27 October 2023

Independent inquiry to be held into ACT public schools' literacy and numeracy performance

| Claire Fenwicke
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teacher reading to school children

An independent inquiry will look into how to achieve better literacy and numeracy outcomes in Canberra’s schools. Photo: ACT Public Schools Facebook.

Factors both inside and outside of the classroom will be considered as part of an independent inquiry into the literacy and numeracy performance of students in the ACT public schools.

The Canberra Liberals on Thursday (October 26) called for an investigation into literacy performance to be held, with Labor announcing it would also consider numeracy results as part of the inquiry.

Shadow Education Minister Jeremy Hanson said this was a win for all students, children, schools and the community.

“We have been working for months with parents, educators, the unions and experts to shine a light on this issue, culminating in our call for a full review into literacy achievement in the ACT,” he said.

“We know there is no single or simple answer, but I am very pleased the government has now accepted the need to address this issue and I look forward to continuing to work with all groups to stand up for education standards in the ACT.”

It comes off the back of the Raising the Grade report released in June, which found one in three ACT 15 year old’s weren’t reaching the national benchmark for reading.

Mr Hanson said literacy was the “cornerstone” of life from starting school to employment, and so an investigation was needed to give kids the best start possible.

“There’s no one simple answer, but what I’m saying is that, and I think we’d all agree, this is an issue that has a profound impact on children’s lives in school and in their future,” he said.

“There could be few greater issues than teaching young kids to read and write.”

He felt the inquiry could examine school infrastructure, teaching methods, equity issues and the impact of the teacher shortage.

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The issue of equity was previously pointed to as one reason for declining literacy and numeracy rates by the Australian Education Union (AEU).

Education Minister Yvette Berry said equity gaps have been identified in ACT Budget papers since 2018, and said it was clear the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns had had an impact on education.

“We’ve broadened [this motion] out to include numeracy because literacy and numeracy are connected, and we want to make sure those equity gaps are understood,” she said.

“There’s a lot of information floating around right now … we don’t want to rehash [previous] inquiries, but we want to look at what we need to do in our schools to make them even better and address those equity gaps.”

Ms Berry said the government already had policies in place to support educators, but they wanted to make sure everything possible was being done to make sure students were getting the best outcomes.

“Education doesn’t stand still, and we want to do everything we can to make our system the best it possibly can be,” she said.

“It’s not a simple fix, we know that this is a complicated and complex issue, and that’s why we want to listen to all of the academics, we want to include parents and carers, we want to include teachers and students in that conversation.”

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The AEU ACT branch president Angela Burroughs said the independent inquiry was a chance to not only see how the system could do better, but also a chance to “debunk myths” around literacy teaching in ACT public schools.

“[These include] that literacy outcomes in the ACT are in crisis and that we are sliding backwards. The evidence shows the ACT to be high performing, but this doesn’t mean we don’t aspire to do better,” she said.

“The second myth is that education policy in the ACT prohibits the teaching of phonics and that the Education Directorate sets down rules that make explicit instruction take a back seat to inquiry-based learning. This is not true.”

She said cutting through these myths would be beneficial to educators, who could be “unnecessarily distracted” and stressed when trying to explain facts to parents.

“The Education Directorate has a role to play here in providing clarity to parents on these issues,” Ms Burroughs said.

“Our members want to teach, not spend time debunking myths about their expertise and practice.

“We welcome every opportunity to get teachers the time and resourcing they need to be able to teach.”

Cabinet will have to consider the terms of reference and whether it will be conducted by a single person or a panel.

The independent inquiry report is expected to be published fully, and handed to the ACT Government by the final sitting day in June 2024.

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Heaven help us if the Education Minister might get the nod to replace Andrew Barr (when he leaves the Assembly which I’m sure he will do before the 2024 ACT Election due in Oct 24. ACT Education Ministry is a complete shambles.

It would also be interesting to see literacy results by ethnicity. Wouldn’t be surprised if Indian and South East Asian kids are doing pretty well. Then correlate that by family income. If there’s kids doing well from those communities and yet their incomes are in many cases modest, then it’s not entirely about “socio economic factors”. There’s cultural learning factors coming into play. Such as, Indian and Asian kids getting a lot of home encouragement to succeed at school, while low SES “Aussie” kids might have more of a “too cool for school”, or fatalistic Centrelink, attitude and behaviour; which comes from culture specific to their class/ethnicity make-up.

Which ever teaching style is chosen, the material has to match the style. How many schools are using the wrong materials for the given style of teaching?

The other difference is the amount of homework. It seems its no longer given at some schools.
Giving a diaorma to a 2nd grader is clearly going to result in the parent doing a heap of work. Why shouldn’t the kid in year 4 get some maths sums to do at home?

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