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Issue #1617      November 6, 2013

Call for urgent action on adult literacy

Aboriginal leaders and literacy experts are hoping to roll out the Cuban developed Yes I Can (Yo Si Puedo) adult literacy campaign across Australia. Last year it was successfully piloted in the remote New South Wales Aboriginal community in Wilcannia, with the assistance of an adviser from Cuba. (See Guardian, “Yes I Can!”, #1548, 23-05-2012) In September this year it was launched in the NSW towns of Bourke and Enngonia with another Cuban adviser coming to Australia for that purpose.

Cuban Ambassador to Australia, Pedro Monzon, with some of the graduates and their family and friends during the pilot in the NSW town of Wilcannia. (Photo: Noah Schultz-Byard)

Jack Beetson, Executive Director of the Literacy for Life Foundation, is seeking support for a national campaign to address Aboriginal adult literacy issues. Working with the University of New England and contractor Brookfield Multiplex, Beetson is establishing a not-for-profit Literacy for Life foundation to fund the roll-out of the Yes I Can adult literacy campaign across Australia.

According to recently released survey results by the Australian Bureau of Statistics around 3.7% (620,000) of Australians aged 15 to 74 years had literacy skills at below Level 1, a further 10% (1.7 million) at Level 1, 30% (5.0 million) at Level 2, 38% (6.3 million) at Level 3, 14% (2.4 million) at Level 4, and 1.2% (200,000) at Level 5.

But according to Beetson, for Aboriginal communities, especially in remote areas, the percentage of adults at or below level 1 is not 14%, as it is for the population as a whole, rather it is much more like 40%-50%.

“Given that people are now saying that Level 3 is what’s needed to function in modern society, we have a huge job ahead of us to close this gap,” Beetson said.

“It is right now having a huge impact on our people’s health, on the way our children are performing in school and on things like rates of imprisonment. This is a national disgrace, and we need urgent action to remedy it.”

One of the key features of the Cuban approach is that literacy is seen as the responsibility of the whole community, rather than a problem for individuals. Community responsibility and socialisation are critical components.

A paper * on the Wilcannia by Jack Beetson and others identifies, three phases in the campaign. “Phase One, which we call ‘socialisation and mobilisation’, mobilises as many people as possible to take part, as learners, teachers, organisers and supporters, and seeks to enhance the understanding of society as a whole of the importance of literacy to wider social and economic development goals,” the paper says.

“The socialisation work in a campaign, which does not stop when classes start but continues throughout the campaign, is a practical expression of this theoretical point, because it makes the task of improving literacy a task for the community. … It is an essential ingredient of the work of building community literacy.”

“Phase Two consists of a set of basic literacy lessons, run over a short period, usually three months or less, in which non-literate and low literate members of the community are encouraged to enrol and supported to complete. These lessons are usually non-formal, rarely accredited, and taught and organised by non- professional local facilitators and leaders in the community, with the assistance of professional advisers and materials provided by the central campaign authority.

“Phase Three of the campaign, is for ‘post-literacy’. This consists of activities designed to help the newly-literate participants continue to build their literacy beyond what has been achieved in the basic lessons, and to create a more literate culture in the community.”

The campaign aims to empower communities by raising literacy levels and training local people to become teachers in literacy. The emphasis is on building community capacity and providing them with the tools to be self-sustainable.

Cuban Ambassador Pedro Monzon, in speaking about the campaign, said that it “is not limited to teaching reading and writing. It integrates educational, social and cultural components with the learning process of reading and writing, and the framework of the teaching is referred to the cultural and social interest of the local people.”

Monzon, who attended the graduation of the first two groups at Wilcannia, took part as a young student in the highly successful mass literacy campaign in Cuba in 1961. Since then millions of people have gained literacy skills as a result of Cuban assistance in around 30 countries, one of the most recent being Timor Leste.

Jack Beetson brought home the significance of the campaign when speaking at the August graduation of students in Wilcannia:

“I am proud of this campaign for many reasons but one reason is because over 40 adults were courageous enough to step through the classroom door to take a look; ... today we are honouring the 16 who finished the course. In a community like Wilcannia this is no small achievement. Let us not forget that for a person who doesn’t read and write even taking that first step to come into the room is a giant step.

“So I say to you all... be proud of what you have done for yourself and for your kids and for your community. I know you have discovered learning and it is so exciting. It fills me with immense pride when I see you all now doing your post literacy classes, using the computers, cooking healthy food and soon some of you’ll be doing the Certificate II course in Catering”.

The aim now is to raise the funds necessary to extend the campaign to Aboriginal communities across the country.

* “An Aboriginal Adult Literacy Campaign Pilot Study in Australia using Yes I Can” by Bob Boughton, Donna Ah Chee, Jack Beetson, Deborah Durnan and Jose “Chala” Leblanch.

Next article – Disadvantage and inequity in our schools – AEU

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