TAFE shutting the door on the battlers

Apr 15, 2024
Higher education teacher and his students using laptop in the classroom. Image; iStock/Drazen Zigic

Recent figures show that around 30% of Australian school children do not have adequate reading skills. This 30% of Australian school children need vocational knowledge and skills to find a productive place in Australian life, but some will have their reading tested by TAFE then told, without a hint of irony, “You need to go back to school”.

This practice has its origins in TAFE’s adoption of “Competency Based Training”, a system derived from a 1950’s American/UK management fashion. In the strange world of CBT, everyone’s work related knowledge and skills advance with uniform precision from level 1 to level 2, to level 3 and beyond, always magically maintaining the same level score across all areas of learning. All TAFE students are shoehorned into this framework. A young person applying for a TAFE course may already have some practical trade skills for a level 3 trade job, but if their reading test result says “level 1” they’ll probably be rejected.

Our reading, writing, calculating and persuasion skills are partly “inherited”. If your parents left school at 14, it’s unlikely that there’s a copy of On the Origin of Species on a shelf at home. Reading skills development requires access to reading materials and effective support. If your dad’s TV is all sport and reality, you’ve probably been less interested in Geography and a raft of other school subjects. Kids that have slipped behind in their basic skills at primary school may never catch up in secondary. They may be resentful and disillusioned. But for many of these kids, the “real world” of work is different. When the focus of the reading, writing, calculating and communication skills is in the direction of your chosen career, most kids will give it a go. Unfortunately, our TAFE system largely ignores this reality.

What’s needed for students to develop their reading skills as part of their TAFE studies are individualised, step- by-step programs that extend the student’s Sight Word Vocabulary (words that are “instantly” recognised without sounding out etc.) These programs must start at the student’s current skill level and have realistic time frames.

It takes time for a student to progress from being able to read a short workplace note saying “The fire pump engine is almost out of petrol” to the point of being able to decipher the sort of language too often used in instructional texts along the lines of “Ensure that fuel capacities are maintained within parameters that enable reasonable, sustainable operational duration in adverse or hazardous environmental conditions or under other unanticipated circumstances”. Progress times in Reading Skills Development are as varied as the personalities and circumstances of students. Magic reading pills to transform a group of battling students into a set of equally proficient readers within, let’s say, 10 hours, don’t exist.

The practice of teaching toddlers to swim by chucking them into the deep end of a pool has mercifully been discontinued. Sadly, a version of this brutally idiotic technique still lingers in regard to student reading skills in TAFE. A text book for new apprentices may make reading skill demands at “graduate” level. The actual minimum reading skill level for apprentices is set at “certificate 2”. This skill-level gap means that overly complex texts are pretty well useless for many students. Reading attempts reinforce feelings of inadequacy. Observe a group of such struggling students and you will see that they manage to “pass” mostly by subterfuge- borrowing a mate’s book and copying etc. Literacy Skills Awareness is an item on TAFE teacher training’s “competency” list, but it’s often ticked off rather than being demonstrated over time.

Progressive, effective and cost effective reading skills development means that a TAFE student can become an engaged, valuable, happier employee and Australia a better place generally.

In an age when your average mobile phone can take verbal instructions, write notes, and read to you, the technology to support and record the development of TAFE students’ reading skills is at hand. Commissioning the apps/software/programs to do so is a relatively minor national cost. Writing the wide range of job-related “content” required across all industry sectors serviced TAFE is a bigger job. The benefits of integrating basic skills development into new TAFE vocational programs have long been explained by experts. It’s time to make the step of actually doing it.

It’s time to release the rusted handbrake of the CBT system (drum, not disk), recognise the waste at all levels within our current TAFE arrangements, and create a New TAFE that is proactive in making life better for working Australians, supporting innovation and development in our industries , and helping make Australia more internationally competitive.

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