Improvements in literacy, but no room for complacency

Australian year four students have shown marked improvement in reading literacy outcomes, according to a new international comparative study.

Minister for education and training Simon Birmingham said the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) showed Australian students improved their ranking from 27th (out of 45 countries) in 2011 to 21st (out of 50 countries) in 2016.

“These latest results, though just one measure of school performance, highlight the strength of Australia’s education system,” Minister Birmingham said.

“Australian students significantly outperformed students in 24 other countries, including Portugal, Spain, and New Zealand, though on this measure we still lag well behind 13 other countries including the Russian Federation and Singapore.

“Out of the 6300 Australian year four students who took part in the study, 81 percent achieved the intermediate international benchmark – also known as the national proficient standard – which is a major improvement on 2011 where only 76 percent of students reached the same benchmark.

“This is an encouraging report card but it’s also clear there’s no room for complacency. Australian educators and policymakers must keep focused on what needs to be done to further boost student outcomes.

“The new PIRLS results show that about one fifth of year four students’ reading was below the national proficient standard.

“Concerningly, there’s a marked gap between the achievement of boys and girls with 85 percent of Australian female students scoring at or above the intermediate benchmark compared to 77 percent of boys. Of further concern, only 57 percent of Indigenous Australian students reached the intermediate benchmark, compared to 83 percent of non-Indigenous students.”

Minister Birmingham said the federal government had taken a ‘root and branch’ approach to lifting student outcomes by improving teaching quality and teacher training standards, ensuring the curriculum was decluttered and refocused on core skills and that schools had the resources they needed to support their students.

“There is no ‘silver bullet’ to boosting student outcomes,” Minister Birmingham said.

“While we are investing record and growing sums, distributed according to need, how that funding is used will be a key driver of future performance.

“Student outcomes are the product of families, societies and of course, education systems and we’ve maintained a clear and steady focus on all of the factors that lift student outcomes.

“Since we came to government we’ve been working hard to strengthen the accreditation standards of teacher training courses, to ensure graduate teachers have literacy and numeracy skills amongst the top 30 percent of the adult population and to implement new standards to recognise our most highly accomplished and lead teachers.

The minister spoke of their decision to reduce the national curriculum “to ensure schools could better focus on the fundamentals of reading, writing and numeracy and to champion the use of phonics in teaching and as a means of helping identify students struggling in the early years”.

The minister said the government “understands that while funding is important, what’s more important is how that funding is used”. “That’s why we’ve asked David Gonski and a panel of education and policy experts to make recommendations on how our schools and educators focus resources in classrooms.”

Suzy Barry

Suzy Barry is a freelance education writer and the former editor of School News, Australia.

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