More than 100,000 teenagers may be forced to improve their basic literacy and numeracy skills. Geoff Maslen reports
A controversial plan by Prime Minister John Howard to stop benefit payments to young people who fail basic literacy and numeracy tests has outraged educators.
"This takes us back to the old cruel days when children who failed were beaten in school and made to wear the dunce's cap in the ignorant belief that it was all their fault," said Dr Margot Prior, a Melbourne psychologist and academic.
One cartoonist pictured the PM explaining the idea to his Cabinet. "The beauty of it," Mr Howard is shown as saying, "is they can't read how pathetic it is, and they can't write to complain."
The furore began when Mr Howard said young people will lose their right to unemployment benefits if their levels of literacy are low and they refuse to attend classes. The government estimates the new plan could affect 100,000 teenagers.
Declaring that he was "passionate" about the principle of mutual obligation in welfare, the prime minister said remedial courses to be offered in schools and colleges would improve young people's ability to "compete in a skills-hungry job market".
"Refusing to learn how to read and write will deny young unemployed people the full dole," he said. He blamed state education systems for failing to provide their students with basic literacy and numeracy skills.
A study in 1996 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that about half the people without jobs had difficulty reading and writing.
Last year, the government set aside more than A$140 million (pound;56m) over four years for optional literacy and numeracy courses. Under the new rules, however, the classes will become compulsory, if the jobless wish to keep claiming benefits.
But the Holmesglen Institute of Technical and Further Education, in Melbourne, Victoria's largest provider of the optional remedial courses, said that no unemployed people had enrolled, raising questions about the compulsory plan.
The Australian Council for Adult Literacy described the optional scheme as spectacularly unsuccessful.
Teachers can take little comfort from this debate. A further ABS report says nearly half of all Australians between the ages of 15 and 64 have poor literacy skills, with many unable even to read a newspaper.
The report claims that although 71 per cent of secondary teachers have the highest level of basic skills, only 56 per cent of primary teachers and 61 per cent of university lecturers do.