Adult literacy and closing the gap will be the focus of a UNE public lecture honouring the memory of UNE’s Neville Crew OAM, a lecturer passionate about adult education and community development.

The inaugural Neville Crew Memorial Public Lecture will be delivered this month by Professor Jack Beetson, Executive Director of the Literacy for Life Foundation, who has helped change thousands of lives through an adult literacy campaign in Aboriginal communities across northwest NSW.

Professor Beetson achieved his credentials as graduate, teacher, principal, board member and professor across a range of tertiary institutions in spite of his own early struggles with the education system. But these experiences helped cement his passion, empathy and understanding of barriers in adult education, especially for Aboriginal people.

“I was removed from school by the school at 13. In 1970, they could do that to Aboriginal kids with no recourse. It could be the P&C’s decision or the school’s. After that, I was out of the education system for a long time, but, working and looking after family at home, I became an adult very early,” Professor Beetson says.

“By the time I went back to education through Tranby College in Sydney I was 26. I remember getting in the bus in Glebe carrying textbooks and exercise books – probably nobody was looking, but I felt like everybody was looking at this old person carrying books. Now 26 seems young to me. But then, going back to school, I felt funny about it.”

But, thanks to the positive influence of a sister-in-law when growing up – who insisted on giving him his own spelling competition at the kitchen table every night – Professor Beetson had strong literacy skills and a sense of its importance. Following college, he continued to champion education and chase qualifications, such as a bachelor degree in adult education at the University of Technology Sydney, to benefit his community.

“In my class at the University of Technology Sydney, I distinctly remember there were people from Westpac and Price Waterhouse – people from these really big corporations wanting to get ahead of everyone else. I just thought, if I get this qualification, people will listen to me and I can help my community. Our motivations were very different.”

He says in contrast to his own experience, many adults in the Aboriginal communities the Literacy for Life Foundation partners with are starting at a literacy level “below the lowest point in the education framework”.

“You can’t do much in life other than just survive if you can’t read and write. It’s hard to aspire to anything but that. Without literacy first, the idea of closing the gap is just ridiculous,” Professor Beetson says.

“If you can’t read or write, you can’t even identify there is a gap and something that needs to be changed.”

Professor Beetson is quick to point out his work is simply about helping people access what is their basic human right, while the accolades belong to those who take a chance on learning through the campaign.

“I’m really proud of the students and communities for trusting us enough to get behind the Literacy for Life campaign and have another go, after education has failed them.

“The results of the Literacy for Life campaign have been enormous. I’m really proud of the communities for trusting us enough to behind the campaign and have another go. They are the bravest of the brave,” he says.

Through his Neville Crew Lecture, Professor Beetson will highlight the process, results and some statistics from the Literacy for Life campaign, and speak about a range of aspects – including some unintended consequences – of the broader Closing the Gap campaign.

The Neville Crew Lecture will be held on Wednesday 4 December 2019, at 1-2pm in the Oorala Lecture Theatre, University of New England, Armidale.

Image: Professor Jack Beetson with Literacy for Life campaign graduate Ronald Edwards, Toomelah. Photo by Hugh Rutherford, courtesy of the Literacy for Life Foundation.