Carol Quinn will tell you it’s very hard to look after yourself, let alone your family, when you can’t read or write properly.
The medicine cabinet can become a minefield, the electricity bill a confusing jumble of letters and numbers, and the shame of it all can “make you feel worthless”.
Just sending a text message used to fill the 54-year-old with dread, even though she knew she wasn’t the only one struggling in her community.
“Lots of our elders can’t read and write, they just struggle with the simple things … like reading a prescription, bills,” she said.
“It just cascades through the generations.
“It breaks my heart.”
Her 28-year-old son Andrew Moorhead graduated from high school a decade ago but admits he “basically couldn’t write a sentence or paragraph”.
“Through school I had a really hard life,” he said. “I got bullied a lot, I couldn’t handle it.”
“The education gap is just massive,” said his mother.
“We’ve got grandmothers who can’t write shopping lists, young men who can’t read to their children.”
Five of seven Closing the Gap targets not on track
Today, the 12th Closing the Gap report will be tabled in Parliament.
It will show Aboriginal children still trail far behind non-Indigenous children in literacy, numeracy and writing skills.
The report will also show the country is on track to meet just two of seven government targets to reduce the disparity in health, education and employment outcomes.
While literacy scores for Indigenous students have slightly improved in the past decade, at least 20 per cent are still behind the national benchmark.
The report does not measure adult reading and writing skills, but will show that Indigenous employment rates still trail far behind the rest of the country.
Ms Quinn and Mr Moorhead represent an all-too-rare success story, having been offered a lifeline by their local Aboriginal health service.
They were struggling to find their feet after moving to a new city to escape an abusive relationship when they enrolled in an Indigenous-run literacy program.
They say the Literacy for Life program has given them “a second chance”.
“I’ve learnt how to read and write properly, I’ve come a long way … it’s just built my confidence up so much,” Ms Quinn said.
“It’s changed my whole life.”
But many in their community, in Sydney’s south-west, will not get the same opportunity.
The Campbelltown program’s funding has run out, with dozens more adults still wanting to sign up, its organisers said.
‘We need projects like this’
Community elder Kay Bussell, one of the Literacy for Life teachers, saw the program as a beacon of hope in a world of slow policy change.
She was devastated to learn its state funding would only support two intakes of the Campbelltown course — about 22 people.
“We need projects like this … we need more Indigenous educators, ones from our own community,” she said.
“The health of our people, the life span is shorter than normal. That’s because we are trying to keep up — and we’re being left behind.”
Literacy for Life program participants Michael Moloney (left), Carol Quinn (centre) and Andrew Moorhead (right), learn with the help of local elder Kay Bussell (back), who runs the program. (ABC News: Isabella Higgins)
She said there was a huge demand in the community for adult literacy programs, and she knew of many adults who wanted to enrol in the course but could not.
Closing the Gap targets need to change: PM
Prime Minister Scott Morrison believes the Closing the Gap strategy is flawed, and its reporting system masks progress and reinforces the language of failure.
“The targets don’t celebrate the strengths, achievements and aspirations of Indigenous people,” he is expected to tell Parliament today.
“They don’t tell you what’s happening on the ground, or stirring under it. They don’t tell you how realistic or achievable these targets were in the first place.”
Mr Morrison wants new targets and an overhaul of the framework — a project that has been underway for several years.
“Closing the Gap was never a partnership with Indigenous people; we believed we knew better. We don’t,” he is expected to tell Parliament today.
“I’m very hopeful that a new approach that’s more locally led and more collaborative will take us much further than the top-down, one-size-fits-all, government-led approach ever could.”
Aboriginal leader confident positive change is coming
Pat Turner has led the country’s peak Aboriginal health organisation for years and is now co-chairing the mission to refresh Closing the Gap, alongside the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt.
“It is hard not to get overwhelmed by the lack of progress, a widening gap in life expectancy, soaring rates of incarceration, with our people dying in custody,” Ms Turner said.
But she is hopeful the renewed policy will be a “circuit breaker”.
Ms Turner and a coalition of other Aboriginal leaders met with the Prime Minister and some of his Cabinet last month.
She said there was “goodwill” and “desire for change”, and new Closing the Gap targets could be signed off by June.
“We’re aiming for a maximum of 15 targets [and] all the targets should be national,” she said.
“[There will be] new ones like justice, for example … and for the first time there will be actual Aboriginal involvement in designing this process.”
Kay Bussell also believes the education gap can be closed, but not without much more funding and government support.
“The next generation, I’d love to see them up in NAPLAN, because they are all intelligent, they just need the support,” she said.
“I’d love to see them at the top and say, ‘I want to be prime minister one day and be able to lead their country’.”
Not on track: Child mortality
- A target to halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade (by 2018) remains unmet
- In 2018, the Indigenous child mortality rate was 141 per 100,000 — twice the rate for non-Indigenous children (67 per 100,000)
- The mortality rate for non-Indigenous children has improved at a faster rate than Indigenous children, so the gap has widened since 2008
On track: Early education
- The Government is aiming to have 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025
- In 2018, that figure was at 86.4 per cent, an increase of almost 10 percentage points since 2016
Not on track: School attendance
- The Government aimed to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance by 2018, but there has been no improvement in the past five years
- Attendance rates for Indigenous students (82 per cent) remain lower than for non-Indigenous students (97 per cent)
Not on track: Literacy and numeracy
- A goal to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy for children in the decade to 2018 was not met
- But the proportion of Indigenous students meeting national minimum standards in reading and numeracy improved
- The gap narrowed across all year levels by between three and 11 percentage points
On track: Year 12 attainment
- The strategy aims to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment by 2020
- Since 2008, the proportion of Indigenous Australians finishing Year 12 has increased by 21 percentage points
- Non-Indigenous attainment rates have also improved, but more slowly, so the gap has narrowed by 15 percentage points
Not on track: Employment
- In 2018, the Indigenous employment rate was 49 per cent, compared to 75 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians
- In the decade to 2018, the Indigenous employment rate increased by less than a percentage point, while for non-Indigenous Australians it fell by 0.4 percentage points — so the gap has barely changed
Not on track: Life expectancy
- In 2015–2017, the life expectancy was 71.6 years for Indigenous males (8.6 years less than non-Indigenous males) and 75.6 years for Indigenous females (7.8 years less than non-Indigenous females)
- There has been no progress on a goal to close the life expectancy gap by 2031 because Indigenous and non-Indigenous mortality rates both improved at a similar rate of almost 10 per cent between 2006–2018