STEM education needs a systemic solution not band-aids

bandaidThe Labour Party is promising $400 scholarships to encourage recent graduates in STEM subjects to become teachers. Look this isn’t a bad thing as such, and it’s at least an approach – but it’s a long, long way from being a solution.

Where are these graduates going to come from? The pipeline in some areas, such as physics, is bone dry. Why would they choose teaching over high-paying jobs? If there’s one thing that the shortage of graduates with STEM skills is, beyond deplorable, it’s a lesson in low supply and high demand make prices shoot upwards. Will a $16,000 scholarship really make in-demand graduates choose to become teachers? And if they do become teachers will they just join the flooded ranks of other unemployed teaching graduates waiting for a position to open up in a school?

I’m not suggesting that Labour’s policy is a bad one as such. But both sides of politics seem to suggest that the educational problems we face are all about money and are amenable to an easy fix. This is in spite of clear evidence that throwing money at the problem has not fixed anything in Australia, and the successful overseas countries have taken an entirely different approach.

I think it’s trite to use Finland and Estonia as exemplars of the solution we need. And I determinedly don’t want us to go down the horrendously driven route taken by countries like Korea. They are different societies to ours. But the one core point that is common between them and other successful nations is that when they recognised a problem with education they came up with, and implemented, a long-term plan to fundamentally change their approach.

We simply don’t have that – and there are no signs of that changing.

Part of the Australian problem is working out who is responsible for education. Education is lost between Federal and State politics which makes playing political games all too easy. Our, now entrenched, system of funding private schools is impossible to rationally justify and equally impossible to politically change. We are a society that doesn’t take education as seriously as our rhetoric suggests. We have bought into the idea that the budget must balance at the expense of spending money where it matters – and make no mistake throwing money is not the solution, but the solution requires money.

The problems we face in creating a solution are manifest; and so rather than tackle them we, as a country, slap on some band-aids and then look around in bewilderment when nothing changes. If the problem is as serious as the rhetoric would suggest, and it is, we need a cross-party cross-Federal/State solution in the context of a 20-year plan. But we need Year 1 to be now, not 2030.

That’s hard, and difficult, and dangerous politically: It’s also absolutely necessary. Any politician even brave enough to say that would get my vote.

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