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Is a 100% literacy rate possible?

aus achievement trends

International Standards

Is it reasonable to believe Australia should have a 100% literacy rate? Most people in 2023, would assume so, since education is provided free by our government, and schooling is compulsory from around the ages of 6-16. Children in Australia spend 6 hours a day for 12 of the most formative years of their lives in a public or private school.

It is reasonable to assume with all these resources that are readily available to educate children, that the most fundamental skills in literacy would be mastered during this long period.

There are no universal definitions and standards of literacy. The ability to read and write at a specified age is the most common definition to base literacy rates on. Information on literacy, while not a perfect measure of educational results, is probably the most easily available and valid for international comparisons, according to the CIA Factbook.

Some of the statistics that I will share may then come as a surprise to some and may even be alarming to others. Data is difficult to obtain, and many factors affect the results when trying to measure learning.

There are several countries with 100% literacy rates according to,

including Andorra, Finland, Greenland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and Norway. Where is Australia?

Top 10 Most Literate Countries in the world 2003

  1. 2018 – 99.99% Uzbekistan
  2. 2012 – 99.97% Ukraine
  3. 2018 – 99.92% San Marino
  4. 2018 – 99.89% Latvia
  5. 2011 – 99.89% Estonia
  6. 2016 – 99.83% Czech Republic
  7. 2011 – 99.82% Lithuania
  8. 2014 – 99.80% Tajikistan
  9. 2017 – 99.79% Azerbaijan
  10. 10.2018 – 99.78% Kazakhstan

Below these countries is Australia, U.S.A and U.K with a 99% literacy rate. These countries are not of the wealthy or powerful nations. Of interest is the absence of English-speaking countries in the list above.

Below is a table of each country’s percentage of people completing tertiary education, upper secondary education, based upon OECD data. Note that the data does not include the 150 countries that do not belong to the OECD. This is very significant when you compare it to the first list dominated by Central Asian and Eastern European nations.

Here are the top 10 most educated countries in 2021:

  1. South Korea: 69%
  2. Canada: 66%
  3. Japan: 65%
  4. Ireland: 63%
  5. Luxembourg: 63%
  6. United Kingdom: 57%
  7. Lithuania: 57%
  8. Netherlands: 56%
  9. Norway: 55%
  10. Australia: 54%

Students Around the World

PISA – Programme for student international assessment.

This study of education around the world involved testing 470,000 fifteen-year-old students from 79 countries in math, science, and reading. The average score of the three subjects is compiled to determine these ranks. Worldpopulationreview 2021 data.

The 10 highest ranked countries for education:

  1. United States
  2. United Kingdom
  3. Germany
  4. Canada
  5. France
  6. Switzerland
  7. Japan
  8. Australia
  9. Sweden
  10. Netherlands

In the latest PISA results from 2018, China topped the list ahead of Singapore in the second spot and Estonia in the third spot. Australia ranked 17th while the United States only made it into 22nd.

Again, many countries are excluded from this list because they are not in the OECD. Posted 3 Dec 2019 by National Education, are these comments about Australian students’ performance internationally.

Australian students had fallen more than a year behind their Singaporean counterparts in reading.

“We’re not giving them the same level of skills as they are in other countries.

“That is a concern, particularly in a global economy where our kids will compete with kids all over the world.”

Australian students behind in maths, reading and science, PISA education study shows in 2018 results.

In Australia, 740 schools and more than 14,000 students were assessed. The study found Australian students’ reading, science and maths results were all in a long-term decline.

By national education reporter Conor Duffy and the Specialist Reporting Team’s Brooke Wylie. PISA national project manager Sue Thomson described the results as a “wake-up call”. “We’re not giving them the skills that they need in maths or in reading or in science,” she said.

Overall, the report found Australian students had fallen behind by a full school year in maths, and almost a school year in reading and science. Speaking about the PISA report, federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said it should have “alarm bells ringing”.

aus achievement trends

Results from PISA 2022 were released on 5 December 2023 at 9:00 pm AEDT

Is there a Link between wealth and literacy?

