The statement made last week by the new Federal Minister for Education, Brendan Nelson, that some young people should not worry about finishing Year 12 if they felt they were not cut out for academic life, was the wrong message.
Dr Nelson said, “Let’s not create an environment that says to a Year 9 or Year 10 student that if you don’t complete Year 12, the if you don’t go on to university, then in some way that you and your life is less valuable. . . . There are some young people in this country who are dealing with the most horrendous family and social circumstances for whom compeletion of Year 12 is a utopian dream.”
Dr Nelson said that apprenticeships and vocational education were just as valid as university degrees.
This thinking is dangerous for Australia, economically and socially. Dr Nelson has got it the wrong way around. Rather than saying difficult home conditions mean that a child should not aspire to year 12, he should say that we should work to ensure every child can aspire to a Year 12 education and that we should help remove difficult home conditions. Year 12 should be the minimum education for Australian children unless there are very exceptional circumstances. Even if a child is struggling with some of the more academic pursuits in Year 11 and 12, that is no reason for the system to say to them, “”It’s OK to abandon formal education in favour of an apprenticeship.”
Australia should aspire to educate all its young people in a range of general subjects up to Year 12. Further, parents should feel comfortable about insisting on it, rather than giving in to immature desires to leave school which a child would inevitably regret later. A broad understanding and exposure of the basics of science and the scientific method, mathematics, language and literature, history, geography, economics, the arts and so on are critical to being able to have a fulfilling life. Virtually every statistic on well-being has a strong correlation with educational level – physical and mental health, longevity, income, happiness and fulfilment. Moreover, people equip with this general education are better equipped to adapt to different tasks in different vocations. Moving vocations through life is likely to become more common. The better educated people are, the easier it will be.
It is deplorable that the Federal Minister for Education should underestimate the importance of Year 11 and 12 education. At present state law lays down that children under a certain age attend compulsory education. In the modern world there is an argument for lifting that to a certain standard – maybe Year 12.
While Europe and parts of Asia are emphasising education, Australia should not be seen to be denigrated education.
At present, three-quarters of Australian schoolchildren stay on to Year 12, but because of past policies that did not encourage late secondary education, only 57 per cent of all Australians have been education above Year 10. That makes it hard for us to keep up with nations who put greater store in education.
Putting the dampener on university aspirations, as Dr Nelson has done, might be a way of reducing the Federal Gvoernment’s funding obligations in the short term, but in the long-term it is foolish. The more highly educated a population, the wealthier they become. With falling commodity prices and heavy worldwide competition in labour-reliant manufacturing, the best way to wealth is through brains and education. Ultimately, all the wealth in the federal budget to provide money for health, roads, defence and so on is generated through the education of the Australian workforce.