One of the few things both sides agree on in this election campaign is that we must get education right. A highly educated and well-trained workforce is our best insurance that all the benefits that digital disruption brings don’t come at the cost of many people unable to find decent jobs.
As a rich nation, our workers are highly paid. That’s not bad, it’s good. But it does mean we have to ensure our workers continue being equipped with the knowledge and skills that make their labour valuable – to local employers and to the purchasers of the goods and services we export.
One thing it doesn’t mean is that all our youngsters should go to university. There will be plenty of well-paid, safe, interesting jobs for the less academically inclined, provided they’re equipped with the valuable technical and caring skills provided by a healthy vocational education and training sector.
A top-notch technical education system will also be key to achieving something we’ve long just rabbited on about: lifelong learning. Being able to update your skills for your occupation’s latest digital whiz-bangery, or quickly acquire different skills for a job in a new industry with better prospects than the one that just ejected you.
But while we’re emphasising education’s instrumental importance to maintaining our material standard of living, we should never lose sight of its intrinsic value to our spiritual living standard. Education for its own sake. Because it satisfies humans’ insatiable curiosity about the world – even the universe – we live in.
We need to get education and training right at every level, from childcare (these days renamed ECEC – “early childhood education and care”), preschool, primary and secondary school, vocational education and training, and university.
To me, our greater understanding of the way tiny brains develop combines with common sense to say that, in our efforts to get every level of education up to scratch, we should start at the bottom and work up.
The better-equipped kids are when they progress from one stage to the next, the easier it is for that next stage to ensure they thrive rather than fall behind.
On childcare, the Coalition did a good job of rationalising the feds’ two conflicting childcare subsidies, but Labor is promising a lot more money for childcare, including phasing in much better pay for (mainly female) better-educated childcare workers.
The Coalition has achieved universal preschool for four-year-olds and, in the budget, extended that funding for a further two years. Labor has topped that, promising permanent funding arrangements and extension of the scheme to three-year-olds, as most other rich countries do.
Let’s be frank: because Labor plans to increase, rather than cut, the tax on high income-earners, it has a lot more money to spend on all levels of education (plus a lot of other areas).
It’s certainly promising to spend more on schools. The Coalition’s great achievement has been to introduce its own, better and somewhat cheaper version of businessman David Gonski’s needs-based funding of schools – which it immediately marred by doing a special deal with Catholic schools. Labor’s promising to return to its earlier Gonski funding levels (but, hopefully, not to its earlier commitment that no rich school would lose a dollar).
It’s often claimed we spend a lot on schools relative to other countries, but the Grattan Institute’s schools expert, Dr Peter Goss, says that, when you allow for our younger population, only the Netherlands and the United States spend less than we do among nine other comparable rich countries.
International testing shows our 15-year-olds’ scores for maths, science and reading are each below the average for those countries. On maths, our score of 524 in 2003 had dropped to 494 by 2015.
For science, our gap between the top and bottom students – a measure of fairness – is wider than for the others, bar Canada, South Korea, Japan and even Britain.
Which demolishes the claim that we’re pouring more money into schools but getting worse results. What’s true is that our spending is below average and our results are also below average – and getting worse.
So, do we need to spend a lot more? No, not a lot more now we’ve gone a long way towards redistributing funding favour of needy (mainly public) schools full of kids with low income, low educated parents.
The feds and, more particularly, the states have more to do to re-align funding between advantaged non-government schools and their own disadvantaged public schools.
Once disadvantaged schools are getting their full whack of needs-based funding, however, we can end the eternal shootfight over money and move to the more important issue of ensuring the money’s better spent.
Much can be done to help teachers move to more effective ways of teaching, making schools less like a production line and giving more attention to individuals, many of whom have trouble keeping up, while some are insufficiently challenged.
But, Goss says, this is mainly a job for the state governments, and the feds should avoid trying to backseat drive. The feds would help more by obliging the universities to do a much better job of selecting and preparing future teachers.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.