The Gonski report did underline the importance of other elements of education that cannot be readily level tested across the population.
“Academic goals are far more readily measured and reported by external testing than general capabilities. However, an excessive focus on what is testable, measurable and publicly reportable carries the risk of an imbalance in the school curriculum. Independence, confidence, initiative and teamwork are learned as much through elements of the curriculum that are not readily measured by an external test as through those areas in which outcomes can be readily tested and reported.”, Gonski Report, s5.1.2 
This asks fundamentally different questions:
- What is the aim of the education system?
- What are we actually trying to teach all our children?
- What results are we expecting from this system?
It seems the current answers to those questions are most truthfully put as:
- To provide purely vocational training aimed at entering the workforce to be able to buy a house & car and raise a family
- That the only valid goals in life are to have a stable job that pays for a house & car and to raise a family
- Conformity, consumerism, positive acceptance of the status quo, apathy
So are those answers so wrong? Not entirely, but they’re not entirely right either and are severely lacking in the education needed for Australia to embrace the new world we find ourselves in. The “Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians” of 2008 brought together all the education ministers in Australia under one banner to set the goals for Australian education. In order to explain and define these goals, there was a formal recognition of the changing needs of the Australian nation.
“– Global integration and international mobility have increased rapidly in the past decade. As a consequence, new and exciting opportunities for Australians are emerging. This heightens the need to nurture an appreciation of and respect for social, cultural and religious diversity, and a sense of global citizenship.
– India, China and other Asian nations are growing and their influence on the world is increasing. Australians need to become ‘Asia literate’, engaging and building strong relationships with Asia.
– Globalisation and technological change are placing greater demands on education and skill development in Australia and the nature of jobs available to young Australians is changing faster than ever. Skilled jobs now dominate jobs growth and people with university or vocational education and training qualiﬁcations fare much better in the employment market than early school leavers. To maximise their opportunities for healthy, productive and rewarding futures, Australia’s young people must be encouraged not only to complete secondary education, but also to proceed into further training or education.
– Complex environmental, social and economic pressures such as climate change that extend beyond national borders pose unprecedented challenges, requiring countries to work together in new ways. To meet these challenges, Australians must be able to engage with scientific concepts and principles, and approach problem-solving in new and creative ways.
– Rapid and continuing advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) are changing the ways people share, use, develop and process information and technology. In this digital age, young people need to be highly skilled in the use of ICT. While schools already employ these technologies in learning, there is a need to increase their effectiveness significantly over the next decade.”, Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, 2008
After setting this stage, the goals were stated more simply:
Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence
All young Australians become:
– successful learners
– conﬁdent and creative individuals
– active and informed citizens”, Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, 2008
Whilst that does sound like a positive start to a goal setting document, the clarification that the only purpose of education is to have a job and that all students should be encouraged to spend more time in the educational system to have a better job seems self-serving at best. Sure education ministers think more is better, but is it? Is this vocational education aimed at working for someone else in increasingly large, consolidated organizations really the focus we need? The statistic on further education resulting in higher salaries seems logical, but how does the evidence support the idea?
It turns out that for some professions, the average person ends up with 10-20% higher pay with tertiary education over their life. For others there is either no benefit or, in fact, the person would have been better off leaving the system after secondary school and gaining direct work experience. In fact, the value of higher education seemed to peak in 2001 and dropped by 2006 back towards the level it was at in 1981. The final unsettling point from these and other studies is that pursuing a Masters degree fulltime is a waste of money, but can work if completed part time as part of a specific career advancement plan within very few industries. So the claim that spending more time in an education system will benefit all citizens has no evidential basis, in fact, for many people the reverse is true.
The industries that do not pay a return on education are associated with the fields of arts, humanities and education. This shows that we have let economic rationalism and neoliberalism destroy our culture in the pursuit of material wealth. We need to rebalance our society and education system away from supporting only those few career paths that offer pure economic gain for the individual. We need to place more value on education and the role many different people play in our society. This does not mean we pay everybody equally in the end, higher skilled jobs should attract more rewards and higher risk jobs should also come with the potential for higher rewards. High skill does not mean a long time spent in a formal education system. It would mean that some people leave the academic school system to pursue different paths towards creative arts, apprenticeships and other practical work. It would also mean changing the nature of higher education to focus more on building critical and creative thinking capabilities, entrepreneurial and collaborative outlooks and a core skillset for a particular industry. Further training required for an industry should be provided by and paid for by that industry – not the government. The aim of higher education would be to foster a critical thinking, connected, collaborative generation who can reap the benefits of cross-fertilization from many studies to produce the kind of innovation that Australia needs.
So if we really think everyone in the country is going to desire and enjoy and career as a dentist, doctor or IT specialist, then the current system is working. If we accept that there is a huge diversity in what work people find fulfillment in and all of this work is contributing to our society as a whole, then we need to seriously revise this goal.
Today global competition and ‘free trade’ agreements have destroyed entire Australian industries and shifted well over a hundred thousand jobs overseas. Losses continue unabated in the tens of thousands every year, in a process that appears to be entirely supported by the government. In that environment, we do not need compliant workers and consumers, we need a generation of entrepreneurs, visionaries, scientists, engineers and collaborative workers who can pull together to change the face of the country. We need a generation of Australians who can work to build the huge amount of new infrastructure we need, who can develop new industries and reorganize the existing ones to work for the nation’s future. We need a generation of Australians who can join in large, collaborative organizations to make sure we use every last capability in the country for the benefit of all. The current education system in operation is utterly incapable of providing any of these results. It would instead leave Australia a gutted country of mine workers and middle management run by foreign corporations for the benefit of foreign investors.
So is this just a utopian dream? Is it too late? Are we up to the task?
In order to bring this vision closer to real life experiences, we can examine the Finnish primary school system in escaping the parrot learning style of national examinations. The Finnish system gained a lot of international attention for the very high level of literacy, numeracy and science education in the average student. There are many reasons for this, but the fundamental one was a complete reevaluation of the system that focussed on providing a diverse set of goals with freedom given to teachers to reach them in any way they choose. This re-evaluation, combined with:
- the very high social status (and pay) that teachers hold in Finland (equivalent to doctors and other professionals),
- small classroom sizes,
- all education being free and including health care and lunch for students
work together to provide an environment in which learning is able to happen easily and effectively. This meets a real need for an effective education system; socio-economic disadvantage, health and disability should have little to no impact on the student who wants to learn.
This is another instance to consider the idea of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Even though the pyramid of needs is not strictly hierarchical (people can become self-actualized from backgrounds of poverty) it does form a good baseline for organizing an education system within society as the chance of people achieving more and reaching further must increase given fulfilment of the basic needs. Combined with an education focus on collaborative entrepreneurialism, this becomes an environment conducive to produce the generation of innovative, creative and business minded Australians we will need to mould our future.