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Tier 2 - Determinants of health

2.04 Literacy and numeracy

Key facts

Why is it important?

There is a two-way association between health and education. People with low educational attainment tend to have poorer health, fewer opportunities, lower incomes and reduced employment prospects. In turn, poor health is associated with lower educational attainment (Conti et al. 2010). Vision and hearing loss (see measures 1.15 Ear health and 1.16 Eye health) are associated with linguistic, social and learning difficulties and behavioural problems in school. These problems can lead to reduced educational performance and indeed reduced reading ability may be indicative of underlying vision or vision processing problems (Hopkins et al. 2017). Conversely, education can create opportunities for better health. Another way that education and health can be linked is by exposure to conditions, beginning in early childhood that can affect both education and health. Throughout life, conditions at home, socioeconomic status and other factors can cause illness, stress and deprive individuals and families of resources for success in school, and later, the workplace (Cutler et al. 2014).

In December 2007, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to a target of halving the gap between the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and non‑Indigenous students achieving reading and numeracy benchmarks by 2018. The target is measured using the National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). NAPLAN is an annual assessment for students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 that includes tests in reading, writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and numeracy. The proportions of Indigenous students (in each year group tested) meeting national minimum standards for reading and numeracy are used to measure progress against the Closing the Gap targets for literacy and numeracy. The national minimum standard represents a performance standard in literacy and numeracy, below which students will have difficulty progressing satisfactorily at school.

The recently established National Agreement on Closing the Gap has identified the importance of addressing child development, early childhood education and educational achievement with specific outcomes, targets and indicators to direct policy attention and monitor progress in these areas. Reporting arrangements for the new agreement are being established. The data presented in this report predates the establishment of these targets.

Findings

What does the data tell us?

The Closing the Gap target to halve the gap for Indigenous children in reading, writing and numeracy within a decade (by 2018) was not met. Approximately one in four Indigenous children in Years 5, 7 and 9, and one in five in Year 3, remained below national minimum standards in reading. Between 17 and 19 % of Indigenous students were below national minimum standards in numeracy. Although the gap remains, there has been some improvement in reading and numeracy over the past decade, and the gap has narrowed across all year levels by between 3 and 11 percentage points at the national level. The share of Indigenous students at or above national minimum standards increased by 3 to 14 percentage points in reading and 4 to 12 percentage points in numeracy. For Year 9 numeracy outcomes, five jurisdictions met the target over the decade to 2018 (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet 2020).

Indigenous students meeting the national minimum standards

Between 2008 and 2018, the proportion of Indigenous students in Years 3 and 5 meeting the national minimum standard for reading increased significantly, from 68% to 82% for Year 3 and from 63% to 77% for Year 5. This was also the case for the proportion in Years 5, 7 and 9 who met the national minimum standard for numeracy: increasing from 69% to 81% for Year 5; from 79% to 82% for Year 7; and from 73% to 83% for Year 9 (Table D2.04.13, Figure 2.04.1).

Figure 2.04.1: Proportion of students at or above the national minimum standards for reading and numeracy, by Indigenous status and school year level, 2008 to 2018

This figure consists of 8 line charts. It shows that, from 2008 to 2018, the proportion Indigenous students at or above the national minimum standards for reading and numeracy increased for year 3, 5, 7 and 9. For example, the proportion for reading for year 3 increased from 68% in 2008 to 82% in 2018; the proportion for numeracy for year 5 increased from 69% 81%. The proportion for non-Indigenous students remained constantly above 90% for all year groups in both categories.

Source: Table D2.04.13. Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority 2018.

In 2018, for reading, 82% of Indigenous students in Year 3 met the national minimum standards—the largest proportion among the different year groups—compared with 74% of Indigenous students in Year 9 (Table D2.04.1). For numeracy, the proportion of Indigenous students meeting the national minimum standard was similar across the year groups, ranging from 81% to 83% (Table D2.04.9, Figure 2.04.2).

