A new study by The Literacy for Life Foundation has found that more than half of surveyed Aboriginal adults needed help with basic English literacy.
Close to 900 participants took part in the survey, which covered eight New South Wales communities, including Brewarrina, Bourke, Enngonia and Walgett.
Professor Jack Beetson, who's been running the Literacy for Life Foundation since 2013, told NITV News he wasn’t surprised by the figures.
“I just think it's been an abject failure of the education system itself,” he said.
"At a bare minimum, 40 per cent of Aboriginal people 15 and over have low literacy, but in communities out in Western NSW, it's up to 70 or 80 per cent at least.”
Professor Beetson believes the system doesn’t encourage Aboriginal people to value the need for education or attend school.
“Obviously, Aboriginal people don't feel comfortable in there, that's why they're not going. If people valued education, then they'd go along and I think that's part of the challenge. [That is] a part of what we're trying to do with the Literacy for Life Foundation.”
Professor Beetson, a Ngemba man from Western Sydney, had his own challenges with the education system growing up. He was kicked out of school at just 13 but eventually returned to finish his education. He began teaching at Tranby College in Sydney and has since become a champion for Indigenous adult literacy.
One of his biggest concerns is the extent of how low literacy levels impact the lives and communities of First Nations people.
“It impacts on everything; it impacts on health, it impacts on people’s engagement on the criminal justice system, it certainly impacts on education."
For Professor Beetson, who's been actively involved in Indigenous education in Australia and internationally for over 30 years, a key component in closing the gap in literacy numbers is educating parents.
"At the end of the day, it's literate parents who'll demonstrate to their children that they value learning and in turn, children will value learning."
The father of five and grandfather of two also worries parents may be inadvertently putting themselves and their children at risk.
"We have young parents out there that can't read and write. I'm talking about people that are 15 years and above that have these low literacy levels that are administering medicines not only to themselves but to babies and little children, without really being able to read what the dosage is on the medicine bottle. If for no other reason, we should be addressing it because of that. That is something that I actually think about every single day."
Professor Beetson's Foundation research findings coincide with Charles Darwin University figures which show almost 9 out of 10 adults in remote Indigenous communities in the NT do not have the literacy skills to cope competently within the workplace or in education.
"What I'm calling on the government to do is to fund our campaign - to fund a roll out nationally. What we can't do as a nation is sit by annually and keep getting this appalling report on closing the gap and it's nothing short of appalling."
The Literacy for Life Foundation is an Aboriginal-run charity training Aboriginal people to bring literacy to their communities, using innovative, evidence-based, education campaigns in partnership with the University of New England, University of New South Wales and the Lowitja Institute.