Duffy is Helping Tackle NZ’s Growing Illiteracy Epidemic


By Alex Roa

A fairytale ending is just out of reach for an increasing number of kiwi kids.

The problem is they are slamming the book shut too early as New Zealand’s illiteracy epidemic grows to pandemic proportions.

Young people are turning away from reading – in droves. A Ministry of Education (MoE) 2020 report warns both children and teens are quickly losing proficient reading and writing abilities.

Linda Vagana, CEO of Duffy Books in Homes, says her team knows its drive to get books into homes is becoming more and more crucial. The need for access to books is greater than ever.

“Children who can't read become adults who can't communicate and that's a serious disadvantage in a world that operates on the written word,” Duffy Books founder Alan Duff says. 

The Alan Duff Charitable Foundation, better known as Duffy Books in Homes, is a literacy programme aimed at breaking the cycle of booklessness among children at schools in some lower socio-economic areas throughout New Zealand.

The not-for-profit organisation places free, brand-new books in children’s hands through early childhood learning centres, schools and their libraries. 

Professor Stuart McNaughton, chief education science adviser for the MoE, said in the 2020 report that 52 per cent of the country’s 15-year-olds “only read if I have to” - up from 38 per cent in 2009. 

A further 28 per cent of teens said “reading is a waste of time” - 10 per cent more than in 2009.

Low literacy rates are bad news for the economy, Dubby Henry, a New Zealand Herald education reporter, told the Front Page podcast.

"If you want to go to university, clearly you have to be able to read and write at a high level,"  Henry said.

"And we want everyone to be able to do that so all different sectors of society can be represented in fields like medicine and law."

Not only does the issue of illiteracy affect the volume of youths who might succeed in university study, but it also extends to other career paths.

"If you want to be a plumber or a mechanic, you still need to be literate and numerate," says Henry.

The growing problem was confirmed by an Education Hub report released earlier this year.

More than a third of kiwi 15-year-olds, or 35.4 per cent, struggle to read and write, the report revealed. 

The report discusses literacy rates in kids and teenagers with differing socio-economic backgrounds. High decile school students are achieving consistently higher literacy rates than those in low-decile schools.

Duffy aims to work alongside schools, outside of the curriculum to support schools in the work that they do.

There is a gap of eight scale points between high and low decile schools in Year Four writing, and a 12 point gap in Year Eight writing, the report says, indicating approximately 1-1.5 years progress difference between high and low decile schools. That gap grows over the years of education.

While the decile system in schools will be replaced by a new “equity index system” in 2023, some schools have been shocked to find out that they will lose funding under the new ratings.

The Pasifika Principals' Association told media outlet Newsroom that it had been collating the impact on its member schools, which were mostly low-decile under the old system. It shows some are losing six figures in annual operational funding, and some are losing as many as five full time-equivalent teaching positions.

Vagana says that the work of the Duffy team is only made possible with help from over 200 generous funding partners, including Ministry of Education, key collaboration with ReadNZ and Storylines, and Duffy Books’ pool of inspirational role models assisting with the provision of gifting brand new books to more than 100,000 New Zealand children three times a year.

Established in up to 800 schools and pre-schools nationwide, hundreds of thousands of kiwi kids get to choose up to six brand new books a year. This means the children get to read what they are interested in, keep their books for life, and share them with friends and family.

Duffy believes in working together with schools and other organisations for the best outcomes - which has proved successful, as since 1994, more than 14 million books have been gifted to children in New Zealand.

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