Adjournment Debate: Literacy Guarantee


Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 16:58 ): It is a very great privilege that I have the opportunity to talk about some important policy initiatives and their benefits to South Australian people. Last week, the Leader of the Opposition launched what he has committed to if we form government after the election in March, and that is a literacy guarantee for South Australian students and families. Literacy is fundamental to everything that we seek to do in the education system. Frankly, the Liberal Party position can be summed up very simply: we want our schools to be the best in the country and we want our education system to be the best in Australia. To achieve that, we need to deliver a literacy guarantee. 

Most of our schools in South Australia and most of our teachers are doing a great job and they are doing very well; however, the NAPLAN standardised test scores show that we need to do better as a system. Eighteen of the 20 categories by which the NAPLAN test results are judged show South Australia is coming fifth or sixth. We are below the national average in 19 out of the 20 categories and this is not good enough. We have to be doing better. 

One of the most important ways we can do that is by looking at improving the pedagogy by which some schools are engaging in literacy in the early years and by supporting teachers and families through a range of measures that I propose to detail shortly. One of the quickest ways we can improve literacy standards for the whole community is also one of the most important ways to improve wellbeing in the community, and that is to identify how we can best help those students with dyslexia and other learning difficulties who face special challenges as they learn to read and write. In supporting those students, we can support all students. 

We have identified a range of reports that show different estimates on how many students in our system have dyslexia and other learning difficulties, but even the most conservative estimates show that one in 10 students has dyslexia or some other learning difficulty as they go about their schooling. One in 10 South Australians has dyslexia or another learning difficulty, and that presents significant challenges to them learning to read. If you do not have the capacity to effectively read and write (functional illiteracy), that has enormous impacts on your life, your future opportunities and how you get about. Supporting these students who have persistent difficulty with reading, spelling and other parts of their schoolwork is a way that we can really help. 

We have done a great deal of research into the most effective ways of teaching students with dyslexia and other learning difficulties. We have spent a great deal of time on this and it has been an interest of mine long before I came to this place. The scientific research has increasingly backed up some of the work that was done at a national level as far as back as 2005 that identified systemic phonics as being a key part of the early years in teaching literacy and the best way to go about it. 

This is not necessarily something that should attract controversy across the chamber from the Labor Party. This is a matter about which I asked a series of questions for probably 20 minutes in estimates last year. When we were asking whether phonics was a key part of the government's approach to literacy, the Minister for Education at that stage, who is the current Minister for Education, claimed that it was. We were particularly concerned about whether teachers in our system had sufficient levels of support in their capacity to teach phonics. 

One of the things the minister said I thoroughly agreed with. She said that, fortunately, the things you want to do for students with dyslexia and learning difficulties actually work well for all students and that systemic phonics is not only the best way for students with dyslexia and other learning difficulties to learn how to read but it is also the best way for all students to learn how to read. What you do well for one group will work well for all in this case. 

Unfortunately, whole language learning was the approach that was very trendy in Australia for a number of years. In the university curriculums, those teachers who went through their training at certain times were not grounded in an effective way of phonics instruction. Whole language was much more compelling for a number of the academics for a number of years. We believe that it is important to give support to those teachers who did not have that in their formal training and who have not had professional development in the teaching of phonics in the years since. 

Our schools simply must deliver the best possible literacy programs that meet the needs of students with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, whether it is ADHD, dyscalculia or dysgraphia or others. The staff in our schools must have an understanding of learning difficulties. We have an expectation that all students, regardless of whether or not they have a learning difficulty, must be able to achieve a strong learning outcome. 

Our plan involves a range of measures. Firstly, we will look at hiring literacy coaches who will be part of our literacy guarantee unit in the Department for Education. They will be led by a widely respected educator with expertise in dyslexia and other learning difficulties, and those coaches will provide direct support to teachers, both inside and outside the classroom. It is very important that some of this work is delivered inside the classroom so that those teachers can get immediate feedback on how they are going and the way they interact with students can be identified, and they can get that direct personal support. Our model will see more than 500 teachers around South Australia upskilled through this professional development opportunity every year. 

We will support the federal government's rollout of phonics checks for all year 1 students in South Australia. While our literacy coaches policy has not been supported by the government, as identified by the minister last week, I am pleased to say that phonics checks are something that the government is piloting in 50 schools later this year. That is welcomed by the opposition, and we will ensure that is rolled out to all schools across South Australia. It is not a burden or an imposition, as suggested by some teachers. It is a five-minute check that will improve pedagogy and help to check that those students are not falling behind. 

We will also provide funding to non-government organisations to ensure that dyslexia parent workshops can be rolled out across South Australia. There are a number of opportunities for parents, particularly those who live in the city, to engage in workshops if their children have dyslexia and how they can best support their students. We will ensure that those workshops are significantly expanded, particularly in regional areas that currently lack those opportunities. 

We will also put on conferences, particularly in the midyear break, so that the teachers at schools who have not yet been able to receive direct assistance from our literacy coaches are able to access professional development opportunities in the most up-to-date evidence-based pedagogies and the most up-to-date evidence-based ways of supporting students with dyslexia and other learning difficulties in particular, but also to improve their professional development regarding literacy as a general factor. 

Our fifth aspect is in terms of parental engagement. We will roll out a range of measures to improve parental engagement between parents and schools. We know that parents want to help their kids' educational development. That is something that is or should be universal, but sometimes there are barriers to achieving the best possible outcomes—whether through lack of confidence or through issues between the parents and school. We will provide resources to help parents understand how to most effectively engage with their children's education, if they lack that confidence, and we will ensure that all schools provide avenues for parents to engage with teachers about their child's education. 

We will recognise the innovative work already being undertaken in some schools in this area to improve parental engagement, and we will roll out that best practice across the state. We will introduce that along with ACARA proficiency standards for our NAPLAN tests so that we are relying not just on the national minimum standards, which are not an impactful and insightful measure of how a student is performing. We will raise our expectations. 

We will ensure that literacy and numeracy testing is in place for teaching graduates. The government has it only for those starting their teaching degrees this year. We will not employ a new graduate unless they can pass those literacy and numeracy tests. We will provide support in the early years to address intergenerational disadvantage, through non‑government organisations, and we will conduct a review of how SACE exams are conducted for students with learning difficulties. We will make sure that every school that needs one in South Australia is able to access a breakfast program. These are important measures that will improve the outcomes for South Australian students.