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08 April 2020

A student undertakes a literacy test. A $30-million Federal Government program designed to improve literacy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in very remote schools has failed to meet its goal, according to a new study by the University of South Australia and the Batchelor Institute for Indigenous Tertiary Education (BIITE).

Attendance rates at schools participating in the ‘Flexible Literacy For Remote Primary Schools Program’ – launched in 2014 by the Federal Government and extended in both 2018 and 2019 – have also declined at a faster rate than the very remote schools that were not part of the initiative.

Associate Director of Regional Engagement (APY Lands) at UniSA, Dr Sam Osborne says that while the program aimed to improve literacy outcomes through Direct Instruction or Explicit Direct Instruction teaching approaches, their analysis shows students’ literacy declined at participating schools.  

The study, which Dr Osborne worked on with lead researcher Dr John Guenther from BIITE, used Year 3 and Year 5 NAPLAN reading results to gauge the effectiveness of the program.

“We found that at both levels, the results were lower than the years immediately preceding the implementation of the program,” Dr Osborne says.

“They also dropped more than the results of comparable, non-participating schools.

“Attendance rates also declined more steeply – at intervention schools, attendance declined by 7.52 per cent, while at non-intervention schools, the rate declined by 2.09 per cent.

“Our analysis shows that the program did not meet its stated goal to improve literacy results in very remote schools. And perhaps more concerning is the reduced school attendance rate.

“You have to ask, is a program aimed at bolstering students’ academic abilities, actually causing students to disengage further?”

Dr Osborne notes that the two teaching approaches of Direct Instruction and Explicit Direct Instruction are considered by some educators as highly prescriptive and not conducive to engagement for either teachers or learners.

“That the program continued to be funded by the Federal Government, despite the lack of clearly demonstrated outcomes, is a cause of concern,” he says.

The pilot program was trialled from 2014 to 2017 at a cost of $23.8 million, with $4.1 million added in 2018 and an additional $2.8 million in 2019. While the government has been quick to tout the success of the program, based on two independent reports, Dr Osborne says an in-depth analysis indicates the program failed in its core claims – that it would improve literacy outcomes measured by NAPLAN.  

“The evaluation reports, Closing the Gap statements, and government publicity may imply that the program is working, but a closer look at the reports casts doubt on those claims,” he says.

“Our concern is not just that the program has failed to achieve its stated aim of improved literacy and that public money is continuing to be used fund it, it is the fact that the policies that have been implemented, have demonstrated potential harm in very remote Aboriginal schools.”

The paper ‘Did DI do it? The impact of a programme designed to improve literacy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in remote schools’ was published in The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education this year.

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Contact for interview:

Sam Osborne email samuel.osborne@unisa.edu.au

Media contact: Rosanna Galvin mobile +61 434 603 457   email rosanna.galvin@unisa.edu.au
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