One quarter of Australian 11-12 year olds don’t have the literacy and numeracy skills they need


Sergio Macklin, Victoria University and Sarah Pilcher, Victoria University

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, very remote areas, and Indigenous Australians are up to two times more likely to start school developmentally vulnerable than the national average.

In 2018, 21.7% of Australian five year olds (70,308 children) were not developmentally ready when they started school. And in Year 7, nearly 25% of students (72,419) didn’t have the required numeracy and literacy skills.

Our report, Educational Opportunity in Australia 2020, is the first to examine Australia’s performance against the goals set out in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration, a national statement agreed to by Australian education ministers in 2019.

The statement aims for a quality education system for all young people, that supports them to be creative and confident individuals, successful learners and active and informed members of the community.

But our report finds students’ location and family circumstances continue to play a strong role in determining outcomes from school entry to adulthood.

While this crisis in educational inequality isn’t new, it’s likely to get a lot worse, as COVID-19 increases levels of student vulnerability and remote learning widens gaps in achievement.

Disadvantaged children missing out as school progresses

The Alice Springs declaration sets two ambitious goals:

  • the Australian education system promotes excellence and equity. In part, this is about ensuring all young Australians have access to high-quality education, inclusive and free from any form of discrimination

  • all young Australians become confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners, and active and informed members of the community. This includes all children having a sense of self-worth, self-awareness and personal identity that enables them to manage their emotional, mental, cultural, spiritual and physical well-being.

The declaration was signed last year, and builds on previous ones signed in Hobart, Adelaide and Melbourne over three decades. It recognises the role education plays in preparing young people to contribute meaningfully to social, economic and cultural life.

Read more:
The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians: what it is and why it needs updating

Our report uses the best available data to paint a comprehensive picture of Australia’s performance against the above important goals.

It shows the gap in academic learning as well as other key areas, such as creativity and confidence, is clear from school entry and usually grows over time.

Analysis in our report tracked students’ learning from when they started school in 2009 to when they were in Year 5 in 2014. It showed that in literacy and numeracy for instance, the gap between the proportion of children from the most disadvantaged and advantaged families meeting relevant standards grew from 20.6 percentage points at school entry to 27.2 percentage points in Year 5.

The report also shows too many students in the senior years of school are not developing key skills. In 2018, 27.8% of 15 year olds (88,314) didn’t meet or exceed the international benchmark standards in maths, reading and science.

While some students receive the support they need to catch up to their peers, many don’t.

A lot of young people are also not developing the qualities needed to confidently adapt to challenges in adulthood and contribute to their communities.

The report shows that in 2017, 28.1% (110,410) of 23 year olds were not confident in themselves or the future and 29.9% were not adaptable to change and open to new ideas. It shows 38.1% (145,056) of 23 year olds were not actively engaged in their community and 33.2% were not keeping informed about current affairs.

Additionally, many young Australians are not being well prepared and supported to find and secure meaningful employment. Overall, according to the 2016 census, nearly 30% of 24 year olds (112,695) weren’t in full-time education, training or work.

Around half of all 24 year old Indigenous Australians, and one in three of the most disadvantaged Australians, were not engaged in any work or education, compared to 15% nationally.

This failure to address educational inequality reproduces and amplifies existing poverty across generations. It saps productivity, undermines social cohesion and costs governments and communities billions of dollars.

On an individual level, it hampers young people’s search for secure employment and is connected to poorer health and lower quality of life.

What should we do?

There are no quick ways to fix educational inequality, but there are several key improvements that will make a difference.

Closing gaps in participation and lifting the quality of early childhood education services — particularly in disadvantaged communities where services tend to be lower quality — should be one of our highest priorities. Early childhood education is critical to giving every child the best possible start. Evidence shows preschool raises children’s chances of being developmentally ready for school in key areas by around 12 percentage points.

