Talking Point: Just one thing can derail any Tasmanian’s path through life

This opinion piece by Institute for the Study of Social Change demographer and Research Fellow Dr Lisa Denny originally appeared in the Mercury on Thursday 23 May 2019.

FOR almost 20 years I have been involved in some form or another in the research or policy development for improving the life outcomes of Tasmanians. In more recent times, my area of interest has shifted to focus on the role education plays in people’s life opportunities, particularly in employment.

I know, as many do, that low levels of education prevent people from participating in both the economy and society and that people with low levels of education also experience higher instances of poor health, mental illness, dysfunctional relationships and alienation. Raising the level of educational attainment in Tasmania is viewed as both the economic and social panacea the state so desperately needs.

While various programs and policies have ensued, the impact has been marginal at best. Admittedly, however, generational change can take decades.

These marginal results raise the question as to what can actually be done to change the trajectory of many Tasmanians’ lives, now?

It wasn’t until I had my son — who has severe speech and language impairments — nine years ago that I truly started to comprehend the links between the importance of communication and language development in infancy and childhood in developing lifelong literacy skills and the opportunity to participate in education, employment and society.

Language is the currency of education and is the best early indicator of successful life outcomes.

Language is associated with reading ability, high school graduation rates, health outcomes and income.

Therefore, children who start out with lower language skills are projected to have lower school readiness scores and will follow a dampened trajectory through school and life.

Various studies affirm a large disparity between both the amount and quality of language used by children by socio-economic status.

Taking part in the November “Communicating: The Heart of Literacy” symposium with 54 other Tasmanians with a passion, expertise, interest and/or a commitment to improving Tasmanians’ literacy and socio-economic outcomes provided the forum to hold a dialogue about our aspirations for the direction of our state. At the end of the amazing day, we agreed to set a target of 100 per cent literacy for the state.

However, before we come up with a solution to improving education and literacy we need to understand the causes.

Many of the participants shared stories of personal and professional experiences of afflictions such as disability, trauma, socio-economic status, indigeneity and poverty on education and life outcomes, highlighting the complexities associated with language and literacy development for Tasmanians.

Commonly suggested initiatives such as providing more teaching support staff in primary schools and reducing class sizes are important and may be some of the solutions, as would investing more in preschool services. However, a more nuanced approach to the complexities of language and literacy impairment for individuals would likely provide a greater, and measurable, outcome.

My professional and personal belief, to really improve lives through greater levels of education, and more specifically, to really disrupt our low socioeconomic trajectory, is that we need to move beyond just programs to intervene directly to improve language development. We need to understand the prevalence and cause of language and learning disorders and disabilities and treat the cause, in school.

This can be achieved through increased provision, and expansion of scope, of speech and language therapists and communication specialists in schools to work with both children and teachers and support staff.

Quoting Tasmania’s Rosie Martin, “Speech pathologists have expertise in teaching language to the language-impaired. They already bring excellent, specifically targeted language support in schools across the state. But their services are under-resourced, and many structural factors constrain them from bringing the fullness of their professional knowledge to Tasmanian students. The sports car is being driven to the corner store in first gear. There is much more grunt under the bonnet.”

All children can learn to communicate, all children can learn to read and write and become literate. Not only is it important for Tasmanians’ life outcomes, it is urgent. The target of 100 per cent literacy set at the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy symposium is achievable, provided there is commitment and collaborative effort to deliver the best intervention. The collective will from the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy symposium suggests it is time to explore the possibilities.

#100PercentLiteracy #HeartOfLiteracy

Dr Lisa Denny is a demographer and a Research Fellow with the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of Tasmania. She has had 20 years’ experience in private industry and the public sector in Tasmania. She was at the “Communicating: The Heart of Literacy” symposium at Government House in November.

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