In 2003, the Federal Government offered $700 vouchers to all students who failed the
Year Three Literacy Benchmark test to give them a leg up (details
of the project here). But how many students actually received assistance?

Not enough, says the ALP. According to Senate estimates hearings, $8.9
million of the $16.8 million allocated to the project remains in
government coffers. The take-up rates can be seen here, the best state being NSW with 69% of eligible students receiving the voucher.

The party has called on
new Education Minister Julie Bishop to smarten up the government’s act.
“It is up to the new minister to fix up this mistake and ensure these
students get the help they need and deserve,” said Opposition education
spokeswoman Jenny Macklin.

Intriguingly, two states’ figures
are significantly lower than the others – just 12% of eligible
Victorian students and 18% of eligible Queensland students received
help. Why? The answer lies with Progressive Learning, the company
responsible for delivering the program in Victoria and Queensland
(which charged $250 in administration fees so that students only saw
$450 of the $700 vouchers, according to Macklin).

But
getting those answers could prove difficult. The company, one of only
two private companies involved in the scheme (the other was in WA),
appears to have done a runner, says Alex Prior on the Teaching English website. While Progressive Learning’s website is
still in place, says Prior, the telephone number goes through to a message
bank referring callers to the government hotline. “The hotline itself
appears to be moribund.”

An alternative mobile phone number
obtained by Teaching English for a company spokesman is not returning
calls. The company’s website claims that they have 14 years
experience in Australia and New Zealand and a 2005 Age article
reports that the company has 47 outlets. But a search of the New
Zealand web returns no home page, nor do they have a current listing in
the New Zealand telephone directory.

A search of the Australian
Securities and Investment Commission website reveals that a company
called Progressive Learning Pty Ltd is registered in Chatswood, NSW.
Crikey has sent an email to the company but is yet to receive a
response.

In March of last year, Progressive Learning spokesman Tony Hanlon told The Age that
his company, which used a phonics-based approach to reading, could
deliver the necessary results. “This is not a fly-by-night operation
… we’ve chosen products that will give the greatest long-term benefit
in the time frame available,” Mr Hanlon said.

So how much was
Progressive Learning paid for its poor results – apart from the
$304,750 worth of administration fees? And does Progressive Learning
really exist? Questions we’d like to ask – if only we could find
someone to put them to.

Peter Fray

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