Read more:
Preschool benefits all children, but not all children get it. Here’s what the government can do about that

Despite efforts through the Gonski reforms, there is still significant room to improve how Australia targets funding and support to schools with the highest level of need. We need to address the imbalance in resources between advantaged and disadvantaged Australian schools, which is the worst in the OECD.

This is not just about money, but building strong leadership and teaching capability in every school. High quality teaching is proven to be critical to improving student outcomes. We also need to support high quality use of data and assessment to tailor teaching to students’ needs, provide feedback and measure progress.

Read more:
How to get quality teachers in disadvantaged schools – and keep them there

Government projections show 90% of employment growth in the next four years will require education beyond school. This means we must prepare young people for an economy requiring higher levels of skill than ever. We need to rethink existing models of tertiary education to make it accessible to all students.

Addressing educational inequality is as much about what happens outside the classroom as inside. Nurturing every child’s development and well-being is best achieved through a partnership between schools, families, communities and other support services.

Australia cannot afford education systems that fail so many students. That’s not just in economic terms – because the cost of lost opportunity is even greater down the track – but also in human terms. We know the social and health costs of disengaging in education are significant.The Conversation

Sergio Macklin, Deputy Lead of Education Policy, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University and Sarah Pilcher, Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Review: Louise Milligan’s Witness is a devastating critique of the criminal trial process


Ben Mathews, Queensland University of Technology

Book review: Witness, by Louise Milligan (Hachette).

Louise Milligan’s new book, Witness, is an excoriating critique of the failures of the criminal justice system in sexual assault trials.

Informed by Milligan’s two decades of experience as an investigative journalist, including her specialist work as a court reporter and her sustained coverage of the trials of George Pell, her analysis is enriched by in-depth interviews with prosecutors, defence counsel, solicitors, judges and academics.

Witness is both a gripping revelation of rarely-heard experts’ opinions about the realities and flaws of criminal procedure, and a devastating critique of the system.

The book is further inspired by detailed consideration of the experience of complainants in two high-profile cases, which Milligan had previously covered in Sydney and Melbourne.

These include Saxon Mullins, a young woman who was the complainant in a rape case that involved two trials, two appeals, and judicial errors. Her experience influenced a Law Reform Commission inquiry into the law of consent. She is now working with criminologists and advocates to develop minimum standards in rape laws to better define consent.

Read more:
Australian law doesn’t go far enough to legislate affirmative consent. NSW now has a chance to get it right

Also examined in detail is the case of former St Kevin’s student Paris Street, who allowed Milligan to reproduce a letter he wrote about his experience of being cross-examined at the age of 15.

Witness is informed, too, by Milligan’s own experience of being cross-examined as a witness in the 2018 committal hearing of Cardinal George Pell. Here Milligan displays courage in divulging the personal toll taken.

“You don’t sleep the night before that first day in court …” she writes. “You vomit … Your mind spins … You cry …”

Her visceral description of the attempted destruction of her own character and credibility in cross-examination testifies to the brutality of many witnesses’ encounters with the criminal trial process.

Read more:
Media Files: Investigative reporter Louise Milligan on Cardinal Pell and redactions in the Royal Commission’s report

Victims’ trauma

Witness recognises that for many complainants, their experience of the criminal justice system is traumatic. Through multiple case studies of cross-examination, centring mostly on cases in Victoria and NSW, Milligan demonstrates the best known dimension of this brutality, laying bare the chasm between complainants’ expectations of the system, and the reality of its operation.

Complainants, she shows, are stunned to realise the trial process is not about establishing truth. Often, they feel they are on trial.

Witness book cover

Milligan recognises this experience is only partly due to the adversarial criminal justice system being centred neither on the complainant, nor on truth. Our system enables prosecution by the state: the complainant is simply a witness, subject to rules of evidence and procedure.

Core doctrines protecting the accused exist to prevent state abuse of power. This systemic environment is overlaid by features of sexual assault trials, which often turn on the complainant’s credibility and word against that of the accused.

