first step on that path was that Tania herself, and the people supporting her, were successful with that all-important first building block in a child’s education: literacy.


Major is exceptional because there is a literacy crisis in remote Aboriginal communities. The three most important aspects of the literacy crisis in my home region of Cape York Peninsula are:


  • Indigenous children are behind from the beginning of their schooling;

  • They fall further behind while at school;

  • They end up two to four years behind by the end  of Year 7.


This two to four-year gap makes it impossible for most students to go on to secondary school, further training and education, and ultimately to a job and economic independence. Tania Major was considered an A-grade student in her home community of Kowanyama, and it was a shock to her to find herself a D-grade student when she transferred to boarding school in Brisbane. It took Tania half a year of hard work to catch up. Most Indigenous students have neither the strength nor the support of tutors to leap the gulf between remote community standards and mainstream expectations.


The Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership has recently analysed the available data on literacy in Cape  York Peninsula. The statistics are alarming. We estimate that up to 70 per cent of Indigenous primary school students in Cape York Peninsula need immediate remedial literacy instruction. In some Cape York Peninsula schools, as few as 21 per cent of Indigenous students achieve minimum accepted levels in national literacy benchmark tests for years 3, 5 and 7.  And it should be remembered that this benchmark level is bare minimum – in mainstream society, the percentage is in the 90s.


In Queensland, the literacy level of Year 2 students is assessed and the students are grouped into five levels by Education Queensland. Among Indigenous students in Cape York, more than half (52 per cent) are in the first level which indicates no or an extremely limited ability to read. The comparable figure for non-Indigenous Capestudents is 4 per cent.


The core problem in Cape York Peninsula, that Indigenous children start from behind and then stay there or drop further behind, is caused by complex social problems in the communities and by shortcomings in government school policy. State and federal Government agencies are working in partnership with Cape York Peninsula organisations to address these issues, but resolution of these structural problems will not arrive quickly. The long-term strategic policies that aim to improve community life and reform the regular delivery of education by the state education departments will not help the students who are enrolled in Cape York Peninsula schools this year.


We must respond quickly and efficiently to the current emergency: that a large proportion, perhaps a majority of Indigenous children currently attending primary school in Cape York Peninsula are destined to be excluded from mainstream society because they will be illiterate or semi-literate.


This year must see the roll-out of an effective, huge-scale remedial literacy program that will dramatically increase the reading levels of Indigenous students who are already in the school system. 


The program chosen for Cape York Peninsula must have the aim of producing a gain in literacy of at least 18 months to two years within a short period of time.


Last year, a remedial literacy program known as MULTILIT (Making Up Lost Time In Literacy), was trialled in Coen State School, a remote school with exclusively Indigenous students. At the beginning of the trial, students were on average 3 1/4 years behind in their reading accuracy and 3 3/4 years behind in their reading comprehension. Students were given 17 to 18 weeks of instruction and assessed at the end of the year. On average students gained 21.4 months in reading accuracy, gained 19 months in word recognition, gained 10.7 months in reading comprehension and correctly read 75 per cent more words per minute.


MULTILIT was developed by Professor Kevin Wheldall and Dr Robyn Beaman of the Macquarie University Special Education Centre (MUSEC). The program has solid foundations in literacy and reading research, and is designed for students in Year 3 and above who are reading at a level considerably below – typically two or more years – that expected of their age. The program has delivered substantial improvements in reading ability wherever it has been introduced.


The experience of MULTILIT in Coen has shown it to be possible for low-progress Indigenous readers to significantly and quickly lift their literacy skills. We intend to initiate discussions with government agencies about the establishment of a Literacy Academyin Cairns to develop and implement the MULTILIT rollout across the whole of Cape York Peninsula.


Experience also shows that if the literacy of low-progress readers is brought reasonably close to the official benchmarks through a one-off remedial program, this will make a great difference to the life prospects of those students, who are much more likely to move forward to Year 10 or above, training, apprenticeships, higher education and employment.


Obviously, many other policies are needed to effect lasting change for the children of Cape York Peninsula. There needs to be a focus on early childhood in order to ensure that students are not behind from the beginning of school. Most Indigenous children in Cape  York Peninsula already attend pre-school programs. These programs are seen to improve social readiness for school but not to foster literacy. Education Queenslandis currently introducing a non-compulsory in-school Prep year for all Queensland students in 2007.  The trial of this preparatory program indicates that it is successful in promoting children's literacy skills. The government must make it a top priority to ensure that Indigenous children benefit from this reform.


Library services in remote communities must also be radically improved with a special focus on reading programs for children and their parents.


Of course, reforms need to extend beyond remedial programs and early childhood intervention. Higher rates of literacy performance need to be sustained throughout the years of primary schooling. One of the aims of the Cape York Institute’s Welfare Reform Project is to influence the demand for education by attaching obligations to welfare payments to re-establish norms and expectations around school attendance.


On the supply side, Cape York  Peninsula schools must do better. Expectations need to be reset. The school system needs to stop making excuses for indigenous under-achievement.


We also encourage the Government to consider increased flexibility in recruiting quality teachers and principals, performance based incentives and rewards, and extending school days and terms for disadvantaged students.


Continuous assessment of students’ progress and reporting, with an unrelenting focus on results, needs to be introduced. Progress in literacy should be assessed as early and regularly as possible to identify where improvement and additional support are required. Parents need to be kept informed of their child’s performance in plain language.


My people are entitled to demand that the literacy crisis is made a top priority. It is an indictment of government policy that for a remote Aboriginal student, avoiding educational failure is an exceptional feat – an accomplishment which takes the student who manages to achieve it a long way towards the award of Young Australian of the Year.

Behind the eight ball