In all school years assessed, a lower proportion of Indigenous students achieved the national minimum standard in each area tested than non-Indigenous students. For writing, 78% of Indigenous students in Year 3 achieved the national minimum standard; however, this proportion was lower in each higher year group tested. The largest gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students was among those in Year 9 for writing, for which 46% of Indigenous students met the national minimum standard compared with 82% of non-Indigenous students (Table D2.04.3, Figure 2.04.2).

Figure 2.04.2: Proportion of students at or above the national minimum standards, by Indigenous status, school year level and NAPLAN domain, 2018

This bar chart shows that, the proportion at or above the national minimum standards for reading, writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation for Indigenous studentsdecreased with year level. The proportion of non-Indigenous students at or above the national minimum standards remained constantly above 90% with the exception writing in years 7 and 9. The proportion of students at or above the minimum standards for numeracy remained constant for Indigenous (around 80%) and non-Indigenous (around 96%) across all year levels.

Source: Tables D2.04.1, D2.04.3, D2.04.5, D2.04.7 and D2.04.9. Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority 2018.

Comparison by jurisdiction

Across all subject areas and school year levels tested (Years 3, 5, 7 and 9), the proportions of Indigenous students achieving literacy and numeracy benchmarks were consistently lower for students living in the Northern Territory. For non-Indigenous students, the proportions were also lowest in the Northern Territory for all school year levels for Writing and for Grammar and punctuation. The proportions of Indigenous students achieving the benchmarks for Reading and Numeracy were highest in the Australian Capital Territory for all school year levels tested (Tables D2.04.1, D2.04.3, D2.04.5, D2.04.7, D2.04.9).

Comparison by remoteness

For all year groups and across all areas tested, lower proportions of Indigenous students living in Remote and Very remote areas achieved the national minimum standards, compared with those living in Non-remote areas. Among non-Indigenous students, there was relatively little variation across remoteness areas (Table D2.04.11).

For example, in 2018, 83% of Indigenous Year 9 students in Major cities met the national minimum standard in reading, compared with 95% of non-Indigenous Year 9 students (a difference of 12 percentage points). In Very remote areas, 28% of Indigenous Year 9 students met the national minimum standard for reading, compared with 92% of non-Indigenous Year 9 students (a difference of 64 percentage points) (Table D2.04.11, Figure 2.04.2).

Figure 2.04.3: Proportion of students at or above the national minimum standards, by Indigenous status, school year level, NAPLAN domain and remoteness, 2018

This figure consists of 5 bar charts. It shows that, for Indigenous students at all year levels (3, 5, 7 and 9), the proportion at or above the national minimum standards for reading, writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and numeracy decreased with remoteness. A similar trend can be observed for non-Indigenous students with respect to reading, grammar and punctuation, writing and spelling, while the proportion for numeracy remained constant

Source: Table D2.04.11. Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority 2018.

International comparison

The 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international survey of 15-year-olds. Across mathematical, scientific and reading literacy, Indigenous Australian students had a mean score that equated to around 2.3–2.75 years of schooling below non-Indigenous students. Around two-thirds of Indigenous students did not reach the national proficiency standard in scientific and reading literacy and just under three-quarters did not reach the standard in mathematical literacy. There was no significant change in Indigenous students’ scores between 2015 and 2018 in any domain (Thomson et al. 2019).

Factors affecting literacy outcomes

Early education experiences and school readiness are important as they influence future academic performance. The Australian Early Development Census measures how children are faring as they enter school. Key findings from the 2018 collection indicate that Indigenous children are twice as likely as non-Indigenous children to be developmentally vulnerable on one or more domains (41.3% and 20.4% ) and two or more domains (25.8% and 10.1% respectively). The gap is continuing to narrow between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children with the level of vulnerability on one or more domains decreasing from 47.4% in 2009 to 41.3%. The largest difference between Indigenous children and non-Indigenous children is the language and cognitive skills domain, with Indigenous children nearly 4 times more likely to be developmentally vulnerable in this domain than non-Indigenous children in 2018 (20.7 and 5.7% respectively) (Department of Education and Training 2018).

