Why learning to read and write is more important than ever before

Sunday Telegraph, 04/04/2010

A bloke called Thomas Clare was arrested on the streets of Dublin 180 years ago and shipped off to Australia. His heinous crime? Stealing books. I think it’s a great story. He was sent to the other end of the earth for wanting to read, and now learning to read and write is a national priority.

Believe it or not, more than six million Australians don’t have the basic literacy or numeracy skills needed in the workplace.

Some employers tell me they have to put pictures on the wall to make sure staff understand safety procedures. I am not just talking here about workers from non-english speaking backgrounds.

According to a report released by Skills Australia a few weeks ago, 40 per cent of Australians who currently have a job, and 60 per cent of those who are unemployed, don’t have the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed in a modern workforce.

This is a big problem and it is going to get bigger unless we do something about it. Our workforce is changing. The jobs of the future will require more skills and the proportion of low and unskilled jobs will fall. Three out of every four new jobs now being created require not only the HSC but post-secondary qualifications.

That is why learning to read and write is now more important than ever before.

As the economy recovers from the global recession skills shortages will inevitably re-emerge. The big resource projects ramping up in Western Australia are the first evidence of this. But pockets of Australia with distressingly high levels of unemployment will still be hard to budge.

In Western Sydney unemployment is currently double the national average. In Bankstown teenage full-time unemployment is 45 per cent. I ran a Jobs Expo there a few weeks ago and 6,500 people turned up. More than 500 went home that night with a job.

I asked employers at the expo why unemployment in Bankstown is so high. They all told me the same thing – a lot of people looking for a job lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. This is what entrenches unemployment.

Over the past few months I have been running Jobs Expos across the country in areas where unemployment is high. These places are all very different, but they have one thing in common – in every single one of these places high school completion rates are lower than the national average.

The classrooms and libraries we are building in every primary school are protecting a lot of jobs in these places, but it is the reforms the Rudd Government is making to education that will have an even bigger impact.

Things like national testing, a national curriculum, the MySchool website and extra money for the schools that need it the most.

Last month Julia Gillard launched the Smarter Schools program. It will fund extra classroom teachers so primary school classes can break into smaller groups and practice reading, writing and maths. It is also funding extra assistance for kids who fall behind and extra pay for our best teachers to come and work in places like Bankstown.

In Bankstown it means $63 million for 36 schools. To put that in perspective this is almost 10 percent of the entire funding for NSW. That is good public policy in action – putting money and resources where they are needed most. These schools have never seen this sort of funding before from a federal government.

This is just the start. There is a lot more to do. We have to get this right if we are serious about building a stronger economy and a fairer Australia.

In case you’re wondering, my great-great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Clare ended up doing OK. He did his time, got married, started a family and opened a small business in Sydney. He succeeded and so can we.