The last couple of years have been particularly significant ones for literacy education in Australia, with the release of three major reports on surveys of literacy abilities and the release of a major policy initiative, the Commonwealth Literacy Policy. While the major focus of this article is the nature and consequences of the last-mentioned, it is useful first to look briefly at the reports of literacy surveys, as they contribute directly to the context which shaped the policy and provide, at least to some extent, justification for its nature.
The first of these reports, Survey of Aspects of Literacy (SAL), released in September 1997, provided information about the national survey of literacy abilities of Australian adults, assessed on abilities in prose, document and quantitative literacy on a scale of 1-5. A major finding of the survey was that about 47 per cent of Australian adults were assessed in the lowest two scales, suggesting that a considerable number of people experienced at least some difficulty with literacy in their lives, while only 17 per cent were assessed in the highest two scales. Since about 20 per cent of those surveyed were assessed at Level 1, the survey release was accompanied by some media claims of 20 per cent illiteracy rates in Australia. The more detailed breakdown and discussion of figures revealed other significant data, among them the following findings.
* A strong correlation between low literacy levels and older people, especially those who spoke English as a second language and those of Aboriginal descent (although due to the small sample of Aboriginal informants, the survey report cautioned against generalisations about literacy levels of Aboriginal people).
* Higher overall literacy levels for younger people (with the exception of young people aged 15-19, many of whom, as the survey report pointed out, were still in the process of completing their schooling).
* A high overall correlation between educational attainment and literacy performance.
While the survey results offered little room for complacency as far as the literacy abilities of Australians are concerned, they were comparable with results from other English-speaking nations such as the United States and Canada. From the results it is also possible to conclude that, since younger people with high educational attainment had the highest literacy levels, and older immigrants whose education had occurred primarily in countries other than Australia had the lowest levels of literacy, Australian schools have been generally successful in assisting students' literacy development. They also suggested the need for on-going adult literacy programs. Unfortunately, at the time of the survey release, funding for adult literacy programs had recently been substantially cut.
A second major report -- comprehensive, carefully conducted and having the support of teachers, unions and other educational groups -- was released a week later. Mapping Literacy Achievement (1997) reported the results of the 1996 National School English Literacy Survey, which assessed the literacy achievements of Year 3 and Year 5 students across Australian schools.
Simultaneously, at the insistence of Dr David Kemp, the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, a further report, Literacy Standards in Australia (1997), was released. This report applied a statistical procedure to the data contained in the National School English Literacy Survey in order to establish benchmarks and to determine what proportion of students were performing at levels judged to be adequate. The results, announced in a sensational manner on the television program `Sixty Minutes', were interpreted by the minister as indicating there were major literacy problems in Australian schools and that about one-third of Australian school students could not read or write at an adequate standard. …