No easy answers to Tasmanian illiteracy

Half of Tasmanians are illiterate and it is crippling the state's economy, but experts warn there will be no easy way out.

It's an education horror story and it's told by more than one Tasmanian community leader.

Michael Bailey, the head of the state's chamber of commerce, is one.

He recounts a conversation with a year 11 school student, explaining much about Tasmania's poor literacy levels.

"I said to her, 'What's the biggest barrier?'" Mr Bailey tells AAP.

"She comes from a pretty tough part of Tasmania and I was thinking it would be the cost of the uniforms, the cost of the books, that sort of thing.

"She said, 'Actually getting out the door every morning. I get up, I walk out the door to my family teasing me about being up myself'."

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show half of adult Tasmanians don't have the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed to get by in the modern world.

The state is consistently ranked last on educational outcomes and has the country's lowest year 11 and 12 retention rates.

A 2012 snapshot put Tasmanian school students below the average for Australia and the OECD in reading, maths and science.

The issue was highlighted again last month when the Australian Industry Group released a survey that found 93 per cent of businesses across the country are affected by illiteracy.

In Tasmania, the state opposition has branded it a crisis.

"The government is in denial over this," says Liberal education spokesman Michael Ferguson.

Even at a conservative estimate, "functional illiteracy" is costing a state many consider to be in recession hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Tasmanian and Bank of America Merrill Lynch chief economist Saul Eslake says a $20,000 difference between the island state's per capita GDP and the mainland's can partly be blamed on the problem.

Lower production and employment participation rates, both consequences of illiteracy, account for nearly $12,000 of that figure, he says.

"It would be wrong to say that if all Tasmanians had the same qualifications on average as all mainlanders that per capita GDP would be $12,000 higher," Mr Eslake says.

"But it would certainly be higher than it was and there'd be a broader range of better paid jobs around."

Mr Bailey, the CEO of the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (TCCI), agrees illiteracy is preventing an economy massively hit by downturns in forestry and manufacturing from dragging itself off the canvas.

"Back in the old days, people could fall through the cracks because they'd do a job that quite often they'd just be shown how to do and then they'd continue doing that job for a good portion of their life," he says.

"You need to be numerate and literate to be able to do most jobs now.

"Until we can start to fix some of these problems we're going to always struggle to get Tasmania's economy really moving."

Literacy levels are in trouble across the country and Tasmania's are consistently the worst.

An ABS study in 2006 found 51 per cent of Tasmanians could understand and use information in "prose texts", such as newspapers and magazines, compared with the national average of 53.6 per cent.

Just 49.3 per cent could find and use information in tables, schedules, graphs and maps - so-called "document literacy - compared with 53.2 per cent nationally.

Numeracy sat at 43.9 per cent for the state and 47.4 per cent for the nation.

The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) recently published 2012 figures comparing 15-year-olds across 65 countries.

Scores were given to each nation and each Australian state.

For reading, China came top with a score of 570.

Australia's average was 512, higher than the OECD's 496. Tasmania's lagged at 485, which translates to 50 per cent not achieving the level considered satisfactory.

How the island state got to this point should not be surprising, says report author Sue Thomson.

"It is significantly higher than the other states, but it's not unexpected given that Tasmania also has a lower overall level of socioeconomic background than other states," she says.

It's a theme repeated often.

"You can't look at this as just an educational problem," Mr Bailey says.

"It needs to be looked at as the really big picture.

"If you've got families collapsing in these communities, if you've got essentially communities collapsing in these areas, how do you draw a line in the sand to say, 'Right, we need to change this'?"

Tasmania's high school system has also come under scrutiny.

With the ACT, it is the only jurisdiction where most schools finish at year 10.

In a highly regionalised state, students need to attend a college, often in another town, to complete years 11 and 12.

"We remain one of the only places in Australia where leaving grade 10 is actually celebrated," Mr Bailey says.

Then there's the horror story, a generational tale of parents unwilling, or unable, to see further education as necessary.

Mr Eslake says its symptomatic of an island community.

"That kind of says, 'I don't really want my kids to go on to upper secondary and tertiary education because, if they do, they'll have to leave the state to get a job," he says.

"Then they'll meet and marry someone on the mainland and I'll never see my grandchildren."

The state government argues the problem is not as pronounced if Tasmania is compared with other regional areas around the country.

It says it is making inroads after former premier David Bartlett launched an $11 million five-year Adult Literacy Action Plan in 2010.

Its centrepiece is the innovative 26TEN program, which uses 800 trained volunteers to help their peers one-on-one and is planned to reach 15,000 Tasmanians by 2020.

"They can approach people in their footy club or in their local community or in their workplace," Education Minister Nick McKim says.

"That's a far more sophisticated approach than simply trying to encourage people to come into a classroom or interact with a teacher.

"It is genuinely turning people's lives around."

Mr McKim says a new pre-school program is changing the attitudes of children and their parents, while Tasmania's NAPLAN results are improving at a faster rate than in any other state.

The Liberal opposition says that's not fast enough and will head to next year's state election pledging children will meet benchmarks within six years.

But the opposition's big promise is an extension of all high schools to year 12 within a decade.

It has pledged $45.5 million over four years to get the ball rolling.

"When you've got a government that doesn't even believe that high school should go to year 12, why should you expect the parents to have any different opinion?" Mr Ferguson says.

Politics, though, are part of the problem, according to Ms Thomson.

The solutions are complex, she says, but the Gonski school funding reforms should be given a chance to address the socio-economic side of the problem.

Tasmania signed an agreement on Gonski before the federal election and both state parties support it.

Source: AAP

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