Literacy and Development

Speech to the 1998 Planning Hui of the Adult Reading and Learning Assistance (ARLA) Federation of Aotearoa New Zealand: Waipapa Marae, University of Auckland, Saturday 20 June. Published in Nga Kete Koreo, the Journal of Literacy Aotearoa, July, 1999.

Keywords: Education;

During his second voyage of discovery, James Cook had two boats which arranged to meet in Queen Charlotte Sound. They did not. After waiting around, the Resolution had left a week or so before the Adventure arrived in late 1773. The arriving crew found a tree stump, which told them there was a message below. They dug it up, to be told – in a rather curt note – that Cook had sailed on. The Polynesians were amazed, for here were two men communicating, without being in each other’s presence, and without a human intermediary.

There is a sense in which that was the day, 225 years ago, when writing came to New Zealand. Despite being an oral culture, the Maori seized reading and writing with alacrity. At first it was to read the bible, which is a communication from men hundreds of years before, and so long dead. Later they used writing for numerous purposes including petitioning the nineteenth century government about wrongs, letters which are important today in the identification and settlement of Tiriti grievances.

I recall this history not because it shows that the European introduced writing into New Zealand. In fact they had learned it from the Middle Eastern Phoenicians, who in turn had been influenced by African Egyptians. Independently, the Chinese – the ancestors of the Maori are thought to have come from China – had their own writing. Thus the ability to read and write does not seem to be an inherently cultural one, but programmed deep inside all humans, perhaps as an extension of the universal ability to speak. Some came to writing early, some late. By the middle of the nineteenth century many Maori were more literate than many Europeans.

That still applies today. The International Adult Literacy Survey, which – alas – is still not fully published, reports that there are almost one and a quarter million New Zealand adults are not competently literate in that they are unable to cope with a varied range of material found in daily life and work. Most of those would be Pakeha/European. However the rates were much higher in the Maori, the Pacific Islanders, and those of other minority ethnicities. About 40 percent of Pakeha are not functionally literate on this measure, but for the other groups the figure is more than 60 percent.

The Survey splits those who are not functionally literate into two groups. The lowest group were those with very poor skills, who experience considerable difficulty using the printed materials that they encounter in daily life. There appears to be about half a million adults in this group. Another three quarters of a million are able to use some printed material, but this would generally be relatively simple.

Most of those with the poorest literacy are Pakeha/European, but the problem is proportionally higher other ethnic groups. The highest reported proportion is the 70 percent of Pacific Islanders born outside New Zealand are at this bottom level.

Other social variables are also related to the poorest literacy level. Women are slightly more functionally literate than men are, although the report mentions that Polynesians men are better at being able to read a document or material using numbers, than the women who are nevertheless better at reading prose.

The least literate are also least likely to be employed, and more likely to have low incomes. The correlation does not tell us that a lack of literacy destines a person to unemployment and poverty, but that seems probable for many. But it would be misleading to concentrate on the unemployed. About 38 percent of the employed are not functionally literate; around 10 percent are in the very lowest group of poor literacy.

The longer at school, the higher the level of literacy although – astonishingly – even 7 percent of those with a tertiary education are among those with the poorest level of literacy. Low schooling is one of the reasons for poorer literacy among the eldest. Even more astonishing it would seem that more 40 percent of those who complete their formal education in recent years are still not attaining functional literacy. That means each year over 20,000 students leave school who are not functionally literate.

In pointing out that we have a half a million New Zealand adults with very poor literacy, and another three quarter of a million adults whose literacy is at best limited, it is not my intention to bash the education system. It has insufficient resources as it is. I suspect, though, much of the system may suffer from what might be called the “English disease”.

A British friend, Professor Sig Prais was intrigued why the German economy was doing so much better than the British one. So he compared the educational attainment of German and English workers. He found that the top of each labour force attained impressively high standards. The difference was that when the bottom half were compared, the German students preformed much better than the British ones. Thus the Germans did not just concentrate on their top students. They made sure that their bottom students also gained good skills. The English education is very successful with elite students too, but it puts much less emphasis on the rest. (It shows in other international comparisons. The International Literacy Survey gets the same conclusion. Germans attain higher literacy standards than the British. I’ll come back to the international comparisons.) In summary it seems that the performance of a country’s top scholars may be less important than the whole team effort.

Does New Zealand have a German or an English approach to education? Many schools are committed to their educationally weaker students. Nevertheless I cannot help noticing that the educational debate is often in terms of the successes at the top of a school. Each year our newspapers publish schools ranked by school certificate or scholarship passes: terribly English really. What we really want to know is about achievement, not attainment: the extent the school takes students with a particular background and improves their performance. A school which takes in students from a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, including immigrants, where many come from poor and social difficult circumstances, where many are – and have been – poor academic achievers, may be very successful in upgrading the skills of its students. But it may not do well in the School Cert stakes.

Do we allocate the resources fairly among the schools with their different mixtures of students? Or do those with easy students get more relative to the task asked to them? All those to whom I have spoken, acknowledge there is some so-called compensatory funding in grants to schools, but it is nowhere near enough.

