Are Australian schools making the grade?

When it comes to education performance, where should Australian schools be directing their efforts?

There’s widespread concern that Australia’s schools not only are underperforming but also may be focusing on the wrong things, especially when it comes to preparing students for work.

So, where should Australian schools be directing more effort? Three opinions:

Sue Thomson

Director, Educational Monitoring and Research Division, Australian Council for Educational Research

Sue Thomson

Sue Thomson

To determine what we need to be teaching students, we need to think about why we are teaching them. In the past, students needed to be prepared for a workforce in a particular occupation, to perform a defined role – typically in the one workplace, working face to face with others – for which they would need to be able to read and write and follow instructions. 

The workforce of the future, however, will require far more than this in some ways and far less in others. Even more than today, students will need to be highly literate and numerate, but rather than being good at following instructions, they will need to be skilled in learning how to learn, collaborating and problem solving, in order to use and adapt to changing technologies.

In schools today, we need to be teaching more about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – and actually using STEM knowledge and skills – in ways that link STEM to real-life problems and their solutions.

To realise the importance of STEM, students need to see and learn more about the interface between these subjects and their everyday lives, and how STEM impacts on the health of their community and their world.

"Even more than today, students will need to be highly literate and numerate." Sue Thomson

We need to be teaching students to think of themselves as global citizens, to think deeply about problems and issues, to collaborate with others to construct creative solutions, and to communicate and mobilise to engage and make a difference around the world.

Andrew Bassat


Andrew Bassat

Andrew Bassat

For Australia to be economically successful, our nation needs to be at the forefront of innovation, particularly in light of disruptive trends and global competition. Many Australian companies have demonstrated that they can be innovative global leaders, such as CSL, ResMed and SEEK

Given favourable demographic, social and technology trends, the fields of medicine, science and IT will be the growth industries of the future. To ensure that Australian companies can grow in these industries, we need more emphasis on equipping today’s students with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills.

STEM subjects provide the foundation knowledge for the next generation of Australian entrepreneurs and innovation leaders. Specifically, these subjects provide the tools to solve existing technical problems and also the “softer skills”, such as problem solving, to solve new problems and/or identify new market opportunities.

"The fields of medicine, IT and science will be the growth industries of the future." Andrew Bassat

It is not necessary to exclude other subjects at the expense of STEM. However, I believe it is critical to encourage girls to undertake more STEM subjects, so as to address the gender imbalance that occurs within many industries. Greater diversity in the labour force typically drives better financial outcomes for companies, which, in turn, should drive improved economic prosperity for Australia.

Alex Malley FCPA

Former chief executive, CPA Australia

Alex Malley FCPA

Alex Malley FCPA

If Australia is to remain competitive in the Asian century, and if we are to create the high-paying jobs of the future, we must move quickly to address the shortcomings of our national curriculum at all levels of education.

CPA Australia’s landmark research on Australia’s international competitiveness found that Australians typically placed a relatively low level of importance on knowledge of Asian markets and bilingual staff. Last year, of the 75,000 New South Wales students in year 12, just 798 studied Chinese, and 635 of those were from a Chinese background.

When you remember that a child born today will spend their entire working life with China as the world’s largest economy, genuine engagement with Asia means we must do more to understand the languages, cultures and histories of the region.

As a central part of a comprehensive Asia engagement strategy, we should require our children to learn Asian languages and cultures from as early as kindergarten. The Coalition government’s language studies trial in 40 preschools and foreign minister Julie Bishop’s New Colombo Plan are positive steps, but we have to go further.

"We should require our children to learn Asian languages and cultures from as early as kindergarten." Alex Malley FCPA

In the coming decades, a great many jobs will be disrupted by changes in technology and the way we live our day-to-day lives. It’s critical to Australia’s competitiveness and prosperity that we have comprehensive STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education programs at all levels to increase the number of STEM-qualified Australians in the workforce, particularly in computer science.

The Experts

Sue Thomson
Dr Sue Thomson is director of the Educational Monitoring and Research Division and research director of the Australian Surveys Research Program at the Australian Council for Educational Research. She is also a chief investigator for the Science of Learning Research Centre and the national research coordinator for Australia in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which measures student achievement in mathematics and science.

Thomson is the national project manager for Australia for the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, which examines the reading, mathematical and scientific literacy of 15-year-old students.

Andrew Bassat
Andrew Bassat is the CEO and co-founder of SEEK. Since its founding in 1997, SEEK has become the most heavily trafficked job-seeking portal in Australia. In 2004, it bought the online training company SelfCert, now SEEK Learning. Before starting SEEK, Bassat was a management consultant with Booz Allen & Hamilton.

Alex Malley
Alex Malley FCPA is the chief executive of CPA Australia, one of the world’s largest accounting bodies, with 19 offices worldwide and a global membership of more than 150,000 members in 120 countries. He also heads its financial services subsidiary, CPA Australia Advice.

In addition to writing a regular blog for The Huffington Post, Malley is a sought-after business and leadership commentator for numerous Australian and international media outlets. He also serves on a number of councils, boards and government sector committees, including The Prince’s Accounting for Sustainability Project and the International Integrated Reporting Council.

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November 2015
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