Australia’s education system is stagnating at best, heading backwards at worst.
We have recorded a decade of declining school and student performance against OECD standards and the most recent NAPLAN results revealed there’s been no significant improvement across most year levels since 2008.
Children and young people who are disadvantaged are most vulnerable to the impact of an education system that is no longer fit for purpose or designed for their future needs. Mounting evidence is telling us that too many learners are struggling with an education system that is not setting them up for success in life and work.
Australia is currently ranked as having the fourth-most socially segregated school system in the OECD, with 51% of disadvantaged students concentrated in disadvantaged schools. We have also seen the largest increase in social segregation since 2006.
Education is not meeting the needs of a diverse community of learners at a time when skills and jobs are changing faster than ever before.
These trends become more worrying in light of the rapid changes affecting our education to employment pathways today. Graduating students are expected to have higher levels of technical knowledge and a wider range of skills and competencies. We know that employer demand for enterprise skills such as creativity, communication, digital literacy, problem-solving and critical thinking is higher than ever, and employers are willing to pay more for them. In addition, jobs in the future will require 30% more time learning on the job by 2030.
While many other developed nations are forging ahead with 21st-century learning strategies (look to Hong Kong, Estonia, British Columbia or South Korea for shining examples), Australia’s education system still largely reflects the structures and cultures of the 19th and 20th centuries, where mass education was the focus rather than individual achievement and progress.
There have been various education reforms since the mid-2000s designed to address these issues.
These efforts to improve the quality of schooling and Australia’s education outcomes have had mixed results. While teaching has been professionalised, pedagogical practice is still often focussed on knowledge retention rather than skill development. While the curriculum undergoes regular reform, it does not keep pace with contemporary needs and expectations. While our workplaces have become flexible, our schools are locked into rigid structures and schedules. While innovative models have emerged, few have been scaled successfully so are not widely accessible.
Research conducted by FYA for the past five years shows that there is an increasing demand from students, parents and industry for a new approach. What this approach precisely looks like remains unclear, but there are strong indications that it must prioritise new skills, work integrated learning and be designed by all stakeholders, including young people.
Skills are changing and our system needs to adapt. According to FYA’s New Work Reality report, despite being more educated than ever before (with 60% of Australian 25 year-olds holding a post-secondary qualification), more than half of all young people are unable to secure full time work by the same age. At the recent World Skills Conference in Russia, the global ‘skills olympics’ for young people traditionally focussed on trades, there was much discussion on the rapid pace of change and the urgent need for vocational learners to gain enterprise (soft skills), entrepreneurship and digital capabilities.
It was clear in this event bringing together 68 countries that the school, university, vocational education and industry landscapes have finally collided. Now they must coalesce to match the pace of change.
Work Integrated Learning
The recent Deloitte report, The path to prosperity: why the future of work is human, identified that we will need to retrain or upskill every six years to maintain our skills into the 21st century.
This means learning and doing now have a symbiotic relationship. An integrated education system should include employers, not just as consumers of skills, but as key partners, developers of talent early, and delivery arms to ensure graduates are able to make a faster, smoother transition from education to work.
Transforming education with young people
Future learning requires a better understanding of our often disconnected education, training and employment systems. We need to bring them together to build an adaptive learning system that will function well into the future. Young people must be at the centre of this redesign, in partnership with educators, advisors and supporters as they embark on a lifelong journey of learning and relearning.
An eight year-old at a public school in Sydney said to me recently, “I don’t just want content, I need to know what to do with my learning in the real world”. That sounds like an ambition for the future of education.
I believe it’s time to stop talking about “fixing” or “transforming” education and instead turn our minds to the future of learning. So the question I would pose is this: how might we build an evidence-based, sustainable and imaginative fit-for-the-future education system so that every child and young person gains mastery in lifelong learning? We are all responsible for finding the answer.