Professor Tom Calma says the government's plan to test Year One students for literacy and numeracy will come too late, and says parents can play a bigger role.
20 Sep 2017 - 9:35 AM  UPDATED 20 Sep 2017 - 10:06 AM

Professor Tom Calma has said the government's plan to test year one students for literacy and numeracy to identify kids who are struggling will come too late. 

"The report raised some good issues, but from the time they reach year one its too late," he told NITV. 

He said development issues need to be addressed earlier. 

"If you've discovered development issues within children, trying to address them is harder when they're in year one compared to pre-school or even before," he said.

"A significant role can be played at pre-school and even before pre-school or at day care."   

As the co-chair of the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation, Mr Calma has spent many years working with the community to improve educational outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and children. 

Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced the new reading and math test on Monday under recommendations laid-out by a government appointed panel. 

Mr Birmingham said the 'light touch' checks being proposed are not a test, rather early intervention to make sure kids don't fall behind. 

"These skills checks are far from a confronting test but rather a light touch assessment that ensures teachers, parents and schools know at the earliest possible stage if children aren’t picking up reading or counting skills as quickly as they should, enabling them to intervene rapidly," he said. 

Australian Education Union President Correna Haythorpe said another test is the last thing students need. 

"The reality is that in our schools already, teachers undergo formal assessment proccesses with their students. They don't need another national test on top of this," she said. 

The $23 billion plan was recommended by an expert panel appointed by Mr Birmingham who says 1 in 20 Australian students do not meet the minimum standard of literacy by the time they reach Year Three. 

"Earlier indentification can lead to earlier intervention and earlier intervention can help ensure children don't fall behind and that is what this is all about," he said. 

Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek said the plan doesn't make sense. 

"It makes no sense to have a new test that identifies kids who are falling behind if you're not prepared to properly fund schools to help those children catch up," she said. 

This is vital for Indigenous kids who fall even further behind, the latest Closing the Gap report found no improvement in literacy and numeracy rates since 2008. 

Dr Tessa Daffern from the University of Canberra disagreed, and said the new test could help Indigenous kids. 

"If it is comprehensive information they do receive then it is possible for teachers to help Indigenous students develop in literacy skills," she said. 

But Professor Calma questioned the amount of resources and support once teachers identify issues. 

"There are not enough teachers or even enough support people in schools if teachers identify issues within students, what can they do," 

He fears the program will always try to be catching up. 

"Prevention is the poor cousin."  

Parents can play bigger role 

Professor Calma says the foundational years are critical to learning. 

"It brings a higher level of education, better health outcomes, and greater enhances prospects for employment," he said. "Education and health go hand in hand, education is a determinant of health." 

He said parents can play a much bigger role. 

"It's not a difficult exercise to get parents involved in teaching. If we engage with parents, it's conducive to learning," he said.

"Teaching is done in a classroom, but most of the teaching happens at home. Parents also get empowered," he said. 

The ALNF works to help people by raising literacy levels in the country's most marginalised communities, through a number of programs, including First Languages.

It's aim is to revive, maintain and revitalise First Nations languages through developing literacy resources and teaching strategies in a number of oral languages.

"Teaching the first language creates respect, understanding and inclusiveness. It's also empowering and engaging for parents and carers to the first teachers."  

Cashless welfare may affect numeracy 

Professor Calma also raised the issue of children losing the ability to handle cash and add numbers in communities where the cashless debit card has been rolled out. 

"There are big challenges with the cashless debit card. It disempowers learning on how to handle cash, parents can't get their children to go to the store and buy them something. These transactions teach us how to handle money," he said. 

"We have the potential to lose it all with the cashless debit card." 

The card quarantines 80 per cent of welfare payments which cannot be spent on alcohol, gambling or cash withdrawals. 

Trial sites have been in place in Ceduna and the East Kimberly for past 18 months, with Kalgoorlie the third site announced earlier this month. 

Professor Calma said while the card stops people from gambling and buying alcohol, it doesn't address the issue of addiction. 

"The one size fits all approach doesn't work. It's critical there is a mechanism for people who are responsbile to get an exemption," he said. 

Related reading
Books by students get published and officially launch for Indigenous Literacy Day 2017
From a water buffalo who thinks it's a dog to a teenage girl trying to navigate boarding school, the Indigenous Literacy Foundation's new book releases are giving students the opportunity to get creative and get writing.
Getting left behind: excluded students will lead to illiterate adults
Is the disconnect between policy makers and communities responsible for the low literacy levels in Indigenous Australia?
Australia's 'staggering' education divide: How students in remote areas are far from a ‘fair go’
Children in Australia's most remote regions are being left when it comes to education amid a staggering divide between the haves and have-nots, a report says.