Tuesday, 5 September 2017
Indigenous Literacy Day
In remote communities in this country, a household would be lucky to have just five books. It's hard to imagine if you've grown up in a household where you were read to from the start of your life, were scolded by your parents as a young child because you hadn't switched the lights out, your head stuck in a book, or as an adult when you long for some time to read a good novel. The fact is that a household comprising adults and children who cannot read sees no need for books. Besides that, how does one get a book in remote Australia? If you can get a book and you can read, the chances that the story is about your own people, culture and traditions are very slim.
Tomorrow, 6 September, is Indigenous Literacy Day, a national celebration of Indigenous culture, stories, language and literacy. On Indigenous Literacy Day, attention is focused on the disadvantages experienced in remote communities, and Australians are encouraged to raise funds and advocate for more equal access to literacy resources for remote communities. While the day is a celebration, and there is much to celebrate—which I will come to—the fact remains that a national day is dedicated to raising funds and awareness to drive more equitable access to basic literacy for our nation's first peoples.
There has been progress, but nowhere near enough. The Closing the gap: Prime Minister's report 2017 admits this. While we celebrate the successes, we cannot shy away from the stark reality that we are not seeing significant national progress on the Closing the Gap targets, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says in the report. One such target is to halve the gap for Indigenous children in reading, writing and numeracy within a decade. The problem with this target—the sad reality—is that this year is the ninth year in which the Closing the Gap report was released, and the decade therefore started nine years ago. By 2018 we won't have even halved the gap.
But what does that gap look like? It is just a quarter of Indigenous year 5 students in very remote areas being at or above national minimum reading standards, compared with 91 per cent for non-Indigenous students, according to the 2016 NAPLAN. It is Indigenous 15-year-olds being on average about two and a third years behind non-Indigenous 15-year-olds in reading, literacy and mathematical literacy. It is less opportunity for an enriching and rewarding life for Indigenous Australians, blocked pathways to study and employment, higher rates of suicide, disproportionately higher rates of incarceration, and a shorter life expectancy. It is less than five books in family homes in remote countries, according to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
As a nation we must do more, and we can do more. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation, started by Suzy Wilson, an educator and bookshop owner, has grown tremendously since 2007. It has raised more than $7 million, without government funding. Its Book Supply Program gifts new, culturally appropriate books to more than 250 remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations across Australia. More than 48,700 books have been given out. The Book Buzz program encourages reading and engagement with books for children under five, and their families. It provides quality board books, resources and facilities and translations of books into the first language. The community literacy projects are supporting people in remote communities to write, illustrate and publish books, some of which reflect traditional legends and stories. Many are written by children and reflect multiple Australian Indigenous languages.
The Indigenous Literacy Foundation, supported by employees, volunteers and well-known patrons and ambassadors, including the Hon. Quentin Brice, popular children's author Andy Griffiths and Indigenous singer, songwriter and actress Jessica Mauboy, is fostering a love of reading but, most importantly, it is improving the literacy skills of children.
The impact of the foundation's work is profound. Teachers in remote communities report seeing strong increases in their reading development data, books bringing families together and facilitating connections with educators and the families of their children, and encouraging a sense of feeling safe, while promoting children's literacy skills and overall development and wellbeing. Is it any wonder, though, when beautiful, brand-new books that speak the language of these communities, telling the tales of the land and their people, are being created and distributed to kids, who want to see themselves in the books—kids who want to belong? As the Indigenous Literacy Foundation says, 'Books open doors.' We must urgently remove the doorstop and give Indigenous children the equal opportunities they deserve.