Hearing and vision loss due to high rates of otitis media and trachoma also affect literacy outcomes for Indigenous students. Regardless of ear health status, Indigenous students’ literacy skills remain consistently poorer compared with their non-Indigenous peers (Timms et al. 2014). Poor literacy achievement is more common among students who do not speak Standard Australian English at home, while poorer numeracy is more evident among students with parents in less skilled occupations (Purdie et al. 2011) (see measure 2.07 Employment). While the 2011 Census reports that 83% of Indigenous Australians speak English at home, many Indigenous Australians use a distinctly Indigenous form of English that differs from the Standard Australian English used in educational settings (Hall 2013) (Eades 2013). In 2014–15, 11% of Indigenous Australians aged 15 years and over spoke an Indigenous language as their main language (ABS 2016a).

In 2014–15, 30% of Indigenous parents of children aged 4–14 reported that their child’s school attendance was affected by bullying—the proportion was similar, at 34%, in 2008 (ABS 2010). This percentage was lowest for children in Years 1–3 (23%) and highest for children in Years 7–10 (40%) (Table D2.05.11).

As part of the 2014–15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, participants were asked about the types of assistance that would help their child in secondary school complete Year 12 (multiple types of assistance could be reported). ‘Support from family, friends and school’ was the type of assistance most commonly nominated by those in both Non-remote (85%) and Remote areas (92%). For those living in Non-remote areas, Individual tutoring (44%) and Career guidance (44%) were the next most commonly reported types of assistance. For those living in Remote areas, Encouragement from Elders and council (39%), and a Relative to support the child if they go away to boarding school (37%) were the other types of assistance most commonly reported (Table D2.05.7).

Overall, 85% of Indigenous parents stated that they were well advised or very well advised on their child’s progress at school. This proportion did not vary substantially depending on whether the child was in pre-primary school years, at primary school, or in secondary school (Years 7–10) (Table D2.04.16).

What do research and evaluations tell us?

Guthridge and others (2015) investigated the association between early life risk factors and NAPLAN results in a large cohort study of children in the Northern Territory (Guthridge et al. 2015). They found that low birthweight is associated with poorer numeracy results for Indigenous children, although subsequent research suggests this association may be confounded by maternal age and smoking status (Smith et al. 2019). With regard to broader school achievement, one study found a strong relationship between school achievement and a student’s self-belief in their ability, with lower self-belief in Indigenous students compared to non-Indigenous students, but no direct association otherwise between Indigenous status and achievement (Tarbetsky et al. 2016). Another study found that if Indigenous and non-Indigenous students reach the same level of academic achievement by the time they are 15, there is no significant difference in subsequent educational outcomes such as completing Year 12 and participating in university or vocational training (Mahuteau et al. 2015).

Early childhood education is important for children’s cognitive and social development and can help prepare them for the transition to school, and the progression through school and beyond. Children who attend early childhood education are more likely to perform well at school and research has shown that early childhood education attendance impacts positively on Year 3 literacy and numeracy results. Findings from PISA show that even after controlling for socioeconomic background, students aged 15 years who had attended early childhood education for at least one year, scored an average of 25 points higher in the PISA science assessment compared to those who had not (Co-operation & Development 2017; Warren & Haisken-DeNew 2013).

A realist evaluation examined in what circumstances the Aboriginal Families as First Educators (AFaFE) program contributes to stronger early childhood development outcomes. AFaFE commenced implementation in 2015. Through Aboriginal playgroups it supports parents/carers of children to act as their children’s ‘first educators’ and improve their school readiness and parent or carer engagement in their learning. AFaFE was intended to increase Aboriginal children’s enrolment, attendance and achievement in selected schools, but findings of the evaluation indicated that outcomes are highly variable. The type, degree and speed of improvement were influenced by multiple factors including the nature of the site, dynamics of the community and the relationship between the school and the local Aboriginal community (Williams et al. 2018). 

School attendance is key to school outcomes for Indigenous students. Around 18% of the gap in performance in maths and around 21% of the gap in reading between Indigenous and non-Indigenous 15-year-olds is explained by poorer school attendance by Indigenous students (Biddle 2014). Income management (also known as quarantining welfare) of families of students has been found to reduce attendance of students in the short term, and fail to increase school attendance in the longer term (Cobb-Clark et al. 2018).

The Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM) operated in the Northern Territory between March 2013 and December 2017. In 2016, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet commissioned a randomised controlled trial of the SEAM program. The trial showed no significant differences following any of the interventions between treatment and control students (Goldstein & Hiscox 2018).

A recent report investigated the educational outcomes of 100 young people aged between 12 and 21 years from a remote community in the Northern Territory. The study highlighted that remote-living young people in the Northern Territory are required to attend boarding school in order to access secondary education and that the supply of boarding places is not always equal to demand. The research cohort had been dispersed among 38 schools in every state or territory of mainland Australia. Early disengagement and low levels of academic achievement were apparent with 59% dropping out of boarding school in their first year. Findings indicate that educational determinants in remote contexts including housing, health, justice and employment need to be understood and quantified in relevant policy discussions. The report also advises that policies should aim to increase education engagement and attainment in-place, where students can stay connected with their family, community, land and culture. Further research is needed to test the generalisability of the findings across other communities (O'Bryan & Fogarty 2020).

An analysis of the investment in support for Indigenous Australian students attending boarding schools and facilities was undertaken in 2019. A number of recommendations were made to improve boarding outcomes for students and their families including health management, transition support and needs based funding for support services (Thornton 2019).

Implications

There is a direct relationship between education and health and this remains even after controlling for job characteristics, income, and family background. Therefore education policies have the potential to substantially improve health, and health policies can also help to improve education outcomes for Indigenous Australians (Cutler & Lleras-Muney 2007).

Approaches to fostering Indigenous educational achievement need to consider the diverse experiences and lifestyles of Indigenous Australian students. Appropriate teaching strategies require an understanding of the features of Indigenous Australian cultures and need to be aware that Indigenous children may have culturally specific skills that can be recognised and incorporated in teaching practices (Purdie et al. 2011).

Developing strong links between early childhood services, schools, parents and communities to improve attendance; providing culturally competent and quality teaching; and ensuring schools help Indigenous students to feel included and supported, provides a foundation for improving literacy and numeracy outcomes of Indigenous children. The disparities in NAPLAN achievement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students are widespread across remoteness areas and schools. Therefore, a ‘one size fits all’ approach is unlikely to be effective and this should be considered in the development of any policies and programs (Productivity Commission 2016).

A significant proportion of Indigenous Australian students in remote schools are English as an Additional Language or Dialect learners (in remote areas English was the main language spoken at home for less than half of Indigenous Australians) (ABS 2016b). A key aspect of supporting literacy and numeracy development is the recognition of their existing language skills in local languages and supporting their language development as English learners (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet 2019).

Steps should also be taken to improve health as a determinant of education, namely vision and hearing issues that hinder communication in the classroom. Vision problems and hearing loss, especially in children, can lead to linguistic, social and learning difficulties and behavioural problems in school, which in turn can impact on educational achievements. Early detection and management of health issues should therefore be considered in any strategies aimed at improving school achievement and attendance (Darwin Otitis Guidelines Group & Office for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Otitis Media Technical Advisory Group 2010).

The new National Agreement on Closing the Gap was developed in partnership between Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations. The agreement has recognised the importance of addressing child development, early childhood education and educational achievement by establishing the following outcomes and targets to direct policy attention and monitor progress:

  • Outcome 3 — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are engaged in high quality, culturally appropriate early childhood education in their early years.
    • Target — By 2025, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children enrolled in Year Before Fulltime Schooling (YBFS) early childhood education to 95 per cent.
  • Outcome 4 — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children thrive in their early years.
    • Target — By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children assessed as developmentally on track in all five domains of the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) to 55 per cent.
  • Outcome 5 — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students achieve their full potential.
    • Target — By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (age 20-24) attaining year 12 or equivalent qualification to 96 per cent.

The policy context is at Policies and strategies.

