Revitalize Education for the COVID-19 Generation

On this year’s International Education Day on 24 January, perhaps more than at any other time in recent history, young Australians need to be prepared to face an uncertain economic and social future due to the global pandemic. The uncertainty they face increases the importance for education and training to foster the development of a broad range of knowledge and skills.

Education transforms lives

Nelson Mandela rightly called education “the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

As a new year begins, now is the time to step up collaboration and investment to place education and lifelong learning at the centre of the recovery and the transformation towards a more inclusive, safe and sustainable society.

Without inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong opportunities for all, we will not succeed in breaking the cycle of inequity that is leaving millions of children, youth and adults behind.

We need education to reduce inequalities and improve health. We need education to achieve gender equality. We need education to protect our planet’s resources. And we need education to fight racism, hate speech, xenophobia and intolerance, and to nurture global citizenship.

Education inequality is a huge problem in Australia – we can’t just carry on the same

While Australia may pride itself on its egalitarian ethos, it is a myth in education.

Educational inequality takes many forms and is a problem because it stunts the potential of young people. This underachievement has negative impacts for young people themselves, which in turn has negative impacts for the larger society. Low educational outcomes are related to diminished health, unemployment, low wages, social exclusion, crime and incarceration, and teenage pregnancy.

Inequalities between students from different social backgrounds already exist when they start primary school. Worryingly, these inequalities increase as students progress through the education system.

Data from PISA 2018 published in a supplementary report by the OECD show that disadvantaged schools in Australia experience more education staff (teachers and assistants) shortages and more shortages or inadequate material resources (educational materials and infrastructure) than advantaged schools.

A recent report from the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University shows that despite pockets of excellence, the education system is mired in inequality.

The Mitchell Institute’s Deputy Lead of Education Policy, Sergio Macklin, said, “Australia’s education system is failing the students who need our support most; the evidence suggests too often the system is entrenching rather than reducing educational disadvantage”.

“Our failure to address educational inequality limits individuals’ choices and employment opportunities in adulthood and is a key driver of poorer health outcomes. It is costing our economy billions and left unchecked, it will put a handbrake on our efforts to recover from the recession,” he said.

A report by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund shows that Australia’s education system is among the most unequal in the high and middle income countries in the EU and OECD. We rank 30th out of 38 countries for equality across pre-school, primary school and secondary school. Surely this is totally unacceptable for a country as wealthy as Australia!

The Mitchell Institute report showed about one-fifth to one-third of young people are behind or missing out on most indicators, that is, not acquiring the lifelong learning skills and not mastering the knowledge and skills needed to become creative and confident individuals and active and informed citizens. It shows that Australia must do better not only to lift academic learning at all stages of the education system, but also to develop the broader skills that young Australians need.

More troubling than the actual numbers is the information on who is struggling and missing out. The results in this report reveal that young people from poorer families, those living in rural and remote parts of Australia, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are being left behind.

The results are consistent with research that has demonstrated that social background is too often a key predictor of educational and future success; and that these gaps are unusually wide in Australia. Moreover, the performance gaps by socioeconomic status manifest in the earliest years of children’s lives and are difficult to bridge in the years that follow, such that children who start behind too often stay behind.  Education systems should be making the difference, to get them back on track, and not exacerbating the performance gaps as occurs now.

An education system cannot be considered excellent without having equity, otherwise the concept of excellence is hollow. Leading systems are meant to deliver on both excellence and equity.

Changing the system

As the Michell Institute report states, “We have a collective responsibility to ensure that steps are taken to deliver on the educational goals for all young Australians. It will require major work involving strategies such as reducing the effects of poverty and better supporting affected families and communities. It will also require improving early childhood education, making schools more learner friendly, and reducing the effects of social segregation which are comparatively large in Australia by world standards. Any strategies to improve performance will need to be multi-faceted, begin at birth and address differences in need across all stages of education.”

On this International Education Day, we at Wendy Brooks and Partners call on all levels of government to treat our current education inequality as a crisis and undertake the system change that is required so that all children have an equal opportunity to reach their full potential, to pursue their interests and to develop their talents and skills. We can and must do far more to advance Sustainable Development Goal 4, to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Only then, can all young Australians become confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners, and active and informed citizens.

In this way our entire community will be enriched!

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