Literacy in the Pacific: in danger of being sidelined?

(Credit: DFAT/Conor Ashleigh/Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The Pacific is a crowded policy space – inevitable given the wide range of challenges facing Pacific island countries. Most recently, with climate change being on everyone’s mind and the need for massively enhanced infrastructure in the Pacific to help deal with it, it’s difficult to get any oxygen and priority for discussions on education, including literacy.

But there are major education issues in the Pacific. While there are high enrolments of children in primary school, countries are struggling to achieve decent education outcomes. For example, the recently released 2018 Pacific Island Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (PILNA) data shows that only half of children in Year 4 are at the Pacific literacy benchmark for their grade. (Compared to Australia where around 95% of Australian Year 3 students are at or above our literacy benchmarks.)

The literacy problem starts early in a child’s school life.

In Tonga, an Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) done in 2014 found that literacy problems were apparent as early as Year 1 with, for example, 25% of students at the end of their first year of schooling recording “zero” for letter-sound recognition. These children did not know the sound for any letter. That means a basic building block of reading comprehension – understanding the sounds that are associated with letters – is missing for these children. Most Pacific island countries for which EGRA studies have been done show that reading comprehension is very poor for a large proportion of children in Years 1–3.

Part of the problem is that many children are not starting “school ready”. A World Bank study of three Pacific countries in 2013 found that parents did not value early childhood education, or see their role in providing cognitive stimulus. Preschool participation is patchy. While most children have good oral skills, and they have stories told to them and they sing songs, many live in households with virtually no exposure to books or printed words. A large proportion are not read to by their parents or other adults. They start school not being aware of the right way to hold a book, or how pages turn, or that those squiggles on the pages mean words. And all the evidence is that children who start school behind, stay behind.

Pacific island country education ministers are well aware of the education challenges they face. They have developed a Pacific Regional Education Framework 2018–30, and, with the help of development partners, have invested in measurement. PILNA – meant to be a one-off when first done in 2012 – is being done on a regular basis to help guide country education programs. Countries such as Vanuatu have undertaken major reforms in their curriculum and school systems. Fiji has been investing in early childhood education. Through the Pacific Early Age Readiness and Learning (PEARL) program, Tonga and Tuvalu trialled community play-based activities (playgroups) to lift school readiness. The playgroups in Tonga, evaluated through a randomised control trial, significantly increased pre-literacy of the most disadvantaged children. They were also inexpensive. Tonga, Kiribati and Tuvalu trialled new approaches to teaching reading and got impressive improvements in reading comprehension of children in Years 1 and 2.

There has been progress. The PILNA 2018 results were a significant improvement on 2015:

  • 53% of students in Year 4 met or exceeded expected literacy standards – up from 43% in 2015, and
  • 63% of Year 6 students met or exceeded literacy standards – up from under 50% in 2015.

But even if these impressive rates of improvement are maintained, it won’t be until the 2030s that 90% of Year 4 children are at acceptable literacy levels. There will also be countries that will lag.

The World Bank has recognised the fundamental importance of literacy, as part of a human capital development agenda, pointing out that investments in areas such as infrastructure and trade facilitation will not yield expected returns without human capital investments. It is obvious to all that infrastructure investments, such as cables, are a far greater boost to economies with healthy and skilled populations who can read, write and innovate to make the most of this infrastructure. At the 2019 DFAT Education Forum the Bank made a strong case for literacy investment, arguing that countries should aim to have all their children reading with comprehension by the age of ten.

While Australian development assistance has been provided to education, it has very little profile, with priority in the development budget going to economic development, infrastructure, security and private sector development. Of the education assistance allocated, much goes to older age children or school leavers – for example, to skills development through initiatives such as the Australia Pacific Training Coalition, on labour mobility through the Pacific Labour Scheme, and most recently to a new secondary scholarship program. There has also been support for improved data, such as PILNA. But these investments, while valuable, will not help with school readiness or early age reading, and indeed because of poor literacy, these programs run the risk of not achieving the outcomes Pacific islanders and their governments want and need.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe there is an important role for Australia to play in helping the Pacific to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and to meet the challenges of delivering health, transport, energy and other services to small highly dispersed populations. Like most people, I love infrastructure – power poles, roads that withstand cyclones, and cables that bring Facebook to the Pacific and enhance trade linkages. And I want Australia to support these. But to be a good neighbour means helping to set the basic building blocks for strong peoples, communities, and economies. Literacy is at the heart of this.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the institutions the author is affiliated with.