References

  • ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2010. The health and welfare of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples 2010. Canberra.
  • ABS 2016a. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2014–15. Canberra: ABS.
  • ABS 2016b. Census of Population and Housing: Characteristics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians (2016). Viewed July 2019.
  • Biddle N 2014. Developing a Behavioural Model of School Attendance: Policy Implications for Indigenous Children and Youth. Canberra: CAEPR.
  • Cobb-Clark DA, Kettlewell N, Schurer S & Silburn S 2018. The effect of quarantining welfare on school attendance in Indigenous communities. ARC Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course: Life Course Centre Working Paper: 2017-22.
  • Conti G, Heckman J & Urzua S 2010. The Education-Health Gradient. The American Economic Review 100:234-8.
  • Cutler D, Lleras-Muney A & Culyer A 2014. Encyclopedia of Health Economics.
  • Cutler D & Lleras-Muney A 2007. Education and Health. Policy Brief# 9. National Poverty Center, University of Michigan.
  • Darwin Otitis Guidelines Group & Office for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Otitis Media Technical Advisory Group 2010. Recommendations for Clinical Care Guidelines on the Management of Otitis Media in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Populations. Darwin: Menzies SHR.
  • Department of Education and Training 2018. Australian Early Development Census National Report 2018. Canberra: Department of Education and Training.
  • Eades D 2013. They don't speak an Aboriginal language, or do they? In. Aboriginal ways of using English. Canberra, ACT: Aboriginal Studies Press, 56-75.
  • Goldstein R & Hiscox M 2018. School Enrolment and Attendance Measure Randomized Controlled Trial: Full Report.
  • Guthridge SL, Li L, Silburn S, Li SQ, McKenzie J & Lynch J 2015. Impact of perinatal health and socio-demographic factors on school education outcomes: A population study of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in the Northern Territory. Journal of Paediatrics & Child Health 51:778-86.
  • Hall J 2013. Communication disorders and indigenous Australians: a synthesis and critique of the available literature. Honours. Edith Cowan University,, Edith Cowan University Research Online.
  • Hopkins S, Sampson GP, Hendicott PL & Wood JM 2017. Vision Problems and Reduced Reading Outcomes in Queensland Schoolchildren. Optometry and Vision Science, 94:345-52.
  • Mahuteau S, Karmel T, Mavromaras K & Zhu R 2015. Educational Outcomes of Young Indigenous Australians. Adelaide: NILS.
  • O'Bryan M & Fogarty W 2020. Boarding off and on country: a study of education in one Northern Territory remote community. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University.
  • OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) 2017. Starting strong 2017: Key OECD indicators on early childhood education and care. OECD Publishing.
  • PM&C (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet) 2020. Closing the Gap Report 2020.
  • PM&C 2019. Closing the Gap Report 2019. Canberra.
  • Productivity Commission 2016. Indigenous Primary School Achievement. Canberra: Productivity Commission.
  • Purdie N, Reid K, Frigo T, Stone A & Kleinhenz E 2011. Literacy and Numeracy Learning: Lessons from the Longitudinal Literacy and Numeracy Study for Indigenous Students. research.acer.edu.au: ACER.
  • Smith R, Mohapatra L, Hunter M, Evans TJ, Oldmeadow C, Holliday E et al. 2019. A case for not adjusting birthweight customized standards for ethnicity: observations from a unique Australian cohort. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 220:10.
  • Tarbetsky AL, Collie RJ & Martin AJ 2016. The role of implicit theories of intelligence and ability in predicting achievement for Indigenous (Aboriginal) Australian students. Contemporary Educational Psychology 47:61-71.
  • Thomson S, De Bortoli L, Underwood C & Schmid M 2019. PISA 2018: Reporting Australia’s Results. Volume I Student Performance. Melbourne: ACER.
  • Thornton G 2019. Boarding: investing in outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. An analysis of the investment in support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students attending boarding schools and facilities.
  • Timms L, Williams C, Stokes SF & Kane R 2014. Literacy skills of Australian Indigenous school children with and without otitis media and hearing loss. International Journal of Speech Language Pathology 16:327-34.
  • Warren D & Haisken-DeNew JP 2013. Early bird catches the worm: The causal impact of pre-school participation and teacher qualifications on Year 3 National NAPLAN Cognitive Tests.
  • Williams E, Westhorp G & Lovell J 2018. Emerging outcomes and explanations: A formative, realist evaluation of the Catholic Education WA Aboriginal Families as First Educators Program. Northern Institute, Charles Darwin University.

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