Tasmania’s new Education Minister Jo Palmer has her work cut out for her.

Tasmania has long struggled to deliver on Australia’s promise of an excellent and equitable education for all. It is now her job to turn this around.

Last year, only about 60 per cent of Tasmanian students performed at the expected achievement level in reading and numeracy, according to Australia’s annual NAPLAN school assessments. 

This gives Tasmania the unwelcome honour of being the lowest-performing state in the country, with only the Northern Territory facing a bigger challenge.

Too many young Tasmanians are leaving school without having secured firm foundations.

Take reading, for example. NAPLAN results show that almost two in five Tasmanian primary and secondary students cannot read proficiently.

Poor readers at school tend to remain poor readers as adults. This has far-reaching consequences.

Grattan Institute research suggests that for those students in school today who are hardest hit by poor reading performance and leave school early, the 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 have to spend more on welfare, justice and public health.

Minister Palmer has inherited this mighty challenge. But thankfully, she has also inherited the most ambitious plan in Australia to transform reading results.

Several years in the making, Tasmania’s Lifting Literacy strategy is a bold vision to overhaul the way reading is taught across the state. Minister Palmer should double down on the strategy and commit to bringing its vision to life.

Research suggests that almost all children can learn to read if they are given the right evidence-informed instruction and support. 

Tasmania’s Lifting Literacy strategy takes the research evidence seriously. It seeks to ensure all students are taught how to read through systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics. Schools are also being asked to monitor student progress and identify and provide extra support quickly to those who are struggling.

Embracing the evidence on the best ways to teach reading instruction is the first, crucial step. But the real challenge lies in implementation.

The bold targets in the Lifting Literacy strategy won’t be met unless there is a huge step up in the level of practical guidance and support for teachers and school leaders.

Teachers need specific advice on the curriculum materials and assessments they can use to bring the evidence to life in their classrooms. 

The Tasmanian government should follow England’s lead and recommend validated instructional programs and tools that teachers can use. The government should also step in and ensure outdated and ineffective practices are banished from Tasmanian classrooms.

Boosting the professional expertise of teachers will also be critical.

Tasmania should require that at least 25 per cent of primary teachers’ professional development for accreditation purposes is focused on evidence-based reading instruction. And Tasmania should recruit and train expert literacy instructional specialists for every primary and secondary school, even if this means cutting back on other programs.

The introduction of the national 40-item Year 1 Phonics Screening Check in Tasmania last year was an important step. 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.

Tasmania is the first state to commit to mandating the test across all school sectors. Last year, government school students sat the five-to-seven-minute test for the first time; students in Catholic and independent schools are expected to follow suit in Term 3 this year. This will give the government a true ‘health check’ on early reading progress across the entire state.

But tracking results will take Tasmania only so far.

The government also needs to know whether classroom practice has actually shifted in line with best evidence, so it can provide more guidance and support for schools that are struggling with this process.

School reviews – one of the best ways to find out what is happening behind the school gates – must be more than a compliance-driven, box-ticking exercise.

Reviews should be conducted by independent experts, and they should be empowered to closely examine the way reading is taught and provide concrete recommendations to school principals.

Building an expert and empowered teaching profession equipped with the right tools and resources to meet Tasmania’s Lifting Literacy vision will be a formidable challenge for the new Minister.

But if she succeeds, she will have turned around the fortunes of a generation of young Tasmanians – and that’s a legacy worth fighting for.

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.