Early years are of primary importance for vital skills

Blaise Joseph

03 September 2018 | The Australian Financial Review

It’s a myth that primary school is less important than secondary school.

Parental engagement and support is vital throughout a child’s education, but never more so than in the early primary years.

Many parents are most engaged in Years 11 and 12 — the time of subject selections, scaling, and the intricacies of rolling ATAR calculations — or during the often difficult process of choosing a secondary school. These are certainly important, but ultimately student achievement at this late stage depends largely on having mastered core literacy and numeracy skills in primary school.

The early school years are vital for acquiring core reading skills. There is a well-established phenomenon called the Matthew Effect, which states that relatively small differences in reading ability in the early years of school lead to relatively large differences in achievement by the end of school and beyond, if not rectified early. This is why teaching children how to read at the start of primary school is so important.

The evidence clearly shows that early intervention is the key to helping underachieving or disadvantaged students. The earlier, the better. It’s important to identify students who are underperforming as soon as possible — and to ensure literacy and numeracy are well-taught to reduce the number of students who underperform.

Waiting for improvement in secondary school is waiting to fail.

Unfortunately, many children are not given effective early reading instruction. A recent Australian systematic literature review found many new primary school teachers do not possess sufficient language knowledge to effectively teach phonics (where students learn to sound out written words) — an essential component of teaching children how to read. This must change.

Given that one in five Australian Year 4 students are below the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) benchmark, a greater focus on literacy — especially in primary schools — is vital for Australia’s education.

It’s true some things in education cannot be measured; but literacy and numeracy certainly can be.

That’s why NAPLAN test results — particularly in Years 3 and 5 — can be important and useful measures of student progress.

NAPLAN assesses a student’s literacy and numeracy levels against an objective national benchmark, which allows teachers and parents to identify areas where students are falling behind so help can be provided. The publication of results on the MySchool website ensures transparency of school results and accountability across the education system, while facilitating a more informed school choice for parents.

There is no reason NAPLAN should cause significant stress for anyone and indeed there is no rigorous evidence to suggest that it does for most children. There are no rewards for high scores, no punishment for low scores, and NAPLAN isn’t tied to school funding or teacher salaries. If students experience high levels of anxiety related to NAPLAN, it is arguable that this is the result of pressure or anxiety transmitted from the adults around them.

When NAPLAN tests occur and when results are released, everyone should stay calm. Referring to NAPLAN as a ‘high stakes test’ is both unhelpful and misleading.

NAPLAN often gets a bad rap for having a ‘narrow’ focus on literacy and numeracy. There is increasing pressure for schools, including primary schools, to focus on ‘broader capabilities’ beyond literacy and numeracy, as advocated by the recent ‘Gonski 2.0’ review. We’re told that teaching these ‘21st century skills’ — like critical thinking and collaboration — is essential for the future prospects of children.

But it isn’t clear that these kinds of skills actually exist outside the core disciplines. Research shows capabilities like creativity and critical thinking are domain-specific, not generic skills. This means rigorous subject knowledge is a prerequisite for ‘higher-level thinking’ in any area. For example, thinking critically about a classic novel is very different to thinking critically about a maths problems.

Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest broader capabilities can be taught or assessed in any meaningful way.

On the other hand, we know for a fact that schools can teach and assess literacy and numeracy effectively. Schools should focus on doing these better, rather than getting distracted by things like ‘21st century skills’ that are best developed through the acquisition and application of knowledge.

The best way to prepare students for this century is to ensure they leave school proficient readers, fluent writers, competent in maths, and with a sound and well-rounded knowledge of the core disciplines. These attributes — which fundamentally depend on the quality of education in primary school — are the building blocks for a successful career.

The harsh reality is that if students finish their primary schooling without adequate literacy and numeracy skills, it’s very hard for any secondary school to make up the difference.

Blaise Joseph is an education policy analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies.

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