Let me express a prejudice. There is a dispute between the Ministry of Education and the educational unions over whether some funds should be spent on bulk funding or funding more teachers. Me, this lay person, thinks we should be hiring more teachers. This is not to argue bulk funding is wrong, I am arguing that more teachers at the book face are a priority. Now I am aware of the research which says that smaller classes do not increase educational attainment. But it can still be efficient to use adjunct teachers, to upgrade particular skills of students. Recall that there are over 20,000 students leaving school who are not functionally literate. The argument is about an extra 1200 teachers. That is about 17 students per full time teacher. Those teachers could be used to get literacy standards up among the weakest students, who would leave school better able to function. It would also mean they would get more out of school. They might even stay on longer.

It is no good saying that there are students who will never be literate. It is a much smaller proportion than you might think. For instance 75 percent of adult Swedes are functionally literate, and only 5 percent are at the lowest level. (New Zealand’s figures are just over 50 percent, and almost 20 percent.) If the age effect of those with a poorer education is allowed for, and if recent immigrants are taken out, Sweden must be getting very high rates of effective adult literacy over 90 percent among its young adults. That is the sort of goal we should be setting ourselves.

Putting more resources into raising literacy at school still leaves between half a million and one and a quarter million adults who have left school in a poor state of literacy. That is the place for organizations such the ARLA Federation. But as valiant and noble are your effort – in 1997 you dealt with 8935 students, up 31 percent on your 1996 effort – the 1997 achievement is still less than half the number of not functionally literate students leaving the formal education system in 1997. The numbers of functionally non-literate are probably increasing. There is a sense, you know, that the nation has a literacy crisis, which it does not even know about it, let alone do something about it. This crisis is not self-correcting.

Admittedly the available report of the International Literacy Survey suggests that New Zealand is in the middle of the eleven countries survey surveyed, or perhaps just a little below the average. The report warns that international comparisons are difficult. For the record Sweden, the Netherlands, and (probably) Germany are definitely better than we are; Poland definitely worse. We do worse on document literacy and quantitative literacy than on prose literacy. But to settle for average is hardly a commitment to excellence. Moreover it mat be our place in the ranking is deteriorating. Does such a literacy crisis matter? For instance does poor national literacy affect economic performance? There is some evidence it does.

I have already mentioned the correlation between poor literacy and unemployment and low incomes. The research of Sig Prais supports the conclusion of the importance of everyone doing well in literacy and other school attainments. We also know that poorer countries have lower average literacy. Insofar as other factors – such as technology and sound business systems – drive economic growth, one of the main means of access to them is via reading and writing.

Moreover this week’s visitor, American economist Robert Reich, reminds us at the heart of successful economic development is the quality of the labour supply. Quality labour is high productivity labour; international investors seek it out. Quality labour can read, read better than 38 percent of the New Zealand labour force. Being unable to read instructions is a handicap: for instance being unable read safety instructions leads to accidents. And what about the most famous New Zealand advice of all “when all else fails, read the instructions.” That advice is no use to almost two fifths of the labour force.

Nor must we think about this in static terms. The level of literacy which was sufficient for our grandfather’s workplace is hopelessly inadequate for the workplace of our grandchildren. We talk about the microchip revolution, but what relevance does the revolution have to a person who cannot easily read a screen. While it may liberate the literate, enabling them to attain higher and higher standards of living, the relevance of the computer to those who stumble over reading and writing is surely long term unemployment and poverty.

So economic imperatives require a higher standard of literacy than we are currently producing. But the economy and material production are but means to an end of higher human welfare, and literacy also contributes to other human purposes as well. In the nineteenth century the Maori did not want literacy for the purposes of economic development although, of course, it helped. They learned to read because they wanted access to the bible, to a new way of thinking. And they wrote to pursue their democratic rights. The material output of the economy is important, but culture, spirituality, knowledge, and liberty are all important too. Without literacy the individual loses those opportunities which makes us so inherently human.

That lack of literacy leads to shame, nicely illustrated in a couple of recent important novels: Primary Colours (now a film) and a German novel Die Vorleser, or The Reader. Note I can get in contact their world through books, but they cant use the medium to contact my world.

From that fundamental human rights perspective, as well as the needs of economic development, we – I dont mean the schools, I mean we, the whole of society – have failed to give New Zealanders some of the most fundamental human rights there are, the right to be able to participate fully in the life of their society. There are at least half a million, even one and a quarter million adult New Zealanders who are denied that right.

The Adult Reading and Learning Assistance Federation is committed to giving those rights to New Zealanders, as many as it can organize. In doing so it belongs to a long and honourable tradition, going back to the first missionaries who knew the Maori wanted to be able to read and write, to obtain the benefits of access that literacy provides. In commending your effort, I also say it is not enough. But that is not a criticism of your effort, or of you. It is a condemnation of a nation that has failed to recognize a major internal crisis of so many people who are not functionally literate.