There is when we look at the bottom 10 countries. Poverty certainly contributes to low participation and therefore attainment of educational standards, according to (May 4, 2018).

However, in the high achievers list above, there does not seem to be clear correlation between wealth and literacy standards. Australia is a very wealthy country and far better off in resources than many of the nations listed. Let us look at the wealthiest nations.

According to market research company New World Wealth, the vast majority of $215 trillion of private wealth, about 73.5% – is held by just 10 countries:

RankCountryWealth (Trillions)Change (2007-2017)
1United States$62.620%
4United Kingdom$9.9-2%

Australia’s wealth in the list above, increased in that decade. Furthermore, it is set to increase in the decade leading up to 2027. According to New World Wealth, the same 10 countries will remain – but the order will change:

Proj. RankCountryProj. Wealth (Trillions 2027)Change (2017-2027)
1United States$75.120%
5United Kingdom$10.910%

By 2027, Australia is expected rise 2 places in the rank to be the world’s seventh richest country in terms of private wealth, with a total of $10.4 trillion. The correlation between prosperity and educational attainment does not show up when we look at these figures.


We have looked at world comparisons, now let us look at national data from 2022 and see how this data has been interpreted by media and experts. The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy is a series of tests focused on basic skills that are administered to Australian students in year 3, 5, 7 and 9. These standardised tests assess students’ reading, writing, language, and numeracy, and are administered by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority. (ACARA).


Participation levels drop

The 2022 test had the fewest participants since NAPLAN began, with a steep drop off from the previous year. When we see upward trending data, we need to factor in a starting point that is already low. ACARA chief executive David de Carvalho said the 2 per cent dip in participation across the board was an “issue of concern”. Furthermore, he added, “Low participation rates can impact results analysis and the ability to get a clear picture of literacy and numeracy achievement at the national level”. 

naplan trends

The new NAPLAN standards

In 2023 Achievement is now categorised into four proficiency levels, set by expert panels of specialist teachers, instead of numerical bands.

Exceeding: result exceeds expectations at the time of testing 

Strong: result meets challenging but reasonable expectations at the time of testing

Developing: result indicates the student is working towards expectations at the time of testing

Needs additional support: result indicates student is not achieving the learning outcomes expected at the time of testing and are likely to need help to progress 

YearExceeding proficiencyNeeds additional support

Identifying students who need support

Experts say the new system gives a clearer picture of how many students are falling behind. A report by parenting reporter C. Duffy and the Specialist Reporting Team’s E. Young for ABC News, on 23 Aug 2023, is titled ‘NAPLAN results show one in three school students not meeting numeracy and literacy expectations’. In It they say nearly one in ten students are so far behind they need additional support.

Federal Education Minister Jason Clare said the new standards better reflected the true picture in Australian classrooms. He said, “Once students fall behind, it is very, very hard to catch up”.

“We can’t accept that children who fall behind when they’re eight years old are going to stay behind for the rest of their lives. “As a result a lot of children drop out of school.”

naplan standards

Glenn Fahey, director of education at the Centre for Independent Studies, said “The measurement today is more accurate than what it may have been in the past [and] it’s fairly consistent with what international assessments have been telling us for a while,” Mr Fahey said. Those international results have shown Australian students going down the ranks for 20 years, despite significant investments in all schooling systems.

The Productivity Commission’s ‘From learning to growth’ report found education results for reading, writing and numeracy had been flat for a decade.

Shadow Education Minister Sarah Henderson is concerned that declining school standards have become a national embarrassment and says that “Young Australians and their families deserve better than this, and so does our country.” 

By National Education and Parenting reporter Gabriella Marchant for ABC News, (31 Oct 2022), Almost 15 per cent of Australian year 9 boys do not meet the national minimum achievement standard for reading — the highest proportion ever, according to the latest national NAPLAN test results.

