In my role as a children’s author, I have had the privilege of visiting a number of Tasmanian schools. I am always powerfully impressed by the quality of the teachers inspiring the young people in their charge. I am also dismayed at the stories I find in those classrooms. We have known for a long time that smaller class sizes and a higher student-to-teacher ratio delivers better learning outcomes. Yet at so many Tasmanian schools I find class sizes at around 30 – and sometimes larger.
It is also evident, in every classroom, that many children are in need of special care and assistance. Many are on the autism spectrum and have already been told they have learning difficulties. However very few of these children qualify for formal assistance by way of teacher aids
Our classrooms are also full of children who have been in long day-care since a very early age. While child care centres are working to make early learning a priority, they too struggle with child-adult ratios. Many children, by the time they arrive at kindergarten, cannot sit still, concentrate on a given task, comply with instructions, and have not discovered the quiet pleasures of books and art. Some are still not toilet trained.
Our teachers are somehow expected to maintain discipline in a large classroom of small children with all this complexity.
Almost 50% of Tasmanians are deemed functionally illiterate. Nationally that figure is 20%. 20% – one in five people – is bad enough. But one in two? This is beyond a tragedy. It is a hypocrisy.
More than 20 years ago the reading curriculum was based on phonics. Children were taught how to sound words out. It was abandoned for an early years curriculum where children are expected to simply pick up reading by being in the environment of words and books. It has been a spectacular failure. And Tasmanian children have suffered more than most.
Illiteracy affects every area of life. From navigating our health system to our legal system, from government departments to employment, from relationships to parenting and on. And why has this happened? Beyond the disciplinary challenges the modern school-aged child presents, we have a failure in the reading curriculum.
Some children learn by sounding out, some children learn by a whole word approach, some by lists, and many need all of the above. All of that takes time and dedication. The current curriculum is too crowded and teachers have trouble fitting all the requirements into a week.
Half our children leave school without confident reading skills. That’s akin to telling them they might as well forget their dreams. It’s akin to failing to tell them that in winter you need to dress warmly, and that sex leads to pregnancy. Reading is absolutely basic to human life. Many, many teachers have witnessed this failure in the curriculum. But still nothing has been done to address this issue by government after government.
Thanks to NAPLAN and other flawed government initiatives, we have also lost specialist librarians, music and art teachers. Yet we know that children all learn differently. For some of them music is the medium that will help their brains grasp reading and maths. For others it’s art. For some students, it’s the guidance of a great librarian that will stretch them into new books and ideas.
Music, art and librarians are not luxuries in schools. They are fundamental to enriching the mind. They inspire children to become life-long learners. Our numeracy and literacy rates in Tasmania are the second worst in Australia. Beyond ensuring that we have a curriculum that actually teaches every child to read, we need to seriously look at enrichment.
Good food at both breakfast and lunch for every child would make a powerful difference in our educational outcomes in this state, too. Thirty percent of Tasmanian families live below the poverty line. The hungry child, the poorly nourished child, is unable to concentrate, and is a disruption to other children. Some Tasmanian schools have a breakfast program. None of them has a lunch program.
We have just re-elected a government that is determined to ensure our poor suburbs become poorer in the wake of extended gambling licenses. The people who will bear the brunt of that will be the children. Given the flow-on effect of Tasmanians losing some $200 million a year to poker machines, it is almost certain our education outcomes will worsen in this state over the next 25 years. That may not particularly worry this government because less-educated people tend to vote for more right-wing politicians. But it should seriously worry every parent.
The government wants to amalgamate colleges and high schools to stop the flood of Year 10 leavers. But it’s no wonder so many students want to leave in Year 10. It must be a form of torture to expect a child to continue their education when they lack basic reading skills.
I am passionate about reading. I spent the majority of my education in the Tasmanian public school system. I recall well the teachers of my early years insisting we sound it out. Sound it out! And we did. We learned to be proficient readers. My primary school was also a small school with small class sizes.
We are not giving our children the gift of education that we enjoyed. We are giving them an inadequate, under-funded, ill-resourced version that does not meet the current reality. And the statistics reflect that. A population where almost half of us are functionally illiterate and innumerate is a shocking waste of human potential.
We need to mobilise now to demand that our children have a curriculum with proven literacy and numeracy outcomes. Successive governments have paid lip service to improving educational standards. There is no need for reviews or white papers. We know the answers.
Reading is the wellspring of imagination. We cannot imagine what we might be, if we have no insight into all that humans have already achieved. Reading is history but it is also currency.
We are failing our children if education in Tasmania is not an urgent priority. In the next ten years, we could lift our children up and become the state with the highest learning outcomes. But it will take renewed courage and commitment from government, parents and community.
Heather Rose writes for both children and adults and is published internationally. Her novels include the Tuesday McGillycuddy children’s series written under the pen-name Angelica Banks with co-author Danielle Wood. Her latest novel for adults, The Museum of Modern Love, won the 2017 Stella Prize, the Christina Stead Prize, the Margaret Scott Prize and the Tasmanian People’s Choice Award. Heather is also the mother of three children. Here, Heather writes for the Communicating: the Heart Of Literacy initiative – find more at chattermatters.com.au.