July 4, 2017 Nic Rothquel

The issues facing the Australian education system

If you google “Education ranking Australia” you will be met with some uncomfortable results.

I saw a report last week from a UN agency that out of 41 high income countries, Australia ranks 39 for quality education. That means that pretty much any developed country you can name will be above us (except for Turkey and Romania). Finland was number 1, South Korea and Japan made the top ten, while our Kiwi neighbours were 15.

This is a very troubling statistic, and one that doesn’t seem to grab the headlines like it should. The article would go on to say that only around 70% of 15 year old students are achieving baseline standards in three core areas; reading, writing and maths.

That isn’t the only article Google will give you. Another one published by the Sydney Morning Herald in November 2016 shows that we rank 28 out of 49 in maths; falling 10 places in recent years. While we have sat in the middle of the pack for decades, other countries have continued to improve while we have remained stagnant, leaving us behind.

These are big issues. It’s not that I think top marks in school are the make or break differential, but that the economic landscape of the future is changing at an incredibly fast rate. I am concerned that the rate of change in our education system will not match the rate of change of the rest of the world, and therefore my children will get left behind – unable to compete for jobs in a global environment.

If the core function of school is to prepare children for life beyond school, we need to do better.

This is not meant to be a pointless rant. I want to actually offer some ideas on what can be done to make things better. And while the speed of change in the education system seems to be incredibly slow, I feel these are changes we can put in to place now to ensure that down the line things improve.

1. Give principals the power to make decisions.

This is something that is gradually improving, but unfortunately most school decisions are tied up in bureaucracy that is inefficient and unsupportive. This is particularly true in making staffing choices. Very often the Department of Education has the final say on who gets the job – rather than the principal who knows what is best for their school. Give the principal full control on hiring, firing and performance, and just like a CEO of an organisation, let them take responsibility; whether it be a triumph or failure.

2. Make foreign languages compulsory through to year 12.

This is one I am particularly passionate about, and wish it was something I could have benefited from when I was at school. We don’t need every language in the world – 4 or 5 would be enough, focussing on the main languages around us plus a few European languages. It could even be done on a school share system like many multi-campus schools do in other ways, so that each school could major in one of them, and students can go between as required. Again, in this interconnected world we live in, it is foolish for us to just assume that English will be the main language spoken in 20 years time.

3. Increase the amount of time spent in school

This might be unpopular with the laid-back Australian culture we know so well, but it seems to me a simple equation: our students are not learning enough in school, so therefore we need to teach them more than we currently are. 12 weeks of school holidays each year is far too much, and we could extend the schooling hours of High School students to 9-5, matching business hours. In Japan, South Korea and Singapore, many students attend school on Saturdays and undergo additional tuition until late in the evening. Finland, number one on the UN list, attributes much of their success to their incredibly high rate of early childhood learning – an incredible 99.8% of children go to some form of organised early learning.

Imagine this; we reduce the Christmas holidays by just 2 weeks each year. By the time the student is in year 12, they would have done an extra 26 weeks of schooling – however we don’t just use it to squeeze more in. We use that 26 weeks at the end of year 12 to get them ready for life – try different skills and learn how to think for themselves. What a difference that would make in preparing them for life beyond school!

These are just 3 ideas. I understand that action always takes a long time, and there are budgets and politics involved, but I fear these results are just going to keep coming and this conversation will never go further than words and empty discussions.

For the sake of my daughters who are yet to start school, I hope something changes!