Education system is failing students and the future looks grim

Ross Gittens, also known as ‘the only reason the SMH still gets my subscription’, has written another excellent article. This one pointing out that a quarter of students are failing to finish school or a vocational equivalent. Yes, 26 per cent.

Gittens says that the modern economy has fewer and fewer places for the unskilled worker and that’s leading to an increasing baseline of unemployment.

The hardest questions I’m asked as an economics writer is why when, until the mid-1970s, economists defined full employment as an unemployment rate of less than 2 per cent, today they say it’s about 5 per cent. My explanation is that the economy has changed, but our schools haven’t kept up. The great majority of unemployed people are unskilled.

He goes on:

My theory is that, until about the mid-’70s, the economy generated plenty of unskilled jobs, sufficient to absorb all the children who left school without being too hot at the three Rs. These days, there are proportionately far fewer unskilled, brawn-not-brain jobs available, but just as many under-educated children quitting school.

Gittens points out that the government and the school system just seem to accept all this as inevitable. It’s the same drum I keep banging – that we need a plan to change things.

But the point Gittens is making does not go far enough. This problem he points to is gathering pace as the definition of ‘unskilled’ shifts with our changing economy. It’s not just about those failing to finish school, the problem now extends well into those who do finish school. Even the old level of skills doesn’t cut it in a modern economy, but 20 years ago we were graduating more students with better levels of maths, science, and engineering. How can it be that as our economy and society cries out for more STEM-skilled people, we’re producing fewer?

Gittens points to the underlying inequality on our education system, and he is, of course, quite right. But even beyond questions of funding there are two key, and related, issues.

The first is the ludicrous divide in education between state and federal governments. There can be no useful excuse for this many fingers in the pie, nor even for there being disparities in approaches and outcomes between Australian States. We need a single cohesive public school system.

The second is a complete lack of will to engage with the real issues. Funding is important, crucial even – our world turns on money. But all this focus on the funding masks any real discussion of the underlying issues such as what we really expect and need from our graduates, how we achieve that within the curriculum, and how we find great teachers to make that happen.

And how we do that in a time frame that doesn’t consign many more generations of our children to poor educational outcomes. Each year that rolls by sees another cohort of graduates popped out by a failing system. We need plans that can run for decades, but we also need to start fixing things for the kids in the system today.

Funding is the background to all of that and more, but it cannot be the beginning and end of the conversation. The Gonski ‘plan’ always was a plan for funding – we still don’t have a plan for our education system.

I’m beginning to think that our politicians don’t read enough science fiction. If they did they would already have had glimpses of dystopian futures where the poorly educated under-class lacks the skills to function in a technological society and is reduced to either living off inadequate social security or scrabbling to earn a pittance in a gig-economy delivering food and services to the fortunate few. Those futures are looking less and less fictional as the years roll by.

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