Lifting literacy levels too important to be trifled with

01:23, Oct 29 2012

A reply to Karl du Fresne's view of the future of New Zealand education, published in the Nelson Mail on October 10:

I work as a quality manager, and have worked as an industry training consultant to several companies and industry training organisations.

This work has made me aware of the training needs in various industries, and how much of that need is in the form of increasing literacy levels.

This is not because of declining levels of educational achievement, but it is much more strongly related to the increasing levels of complexity and compliance requirements in our industries.

Management systems used to be rare. They are now the norm, covering everything from working safely to food handling, from driving a truck to refurbishing a bathroom.

This means that someone with reading difficulties can have real problems handling the paperwork in their workplace, even though they may be intelligent, a fast learner on the job and have excellent people skills.


New Zealand has an excellent record in general literacy. We are fourth of the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

This does not mean we cannot do better or that increasing literacy levels will not increase our productivity and improve the job prospects of a large part of our population.

What it means is that achieving such an increase will not be easy, and we must be careful to preserve the advantage we have gained already.

I believe that the way to achieve this is to adopt a managed approach - do some research and find out what makes our current system so good, so we can hang on to this.

We also need to look carefully at those who are not achieving good literacy levels and see if we can find out why.

This has already identified dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a range of disorders on the autism spectrum - conditions that only a few years ago were considered eccentricities in essentially normal people.

There are probably more out there ready to be discovered as we tighten the range of "acceptable" (employable in literate society?) literacy and numeracy.

There is already one identifiable factor that could be worked on: in New Zealand, literacy levels correlate with family socio-economic status.

Efforts to reduce child poverty could very well give literacy levels a big boost and, by reducing this factor, give an indication of where to move next.

As Karl du Fresne points out, our current path is following that of a large proportion of the English-speaking world, especially the United States and Britain. Unfortunately, the US ranks 14th in literacy, and Britain 20th.

There is a very real risk that applying the policies currently being followed in the US and Britain may result in our educational outputs also following theirs.

For example, both countries have much more diversity in their education systems, especially in the difference between the best and worst schools.

New Zealand is well short of this at present, and comparisons with the three school systems that are outperforming ours suggest that the uniformity in our system may be one of the reasons for our current performance level.

It is significant that Canada is never mentioned when discussing trends in education in English-speaking countries.

Canada is deliberately staying away from the policies our Government is advocating, and is the only English-speaking country that outranks New Zealand. (It is third in the OECD literacy levels.)

There is very little, if any, evidence to support the idea that any of the reforms will make a difference to the children who are missing their potential because they can't engage with our system.

We have the opportunity to find out why this is happening. After all, we have the smallest number of such children in the Western World.

If we can find out what the real problem is, we will have a chance to use careful management to improve their education without risking the education of most Kiwi children.

I am, however, inclined to believe du Fresne on one thing - much of the current debate is about the control of our education system.

Modern management practice is to have management work with employees to identify and put improvements in place together. I therefore believe that the education of our children, and the level of literacy in our developing future workforce, is much too important to be jeopardised so the Government can score points from the teachers' unions.