Inquiry to consider migrant and refugee literacy issues

By Melissa Coade

Thursday August 19, 2021

Andrew Laming.
Liberal MP Andrew Laming will chair the House committee.(AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Video conference hearings of the employment, education and training committee’s inquiry into adult literacy have resumed to canvass literacy issues affecting migrant and refugee communities among many others. 

Representatives from the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) and Settlement Australia will give evidence to the inquiry on Thursday.

In its submission to the inquiry, FECCA’s focus on empowerment and inclusion of people living in Australia from CALD backgrounds called for public policy to recognise that a person’s English language skills did not determine their ability to actively participate in Australian life. It urged the committee to consider how policies recognised the social and economic value of CALD migrants also.

“It is essential to recognise that knowledge of the English language does not determine someone’s ability to be a good citizen or actively participate in Australian life,” the community group’s submission reads. 

“FECCA emphasises the importance of recognising people’s ability to actively participate through volunteer work, through employment, and through engaging with Australian society without ‘vocational’ English.”

People without perfect literacy skills are still capable of looking after their children and families, volunteering in their community and finding meaningful work, the group argued. In order to ensure these people continue to access essential services, and receive government support, FECCA is advocating for the federal government to back appropriate support services. 

“There are people who will struggle with learning functional English and these people must still be supported with appropriate multicultural services, translated information and interpreters when required,” FECCA said. 

“Improvements can be made to ensure government services and accessing information about said services are accessible for all, independent of their linguistic, cultural and ethnic background.”

According to the Settlement Council of Australia, the peak body representing most agencies across Australia providing direct services and support to people from migrant and refugee backgrounds, people who experience literacy difficulties come from diverse backgrounds. 

The council noted that previous evidence to the inquiry estimated that approximately 80% of people lacking essential literacy came from households that mainly spoke English.

“The literacy gap between migrants and non-migrants is smaller in Australia than other countries,” the council submission reads.

“Education and occupation remain more significant factors than immigrant status as an indicator of literacy skills.”

In a statement, Queensland MP and committee chair to the inquiry Andrew Laming, said the committee would consider what strategies were needed to improve support available to people with low English language, literacy and numeracy skills. Digital literacy was also an important consideration for the inquiry remit, he added. 

The committee called for submissions in February this year to consider four main issues concerning literacy issues in Australia. They canvass topics from early childhood education, youth literacy, adult literacy, and the challenges facing people who live in rural and regional parts of the country. 

The inquiry is also especially interested in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literacy.

Other groups to appear before the inquiry on Thursday include the Literacy for Life Foundation, Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation.

“The Australian Primary Principals Association and the Australian Council of State School Organisations will provide evidence about school education, and Community Colleges Australia and the Australian Council of Adult Literacy will give evidence about adult literacy provision.

“We will also hear evidence on the teaching of English to speakers of other languages from the Australian Council of TESOL Associations,” Laming said.

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