Release type: Op-Ed


It's time to improve the nation's key foundation skills


The Hon Brendan O'Connor MP
Minister for Skills and Training

Kelly’s daughter wanted help signing her name on a painting at pre-school.

Business as usual for most mothers, but Kelly had to walk away and secretly look at her daughter’s name on her Medicare card to write it – like forging a signature.

None of the other mums knew.

Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but millions of everyday Australians like Kelly struggle to read and write, do maths or use computers – key foundation skills.

These low foundation skills happen because of circumstances.

Children can experience health conditions that disrupt their education. Families can experience crises and disruptions during their children’s schooling years. Children may have learning difficulties or disabilities. There are thousands of ways circumstances can get in the way of an education.

Circumstances are why around 3 million working-age Australians are estimated to have low literacy, numeracy or digital skills to the extent they could struggle in the modern workplace. That’s one in five adult Australians.

The three-million-person skills gap is not the fault of any individual who makes up that gap, but it’s everyone’s problem. And everyone’s opportunity. That is because OECD research has shown that increasing the literacy level of a country by 1 per cent leads to a 2.5 per cent rise in labour productivity and a 1.5 per cent increase in GDP per person.

In other words, improving foundation skills has economic, social and cultural benefits for the nation as well as for the individual.

It is also true that low foundation skills hold people back from furthering their careers. Brett for example was a construction worker, but when he was promoted to foreman, he couldn’t write reports for the crews. He had to let that opportunity go.

This week is Adult Learners’ Week, the perfect opportunity to highlight the urgent need to lift foundation skills for Australian adults.  

That is why the Albanese Government is investing over $400 million to reform foundation skills programs through the redesigned Skills for Education and Employment (SEE) Program. 

We’ve also established a Foundation Skills Advisory Group and commissioned Jobs and Skills Australia to deliver a landmark survey to assess foundation skill levels across Australia.

We also know that the challenge is even more acute for our First Nations Australians, with about 40 per cent of adult Indigenous people having minimal English literacy. This figure can rise as high as 70 per cent in remote communities.

For this reason, I have emphasised codesign and First Nations-led delivery in this Government’s plan for the future of foundation skills programs. 

Next year, we will change the SEE Program to include a dedicated First Nations stream, which will include grants for community organisations to deliver much needed foundation skills training.

The Albanese Government understands that access to education and training gives people control over their own destiny. It is a crucial element of a person’s employment prospects. And it needs to be lifelong - continually updated and refined.

The opportunities that future jobs bring also heighten the threats for people who don’t have the right skills. 
Think about where the jobs growth is coming from: software and application programming, technical professions, nursing, aged and disabled care are key examples. All of them require advanced skills.  

And learning those advanced skills, requires foundation skills. As the share of jobs that don’t require these skills declines, so does the opportunities of those without skills.

We talk a lot about the transferability of skills as being critical in a world of accelerating change. These transferable skills must be built upon first getting the basics right.

The fundamental questions we need to ask ourselves are: How do we grow participation rates in education for vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians? How do we ensure and preserve the fundamental principle of accessibility and equity?

Foundation skills do what the name implies – lay the foundation for people to fully participate in their community. Their low levels are no-one’s fault, everyone’s problem and will require a massive effort.