Remarks by Mr James Hall
Minister Counsellor, Development Cooperation
Literacy Conference of the Reading Association of Papua New Guinea
Main Lecture Theatre Waigani Campus, University of Papua New Guinea,
Port Moresby,13 November 2014
Good morning. Thank you for the invitation to open this conference.
It is a great pleasure to be here and to speak on the very important topic of Literacy for Empowerment.
The focus of my speech goes to the heart of this conference “Why Literacy Matters”.
Learning to read and write is the single most important education milestone for a child.
There is a crucial need to raise literacy and numeracy rates in Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Australia is committed to helping PNG address many of the challenges of reading and writing that you will discuss over the coming two days.
Being able to effectively use and produce written material to gain or transmit knowledge is the fundamental stepping stone for further education.
Many children cannot read or write and this has severe consequences.
A child who underperforms in reading and writing will have problems performing in other subjects.
He or she is more likely to fail and abandon school early.
They will not have the minimum necessary skills to find gainful employment and are more likely to be unemployed.
They are more likely to have problems with the law and poor health.
The consequences of illiteracy are more expensive than the costs of ensuring our children become effective readers and writers.
There is no comprehensive data to precisely know the rates of literacy in PNG. This in itself is concerning.
In 2012, a survey found that only 18.1 per cent of the PNG girls and boys were reading and writing at the expected level.
This means that of the 157,000 students currently enrolled in Grade 5, only 28,400 are proficient readers.
For girls, reading figures are even worse.
Another survey found that girls are seriously disadvantaged compared to boys.
This survey showed that across 5 different provinces, girls consistently performed worse than boys in reading.
In some of those provinces, twice as many girls and women were not able to read.
What can we do to turn this around?
International experience has shown that investing in the education of girls delivers immense economic and social benefits.
Indeed it is the single most important activity that any country can support.
The World Bank estimates that eliminating barriers to women’s full participation can increase labour productivity by as much as 25 per cent.
We know the quality of education is critical for girls and boys.
This includes better governance of institutions, and better teaching.
It also means better learning opportunities for girls, who have less access to education than boys.
Education quality is about making sure students learn what they are expected to learn.
It is about making the system deliver what it is meant to deliver.
And fundamentally we want students to become literate and be fully able to participate in their communities.
But literacy does not happen alone. It needs support.
It needs books; it needs effort, dedication – from children, families and schools.
Books and other printed materials are very important. They support good teaching and productive learning.
Children in rural and remote areas face even greater challenges.
Even if children have access to a local or regional school, there may be few learning materials and teachers may have limited training and support.
We know having little or no printed material in schools and households leads to low literacy rates.
But education does not start and end inside the school.
Having books in households can give children a better chance of education success.
Parents and the community have an essential role to play.
Parents must participate in their children’s school life.
They must ensure their children are doing their homework and demand guidance from their child’s teacher to support their after school studies.
Studies show children perform better at school when their parents are interested and involved.
I encourage parents to participate in their schools’ boards of management and parents and teachers’ associations.
These groups can ensure teachers are not absent and are present in the classrooms during school hours.
They have a fundamental role ensuring that the Tuition Fee Free subsidies are being used well at their schools.
Last but not least, the quality of education is directly correlated to the quality of the teachers in the system.
Good teachers make significant and long-lasting impacts which go way beyond learning.
High performing teachers can give their students the possibility of a productive life.
These teachers can help to increase incomes, make children healthier and help reduce early marriage for girls.
So it could be argued that when it comes to literacy, teachers matter the most.
But how do we train, retain and maintain good teachers?
And most importantly, how do we identify good teachers?
There is no easy answer to this question.
Every country must have an approach that reflects its own unique circumstances.
Examples of Australia’s support
The good news is there are innovative programs in PNG that are working to boost literacy.
Australia is working with PNG to ensure that young children can read and teachers are supported.
Australia has worked with Voluntary Services Overseas and the PNG Department of Education to improve children’s reading.
One example of helping to address rural teachers’ lack of teaching materials is SMS story.
Lesson plans and short stories were sent to teachers via mobile phone text messages using a free, open source software program.
Students whose teachers received the text messages improved more in subsequent reading tests.
Australia is also helping PNG to strengthen the quality of teaching, particularly of literacy skills through funding the Language Support Program and Every Child Reading Program.
Program activities include development of approved teacher education course materials by PNG lecturers, and of scripted lessons and multi-media teaching resources.
These programs are helping to improve training and resourcing of PNG’s elementary and primary school teachers.
We fund the training of master trainers and elementary teachers in phonics-based methods for teaching children to read.
At the early childhood level we support Buk Bilong Pikinini to establish community libraries and run literacy programs for children and communities.
Buk Bilong Pikinini libraries provide a literacy-based learning program with a syllabus that has been especially created to cater for Papua New Guinean children.
Australian-funded research is helping Australia and PNG better understand needs of teachers and students and, in turn, more effectively target assistance to improve literacy.
We support standardised testing of PNG students in literacy and numeracy as part of PNG’s participation in the Pacific Benchmarking Education for Results program.
Australia is PNG’s largest development partner, and education is one of the cornerstones of our development program.
An educated population is central to PNG’s competitiveness and its future.
This is particularly true for economic competitiveness and in achieving long-term security and stability.
I look forward to both our nations continuing to work to together.
We must continue to explore how we can best support the education of Papua New Guinea’s girls and boys, and how we can set them on the road to a bright future.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak and I wish you a productive conference.