Read more about the 2018 PILNA results on the Blog here.

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Wendy Jarvie

Dr Wendy Jarvie is Adjunct Professor, Public Service Research Group, School of Business, University of NSW Canberra. She was a consultant on the Global Partnership for Education/World Bank Pacific Early Age Readiness and Learning (PEARL) project (2014-2018) and is a member of DFAT’s Independent Evaluation Committee for Australian Aid, and its Audit and Risk Committee.


  • I recently saw first hand low English levels in Samoan schools on the AVI Program working in Inclusive Education. Have just shipped 4,000 levelled reading books and Teaching Guides from my self-published literacy program to assist Samoa. In the process of emailing support materials. Would like to do more work in the Pacific in this area.

    • Hi Rogers,
      Glad to hear of your great initiatives and support to send reading books and teaching guides to Samoa.
      I’d be happy to learn more of your self-published literacy program. I am a former teacher and parent in the Solomon Islands.

      Thank you

  • Literacy is a major concern globally as well as in the Pacific. Reading comments and PILNA reports “Literacy is still a concern for many countries” speaking for the Pacific my personal view is that early literacy skills should be strengthened in the early years compared to upper primary. Very little has been discussed about early childhood education and care whereas this area is the most significant section in an education system.

  • Critical issue and important to raise it. I would be interested to know if the data was sex disaggregated and if there was any gender analysis, including links to the increasing failure of boys in education.

  • Wendy your concern for literacy in the Pacific is well founded. You mention literacy through the formal school system. Another aspect is adult literacy.

    One of the more successful forms of Australian development assistance in PNG is the Church Partnership Program. It includes a significant adult literacy component. For example, the program run by Anglicare and the Anglican Church in PNG reaches across all dioceses and into even the most remote communities, with around 2,000 learners enrolled each year. Only a small proportion of these adult literacy learners progress each year to formal education or formal employment but a large proportion utilise their new literacy and numeracy skills for purposes like weighing produce and calculating change at the local market, involving themselves with their children’s schooling, involving themselves more in community activities and texting distant family members.

    Most of the adult literacy schools in the program have been built by local volunteers using locally sourced ‘bush materials’. Such local contributions suggests high value is attached to adult literacy.

    Not a lot of good news coming out of the Pacific re climate change or literacy but some initiatives are going okay and literacy is definitely highly valued at grassroots level.

  • Thanks for these thoughts Wendy. Parents, even if uneducated, need to see value from investing in their children’s education. My mother never went to school and my dad dropped out after Grade 3, but all my siblings completed tertiary education even on a very modest family-income. We were lucky as my poor parents invested in us so that we could earn more than them. Such an incentive remains only when education provides employable skills, and when jobs exist: pre-school is the first rung of this long ladder to opportunity. And without the opportunity, there is little incentive for any (poor) parent to send their children to any school.

  • A very timely and astute blog by a researcher highly experienced in this field. Australia can do much to support early learning in pre-school age children in our Pacific neighbouring countries including through increasing financial support. We should do it. Part of the challenge in tackling the need for urgent action on climate change is having an informed voting public. Education is critical for an informed voting public. And the best place, as the blog points out, to start education is in the very early years. With support at home being so limited because of the disadvantage parents have faced it is right for the government to step up. Similar issues face First Australian 0 to 5 year olds – some of whom in remote communities have not held a pen until they start school. Let’s work together and pressure the Federal Government to invest in early childhood education in areas that have the highest need – in the Pacific and here in Australia.

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