• Participants of the Literacy for Life program in Brewarrina in north west New South Wales (SBS)Source: SBS
After success in regional NSW, there's hope expanding the scheme to a major city will also improve job prospects and housing security for Indigenous Australians.
Tom Stayner

3 Aug 2018 - 11:25 AM  UPDATED 3 Aug 2018 - 3:41 PM

A literacy program for adults being rolled-out in Western Sydney could be the first step to taking the scheme national, its executive director says.

Literacy for Life delivers readings lessons to adults using an international program originally from Cuba that has already had success in towns in country New South Wales.

The project has been credited with 176 people learning to read. Starting in 2012, it has run across eight regional communities - including in Wilcannia, Walgett, Bourke and Brewarrina.

Professor Jack Beetson, head of the scheme in Australia, said the number of Indigenous Australians who struggle with reading and writing ranges from 40 per cent to as high as 70 per cent in some communities.

“The challenge for us as Australians, particularly for Indigenous children, is that we actually need to get literate mothers for our children,” he said.

“I just think that there is no greater gift as Australians we could give to Aboriginal children than a literate mother.”

Mr Beetson said the program is expecting even stronger outcomes in its first roll-out in a major city in Australia, particularly in terms of job prospects for graduates.

“There will be a real opportunity to link people’s learning to employment.”

He's hoping the scheme will turn into a national literacy campaign.

“This is probably the next step in that process, where we run it in a major metropolitan area.”

The course is modelled on a reading program called Yes I Can, first started in Cuba in the 1960s.

It has since been used internationally, helping more than 10 million people become literate across 30 countries over the past 15 years.

It is specifically designed for disadvantaged communities to improve reading skills quickly and at low cost.

Mr Beetson said the scheme globally has a graduation rate of 50 to 80 per cent.

“The only question that we had was would this model work in an Aboriginal context - and overwhelmingly it has,” Mr Beetson said.

Literacy and housing security

Patricia Oxford is the acting chief executive of the Aboriginal Housing Office, which is supporting the scheme's push into Western Sydney. 

Indigenous Australians make up around 24 per cent of those accessing specialist homelessness services, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Ms Oxford said literacy difficulties mean people can struggle to read contracts and understand tenancy agreements essential to maintaining housing.

“When people can’t access safe and affordable housing there is a significant risk that they can fall into homelessness, and the ramifications of homelessness are huge,” she said.

"Being able to read contracts and read about different aspects of where you want to live and where you want to bring your family up are so important."

Ms O'Connor says improving literacy will also help secure housing in larger ways.

"You need to be able to read and write to access affordable housing, health services and progress your career."

Overcoming illiteracy bringing hope and a brighter future to Brewarrina
When it was discovered that around half of the adults in the north west NSW town of Brewarrina were functionally illiterate, it was clear that something had to change to give their community members a better chance to move ahead and succeed in life.

Indigenous trainers

With $750,000 in funding from the NSW government, the program is now training Indigenous people to deliver the scheme in Western Sydney.

Mr Beetson said community ownership is key to its success.

“We go around and try to interview every Aboriginal household in the area… to gauge how many people may have low literacy,” he said.

He said it’s important to engage community members to ensure people don’t feel ashamed about joining the program.

“Through [our] meetings the interest is really strong, they’re really keen to get it started.”

Abysmal rates of Indigenous literacy ‘an abject failure of the education system’
The Executive Director of the Literacy for Life Foundation, Jack Beetson has slammed the education system for failing Aboriginal communities.