The director of a national not-for-profit tutorial centre says there should be an iron-clad law that students cannot progress to high school until it is proven they can read.
Thousands of primary school students around Australia cannot adequately read and write yet still make the transition to high school.
Reverend Bill Crews, who runs remedial learning centres in Sydney, Darwin and Gladstone, says that is a massive mistake.
He says the Federal Government’s national literacy and numeracy tests, known as NAPLAN, are critical to keeping a check and balance on students, especially those who might slip through the system.
“It is such a good thing to do. Our experience here, which is now being shown up in the tables, is if kids don’t leave primary school being able to read they fall behind at high school,” he said.
“It should be an iron-clad law that kids cannot leave primary school until they can read.”
State and territory education unions are stepping up their push for teachers to boycott next week’s NAPLAN tests, saying data will be used for the My School website and lead to the creation of league tables.
Reverend Crews says students like Joel West prove how important testing is.
At age 11 Joel has the reading skills of a child four years his junior.
“I couldn’t read and spell, write, and whenever I couldn’t do it it was making me angry,” he said.
He has been at the Exodus tutorial centre for two months.
His mother, Monie West, says the change in her son has been unbelievable.
“He went from reading nothing… struggling with every word… to being able to sound out the biggest words. So I’m very proud of him,” she said.
“It’s only been a term and he can read. It helps now because he can read the back [of microwave packets] now to cook his own pasta and stuff like that. So it’s helped in a lot of ways, big and small.”
Mary Storch, a senior teacher from the Exodus centre in Ashfield, says the inability to read can lead to a host of problems later in life.
“We have to catch these kids before they go to high school because what happens, if you look at the statistics, I think something like 70 per cent of people in prison have literacy problems,” she said.
“So if you can’t read it’s very difficult to get a job. You can’t a job. You can’t fill in forms. What happens? How do you earn an income? It’s very hard.
“So what Bill is trying to do is get them into good jobs and keep them out of trouble.”
Reverend Crews says education unions are fighting the wrong cause.
“I think their compassion is misguided. The whole thing is to do what’s in the best interest of every child, and in 2010 the best interests of every child are being served by them being able to read,” he said.
He also believes the NAPLAN test results should be made public.
“Yes, because we need to know. Everybody needs to know. What then happens is anecdotal evidence can be supported.”
On Tuesday afternoon Fair Work Australia ruled that teachers in Victoria could not boycott next week’s national tests.
Education unions in other states and territories have already been ordered to supervise the NAPLAN tests.
The Australian Education Union (AEU) is attempting to defy the order because it says the tests can be used to compile league tables ranking schools.
Education Minister Julia Gillard says that is not what the NAPLAN tests are about.
“It’s not like we’re standing by just going ‘bad school’. We’re there with $2.5 billion of new resources and reforms including things like getting the best graduates to go into teaching, paying our best teachers more to go to the classrooms that need them the most to make a difference,” Ms Gillard said.
“And it just amazes me that people would stand in the way of that journey.”
Speaking to business leaders in Adelaide, Ms Gillard said illiteracy is a sensitive area but it must be addressed.
“Forty per cent of Australian workers don’t have basic literacy and numeracy skills; the skills we need in the modern workforce. That equates to around 4.5 million Australians.”
She says boosting the language, literacy and numeracy capacity of the workforce is perhaps the single most constructive step in improving Australia’s productivity.