Mastering foundational skills and aiming for 100%

Despite the confusing data which makes true comparisons difficult. These kinds of figures are certainly not high standards for our nation. We seem to have lowered the bar instead of raising it. We need to achieve higher standards through better teaching and by developing a better curriculum.

Pointing to OECD statistics that show one in five Australian adults have “low basic skills” in literacy and numeracy, the report highlighted the need to address foundational skills.

Is more funding going to help?

Many people think more funding solves problems. This is a long-standing debate among politicians and bureaucrats especially. The Australian Education Union is making the case for more funding. Despite Australia being a wealthy nation that has resources to allocate to education, Australia has not attained a 100% literacy rate. We have seen the correlation between wealth and results.

A report from 5/10/22 says, ‘Australia failing to make progress on literacy and numeracy despite investment.’ It says, ‘The 2022 data showed the disparity between students with highly educated parents and those with less education had not improved. This gap widens from the first NAPLAN test in year 3, and the final test in year 9.’

Education Minister Jason Clare said he was concerned about that gap. “I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on who your parents are, where you live or the colour of your skin,” he said

The minister here is making a link between kids whose parents are affluent and wealthy and those kids of the lower socioeconomic strata. The NAPLAN data is showing a widening disparity in results based on economic status. Does this mean we must increase funding in education necessarily? Australia is failing to make progress on literacy and numeracy levels despite more investment in schools. Furthermore, the report found that academic results for foundational skills such as reading, writing and numeracy had been “flat for over a decade”, even as spending on schools had increased. So, is throwing more money at the problem going to fix it?

Excellence and Equity

About a decade ago the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) discovered that the most successful school systems are those that combine excellence and equity in their education priorities.

Instead of increasing school choice, the OECD suggests that governments should invest more systematically in equity in education. For many OECD countries that has meant a faster, smarter, and fairer way to achieve educational excellence.

Pasi Sahlberg, professor of educational policy and deputy director at the Gonski Institute at the University of New South Wales. Says, “…we have one of the best education systems anywhere. World class….. but only for some children.”

Reported in recent ABC reportage, this world-class educational excellence is very unevenly distributed around this country.

“Funding for schooling must not be seen simply as a financial matter. Rather, it is about investing to strengthen and secure Australia’s future. Investment and high expectations must go hand in hand. Every school must be appropriately resourced to support every child and every teacher must expect the most from every child.” David Gonski’s Review Panel 2011.

Further to that, “…. we need to fix current inequalities in and out of schools before educational excellence can truly be achieved. It is that simple. The evidence is clear and so should be the road ahead.”

The Future

What does the future hold for Australian kids at the national and international level? What should we take away from the data showing the performance of students in Australia?

A report said skill requirements will grow in future decades, with more than nine out of 10 jobs created in the next five years requiring a post-school education, and three out of five new jobs expected to be high-skilled. “And foundational skill deficits will become even more damaging as the demand for routine manual skills continues to decline.” “For literate people, the range of possible vocations is vast—even highly skilled, high-paying careers are within reach. For those who cannot, the options are extremely limited—even unskilled minimum-wage jobs can be difficult to obtain.”

Low levels of literacy, and education in general, can impede the economic development of a country in the current rapidly changing, technology-driven world. (CIA). This means more and more Australian kids are not prepared adequately for changing future labour market trends. We are not equipping our kids with the basic foundational knowledge to respond intelligently to expected changes. Australians will lose their competitive edge in a highly competitive international arena.

I believe Australia and other countries that provide government funded education to their citizens can and should achieve a 100% literacy rate. The ability to read and write, is a right for every child. Even one child slipping through the crack is one too many. We need to look at the factors that may contribute to this scenario, such as low socioeconomic background and access to resources. More importantly however, is good teaching and high expectations.

An excellent and thorough program, with highly trained and knowledgeable teachers, can cut through the other factors. All children in Australia must be given a strong foundation in their education on which to build their future. As a nation, Australia can prosper and stay competitive internationally with higher standards of literacy at all levels.

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