Australians will hear a fair bit tonight, will read a fair bit tomorrow, because of the headline grabbing number that 46% of adult Australians did not have the prose literacy skills required to meet the complex demands of everyday living and life. Now before one concludes that this is a disastrous failure, internationally Australia ranks in the middle across the different types of literacy with results closely aligned with those of Canada.
A number of things stood out to me from the results. Before commenting, a definitional note.
In the period after Sir Henry Parkes established the NSW public education system, the one I have written on most, literacy was defined as the capacity to write a postcard or short letter. Then there were far more unskilled and skilled jobs where literacy was not a core requirement. So definitions and the working life linked to those definitions have changed over time.
When I look at the numbers, a clear majority of those unemployed or not in the workforce score in the lowest band across every dimension measured. Now at one level this should not be surprising, because there is a clear correlation between education and the capacity to get work. At the same time, the results are another social indicator suggesting the growing presence of social deprivation in Australia.
The conventional response to this is to increase education. By all manner of means do this. However, the problem here is that there is a proportion of the population who are always going to struggle. An alternative is to look at ways of redefining jobs to reduce the educational component.
This may sound a strange solution. But there are in fact a fair number of actual or potential jobs that do not require the capacity to be literate at the degree we now demand.
A second thing stands out when I look at the numbers. Those in the 15 to 19 age cohort had lower levels of literacy than the 20 to 24 year age cohort and by a reasonable margin.
Neil Whitfield has a put up a longer post on this one.
A brief amplification on my point re jobs.
I have been concerned for a while about creeping credentialism that attaches qualifications to positions that are really not required. This actually blocks people from getting jobs.
Further, a large proportion of learning is informal, learning by doing, learning on the job. Past a certain point, attempts to formalise, to substitute formal for informal learning, can actually impede the learning process itself.
I also feel that, to some degree at least, our pursuit of efficiency and productivity has led to the abolition of certain jobs especially in the public sector that in some ways have degraded the quality of our life. Here I am not talking about make-work, but really the way in which jobs and the results from those jobs have been measured.
I don't want to argue these points now. However, I did feel the need to amplify a little because, on re-reading my post, I became concerned that it might be misread in part as some form of intellectual snobbery,