Read more:
Pell decision: why sexual offence trials often result in acquittal, even with credible witnesses

Milligan’s book is balanced. Neither she, nor her interviewees object to principles of presumed innocence until proven guilty, or the standard of proof. She accepts counsel’s obligation to strongly defend their client, but focuses on the professional ethic of choice in how this is achieved.

Crucially, Witness emphasises that many defence counsel do treat complainants with dignity and respect, and still defend their client admirably.

But at the book’s core is a justified sense of outrage at those who choose to treat complainants and witnesses with a hostility causing its own trauma; a special kind of systemic abuse.

Tactical shifts and empathy deficits

The interviews in Witness trace fascinating shifts in professional culture. Milligan identifies a change in defence cross-examination tactics from the outright aggression of the past. One interviewee admits “there was a time when you’d just try and eviscerate [the complainant]. And I don’t think juries are impressed by that now.”

Still, Milligan finds much room for improvement. Several defence counsel reveal they changed their approach — not because they have greater understanding about the nature of sexual assault and trauma, or empathy for the complainant, but because it was no longer effective for their client.

Others, still reliant on aggression, rationalise their approach as simply doing their job, to “ask the hard questions”. However, Milligan suggests this is simply a disingenuous cloak for cruelty, starkly contrasting it with defence counsel who do a brilliant job without brutalising victims.

Elsewhere in Witness, she charts the historic male dominance of the legal profession and the limits this places on the capacity for change.

A judge outside the Melbourne County Court.
Witness looks at how generations of gender discrimination still shape the legal profession and the running of trials.

A particularly striking dimension of Witness is its revelation that the adversarial system is brutal for legal practitioners, too.

Milligan’s interviews elicit numerous admissions of excessive drinking to cope with the stress, including the trauma of having to try to break down complainants.

One lawyer describes this activity as requiring “a complete separation of self”.

Milligan’s experience

Milligan’s account of her own cross-examination in the Pell committal by Robert Richter QC is exhaustive and compelling. Reflecting on the experience, she repeatedly references the Evidence Act s 41, which imposes a duty on the court to disallow improper questions and improper questioning, including questions that are intimidating or humiliating, or are asked in an insulting way.

Yet, it is clear she felt insufficiently protected by this section of the Act, and by other laws giving the court control over how witnesses should be questioned.

Virtually every question was asked, she writes, in a belittling or insulting way. By the end of the day, she “had never felt more alone”, despite all her experience, preparation, and team of lawyers. What hope do complainants have, she asks, who lack these resources, and were already traumatised?

An argument for change

Witness eloquently affirms how the criminal justice system is maladapted to meet the needs of complainants.

The system is broken. For sex crimes, rates of complaints, prosecutions, and convictions are persistently low.

Read more:
Queensland rape law ‘loophole’ could remain after review ignores concerns about rape myths and consent

Knowing the brutal experience awaiting them, victims often do not complain, or withdraw from proceeding, undermining the rule of law. Because these are qualitatively different kinds of cases, leaders in the field have long argued that sexual assault trials require more fundamental changes.

Yet, even without more radical change, Witness insists a minimum acceptable standard of professional practice – treating witnesses with dignity and respect – is required and achievable, without compromising fair trial rights.

Protections against humiliating treatment of witnesses need to be properly enforced by judges and prosecutors. As one QC admits to Milligan, reforms about judicial directions and improper questioning “don’t mean anything if the prosecutor doesn’t intervene and the judge or magistrate isn’t in control of the courtroom”.

Milligan also suggests complainants would benefit from an expert advisor to assist them in navigating the system, and to protect against unduly intimidatory tactics.

This suggestion is supported by many of her interviewees, including both prosecutors and defence counsel.

Having interviewed so many witnesses, having borne witness to these trials, and having been a witness herself, Milligan is uniquely placed to reflect on the process.

She challenges legal practitioners to be part of the problem, or part of the solution. With Witness, a triumph of intellect and empathy, Milligan has chosen to be part of the solution.The Conversation

Ben Mathews, Professor, School of Law, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.