School reform is squarely on the national agenda as Australia’s education ministers negotiate a fix to persistent funding shortfalls for public schools. But extra funding won’t address our education woes unless governments set much higher expectations for results, and follow through on the school reforms needed to deliver them.

In no other area of education is this work more urgent than reading. Reading proficiency is a foundational skill that unlocks the broader curriculum and empowers young people to grasp opportunities for themselves and their communities.

But last year’s NAPLAN results show that one in three Australian primary and secondary students cannot read proficiently. Even in the ACT and Victoria – the most advantaged jurisdictions – about one in four students are falling short.

Poor readers at school tend to remain poor readers throughout their lives. This has far-reaching consequences.

New Grattan Institute research suggests that for those students who are hardest hit by poor reading performance and leave school early, the cumulative cost to Australia is about $40 billion over their lifetimes. Not only do students lose out on potential earnings – governments lose out on tax revenue, and spend more on welfare, justice and public health.

The consequences are not lost on the business community. Ninety-three per cent of employers say poor literacy and numeracy impedes their business, according to a 2013 Australian Industry Group survey. The Business Council of Australia has warned that Australia must not let educational gaps turn into an ‘unbridgeable divide’ as higher-order skills become essential for higher-paid jobs.

Reading failure is a preventable tragedy that Australia does not need to accept.

Australia needs a comprehensive reading strategy that ensures at least 90 per cent of young people achieve reading proficiency at school (acknowledging that there will always be a small proportion of students who are unable to learn to read well because of factors outside a school’s control).

On the road to 90 per cent, there should be an interim target of a 15-percentage point improvement over the next 10 years on current NAPLAN reading results. This is achievable. For example, it would require, on average, about six extra year 3 students per primary school to reach reading proficiency by 2033.

Many educators work in challenging circumstances. Meeting these targets won’t happen without reforms. But ministers must not let these headwinds deter them. In fact, tackling the reading challenge would go a long way to reducing pressures on schools, because teachers say the challenges of supporting struggling students are a key cause of excessive workloads.

Governments should help schools to embed best practice and support struggling students. Governments should give clearer advice to schools about the evidence-based teaching practices that work best, and require schools to move away from faddish approaches that don’t work.

Establishing a “structured literacy” approach that includes a systematic focus on phonics for decoding is essential in early primary school. But effective reading instruction doesn’t stop there. There must be increased focus on building deeper background knowledge and vocabulary throughout primary and secondary school, so that students can comprehend what they read – the ultimate goal of reading.

Tracking progress

Governments should also require all schools to track student progress using robust assessments at least twice a year in foundation to year 2, and again when students transition to year 7.

Boosting the professional expertise of teachers is critical. Governments should require at least 25 per cent of primary teachers’ professional development for accreditation purposes to be focused on evidence-based reading instruction.

Australia should also fund well-paid, expert literacy instructional specialists in every primary and secondary school, even if this means cutting back on other programs. These expert teachers should be responsible for overseeing the whole-school literacy program, designing catch-up support programs, and coaching teachers in the classroom.

A nationally consistent year 1 phonics screening check should be mandated for all schools, irrespective of sector, with aggregate results published annually. It is simply too late to wait for year 3 NAPLAN results to get a clear sense of how our youngest students are tracking towards reading mastery.

With the potential for new funding on the table through negotiations on the next National School Reform Agreement, there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in the reforms needed for a better and fairer school system. Governments across the country should seize this opportunity.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Dr Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economic policy.