Consultation Committee for the Proposed Human Rights Act
C/- Public Affairs Branch
Department of the Attorney General
GPO Box F317
PERTH   WA   6841


Dear Sir




The Western Australian Adult Literacy Councils (WAALC) is an incorporated, not-for-profit body, established in 1986 to promote the interests of adults re-entering formal education.  This professional organisation has a financial membership of around 45 adult literacy practitioners.  Many other professionals and para-professionals in Western Australia access advice and skills development opportunities through WAALC.


Our proposal

On behalf of the Executive Committee, I am submitting a proposal that the following should be included in the new WA Human Rights Act:


Education, access to for persons of all ages

                  A person of any age has the right to engage in free education to the level of secondary completion. 

Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.



Supporting arguments

1    Compulsory schooling has not produced educational outcomes for everyone

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to an education (Article 26).  While attendance at school is compulsory in Australia, the outcomes of compulsory schooling cannot be guaranteed for all people.  A survey of literacy skill levels among the Australian adult population, conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 1996, indicated that almost half the population had ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ literacy skills.  Certain demographic groups are over represented in the lowest skill level percentiles: for example Aboriginal people, people from a language background other than English, older people and people in rural and remote locations.

If people complete the years of compulsory schooling without acquiring adequate levels of educational skill it is therefore incumbent on governments to provide access to educational services for people beyond the age of compulsory schooling.  The current situation is that government funding for adult basic education is often short-term and can be precarious.  Over recent years the provision of basic educational services for adults has been delivered as a component of vocational training.  What is needed is a commitment from government to develop a sustainable infrastructure for adult basic education that is recognised as valuable in its own right.


2    Full participation in complex developed societies requires ever-increasing levels of basic educational skills

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights confers the right of all people to an education at least in the ‘elementary and fundamental stages’ we contend that an elementary level of education is insufficient for people living in modern, post-industrial, technologically complex societies.  Everyone needs to be able to read and write well enough to handle complex documents and processes integral to everyday life.  Increasingly people are expected to develop their financial management skills in a complex financial services market.  Many trades people are small subcontractors and as such are responsible for running businesses; in the building industry small sub-contractors are required to take on responsibilities for apprentices as a condition of winning contracts with big builders.  The increasing use of mediation to settle legal matters requires litigants to manage their own cases.  The ‘literacy bar’ is being raised all the time.

The first survey of adult literacy conducted in 1989, No Single Measure, produced figures indicating that eleven per cent of the population could not identify the expiry date on a driver’s licence; fifty per cent could not interpret dosage instructions properly; and seventy three percent could not identify issues in a newspaper article on technology.  There are serious implications for the functioning of stable democracies in these figures.


3    Educational skills underpin and help guarantee many other human rights

Many of the rights included in the draft of the WA Human Rights Act assume that individual members of the society have at their disposal a range of language, literacy and numeracy resources.  It is difficult to see how people can be guaranteed a right of access to participation in public affairs, at any level, including that of an elected member of parliament, without the skills to read, write and handle figures.  Rights under the law cannot be guaranteed to an individual who is incapable of reading or understanding complex language: very low educational levels are associated with prison populations.


4    Without equity of educational opportunity, there can be no equity in other social domains.

Education is traditionally regarded as the means by which people can improve their lot in life.  Yet it is quite clear that poor educational outcomes are associated with certain demographic characteristics.  Lower socio-economic groups are associated with lower levels of schooling and fewer years at school and there is evidence that this becomes an intergenerational problem.  Educational disadvantage is associated with disadvantage in the labour market.  Low basic educational skills and poverty go hand in hand. 

Similarly poor educational achievement is also associated with poor health and life opportunity outcomes.  Research among indigenous people in America suggests that over thirty years of targeted educational programs the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and other Americans has been narrowed from twelve to sixteen year to three and a half to five years.  In Australia, a leading Aboriginal scholar, Professor Ted Wilkes, and Dr Fiona Stanley of the Telethon Institute, report in their landmark assessment of Aboriginal health in Western Australia, a disturbing pattern of hunger, poor nutrition and a high incidence of smoking and drinking while young Aboriginal mothers were pregnant. These are among the major causes of those dangerously low birth weight babies. Doctors estimate that for every extra year of education provided to young mothers, up to four years can be added to the life expectancy of their first child.


5    Raising educational skill levels supports Human Capital policy statements to increase the proportion of Australian adults with post compulsory qualifications.

The Coalition of Australian Governments have determined the need to improve productivity by means of improving health status and raising qualification levels in the adult population.  Neither of these goals can be achieved without services that support the generation of basic educational skills.  The provision of vocational training is hampered when trainees do not have requisite literacy and numeracy skills.  Poor literacy and numeracy is already implicated in poor health outcomes.  Basic education can be supported in a number of different ways including as a component of vocational training.  However, for learning to take place, the learner has to be a willing participant.  No amount of coercion can make people learn even if they are forced to attend compulsory training. There are many reason that adults may be willing to re-enter formal learning environments, having once experienced these as the site of failure.  In order to capitalise on individuals’ willingness to participate in learning, the opportunities must be many and varied.  Governments need to recognise different motivations exist for people at different times in their lives and that one form of provision will not suit everybody.  Learning that generates confidence in learning is a key outcome of many informal adult education activities.  These are not currently well recognised in public policy or commitment of government funding.


Yours sincerely





Sue McKay

President, WAALC


31 August 2007