Education – Failing From The First

The Tasmanian coat of arms features thylacines...

The Tasmanian coat of arms features thylacines as supporters. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Education is a serious topic. When we talk about schools we are talking about the most precious part of our lives, our children.

Previously in my post ‘Edumacation – Broken As Designed’ I argued that “we have an education system that is measured according to a limited set of outcomes and the outcomes we drive for are no longer relevant to the society we want to be.”

While that may be true there are some measures that are still as valid in the twenty first century as they were in the nineteenth when we first started public education.

The most basic of these would be literacy and numeracy. This is why I was so appalled by a Radio National story ‘A literacy deficit’ that informs us that in Tasmania half of all people between 15 and 74 are functionally illiterate, and more than half are functionally innumerate—meaning they don’t have the skills needed to get by in the modern world, like filling out forms, or reading the instructions on their prescription.

The story also identifies this as an intergenerational problem further fuelled by low expectations.

As a result Tasmania has the highest unemployment rates in the country and more than a third live on welfare.

Now we here in Sydney might think to make jokes about Tasmania and Tasmanians at this point but we should be careful what jokes we make as Tasmania is merely suffering writ large the same problems that infest pockets of intergenerational socio-economic disadvantage in areas across the country.

As a side note I should point out to all those that think that the “Gonski” funding reforms will solve our problems that Tasmania already spends more per student than any other State, mainly due to the high proportion of small rural schools.

Some of the problems in Tasmania’s education system are structural. High schools only run until Year 10 and further education is available only at city “colleges” so for a lot of Tasmanian’s “finishing high school” means only Year 10.

I also noticed that the graph ‘Percent of students not meeting the national minimum standard’ that is taken from the 2013 preliminary NAPLAN results overstates the current problem in Primary schools in Tasmania. If you grab the report from this page you will see that Tasmania perform better than other States in some areas and even when they are the worst performing State (the Northern Territory stands alone as a total, signal failure though if you adjust for the high absentee rate it is not too far from the States.) This may reflect a minimum standard that is too low, however.

If we can’t teach our children to be functionally literate and numerate we are failing from the first. If we can’t do that how do we expect to teach them anything else?

The first graph ‘Level of highest educational attainment in the labour force’, is the most concerning in the long term. If the percentage of the population in Tasmania who never go past Year 10 is almost a third higher than the other States then no wonder unemployment is high and productivity low. I couldn’t check out this graph as the data is not available in the publicly accessible results from the ABS.

So what can we conclude about these results? Where are we failing? What can we do?

It’s obvious that the top of the list is to break the intergenerational and socio-economic-cultural links. We need some sort of education reform that works hard to find the children dropping off the bottom and picking them up.

We also need to think about the impact of all reforms on family life towards the bottom. What, for example, is the result of forcing single mothers onto unemployment benefits on the family? Does this make it harder to keep the older kids in school? We need to find it in ourselves to support families at the bottom of our society and to do it properly.

I have a memory of an English economist who did a large, long term study and discovered that this was even economically efficient – if you supported families better then you spent less supporting their children further down the line. The children were more likely to finish school, less likely to have teen pregnancies and less likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. (I spent some time looking for this report but couldn’t find it. My apologies for the vague reference.)

Right from the start of their lives our children deserve the best we can give them. Under the previous Labor government the movement toward lifting the pay and education of child care workers was a step in the right direction, unfortunately it looks like this is going to stall under our new government. Access and affordability of quality child care is another issue that needs examination – indeed if you ask women which is the larger problem maternity leave or child care the results are overwhelming, child care is a bigger problem and more important in their view of the world. It would be nice if we solved those two problems so well that we could encourage stay-at-home and low-income mums to send their children to child care and pre-school to start them out well.

We need an education system that encourages children to keep on going to school. A system that starts them out well, assists them if they falter, supports them when they fail and rewards them when they succeed. While building that system let’s better reward, support and respect our teachers.

Finally we need to have an adult education system that encourages and rewards those with difficulties who choose to go back to education, certainly not one that discourages it through high fees and limited access.

Properly educating our children and allowing everyone access to life long learning shouldn’t be an argument about funding. It shouldn’t even be an argument about “vocational” courses against more general education. Education of any sort is an investment in the person and I don’t know about you but I want an Australia where everyone has a chance to be the best they can be.

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