Labor’s education pitch is safe, but short-sighted

Labor's new education policy would provide funding certainty for the Gonski reforms and has laudable aims but, Megan O'Connell writes, it would not produce the learners we need for our future prosperity.

Last week, Labor kicked off the election year with the release of its Your Child, Our Future education plan, which pledges $37.3 billion in funding over the next decade.

Its centrepiece is $4.5 billion to fund the final two years of the Gonski funding and reforms.

Schools and education sectors have welcomed the funding certainty provided by the education plan. The plan has sound aims of creating a high-quality, high-equity education system. However, by treading the safe path, Labor's plan will not produce the learners we need for our future prosperity.

We're still awaiting the Government's policies on education. In the meantime, it's worth remembering the big picture and look at why extra education funding is important, what funds can enable schools to do, and what vital role government can play.

The Mitchell Institute's comprehensive report into educational opportunity in Australian education revealed that our system is currently not meeting the needs of about a quarter of all students.

Investing in education makes economic sense, provided the money improves outcomes where the need is greatest. But the education debate needs to move beyond the dollars.

The report shows 26 per cent of Year 7 students are still not achieving an acceptable standard of reading. That is 73,000 young people each year. Employment opportunities are shrinking for young people who do not finish secondary school, yet completion rates have been largely static for 20 years. Currently, one in four young people doesn't complete year 12 by the time they are 19 years old.

These confronting numbers demonstrate why we need our governments to rethink how our education system caters for students. Despite the billions of dollars invested in education over the past 10 years, student outcomes have barely shifted.

We must change our education system - review what we teach, and how we teach and assess it. This is vital to engage all young people and meet Australia's future skill needs.

Each young person has unique skills and abilities. Every student is capable of thriving in school, if they are engaged and inspired. We need bold reform. We must help schools and teachers to equip children and young people with the skills and capabilities they need to thrive as adults, in jobs we can't possibly yet imagine.

The OECD director for Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, spoke at the World Education Forum two weeks ago and highlighted the capabilities young people will need to flourish in a complex world. He called on schools to focus on the development of capabilities such as entrepreneurship, creative thinking, problem solving and communicating. The future economy, he reminded us, would no longer reward people for what they know but for what they could do with what they know.

Currently, Australia's education system appears ill-equipped to prepare all young people for this future. Strong literacy and numeracy skills are important foundations for future learning, but these essential skills are a starting point, not the end point of education.

Education needs to go beyond using achievements in literacy and numeracy as principal benchmarks. Schools should foster a broad range of capabilities in all students. We want confident, successful and adaptable learners.

Great teachers and great leaders need resources and professional support to achieve this vision. Governments have a key role to play. Governments can collect evidence on what works and use this to support system and local reform. We can learn from other countries and jurisdictions. Innovative practices can be trialled with local support. Evidence can be built on what works in a variety of contexts, so schools can reform to meet their local needs.

More funding should go to where it is needed most so we can improve outcomes for all children and young people. Needs-based funding has an important role to play - but dollars alone are not a guarantee of success. Why we urgently need longer-term funding commitments is so that the states, territories and schools can support the extensive reforms they need to deliver.

Investing in education makes economic sense, provided the money improves outcomes where the need is greatest. But the education debate needs to move beyond the dollars.

We need to secure an affordable funding model and shift our focus from funding to transforming the education system. We must provide educational opportunities for all and in doing so build the talent that this nation needs now and into the future.

This article was first published in The Drum

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