Two of the country’s leading educators argue David Gonski’s review of schooling stops short of the seismic changes needed to bring Australia into the 21st century and rescue vocational education from its “second-class” status. The much-anticipated review urged greater collaboration between industry and schools, and another review into years 11 and 12 to better cater for students who don’t wish to go on to university – a call backed by big business and the federal education minister. But John Hattie, chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, said reform should go even further so that the senior curriculum offered “just as much rigour” in vocational areas such as cooking and panelbeating as it did in academic pursuits.
Melbourne University professor John Hattie says change in the year 11 and 12 curriculum is “pretty damn critical”.
Students not planning on going to university were too often “seen as second-class citizens” by schools, Professor Hattie told Fairfax Media. “It should be an embarrassment for Australia that our [year 12] retention rate is not as high as it should be,” he said. “The biggest barrier is the upper year 11 and 12 curriculum which is
so favoured toward tertiary entrance. “Fixing up secondary school and allowing kids to achieve ‘excellence’ even if they want to be a panelbeater or a barista or a chemist is something that we’ve never had on the table in Australia.”
A rethink was “pretty damn critical”, Professor Hattie said. His University of Melbourne colleague John Polesel, whose research in this area was cited by the Gonski 2.0 review, noted Australia was well behind Denmark and Germany, where about 25 and 50 per cent of their respective high schoolers undertake an apprenticeship. “The reasons they work well are because the employers actually play a role in designing and delivering the courses and also providing that workplace experience, so that young people are actually learning on the job,” Professor Polesel said. “That doesn’t come cheap. For those employers to do that, they actually have to bear a short-term cost. But the short-term costs of training them are worth it in the long run because … you end up getting a skilled employee who can actually do what you want them to do because you’ve taught them how to do it.”
Education Minister Simon Birmingham agreed some schools had treated students who weren’t bound for university as “second class” in the past. “We have to recognise the majority of children do not go to university,” he said. Addressing that did not mean abandoning “high ambition” but would require industry to step up to the plate. “Business has to be partner in training to get the outcomes they want from training,” Senator Birmingham said. Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott said the Gonski 2.0 proposals would create “the real culture change” big business was looking for in schools. She said it was “vital” schools and industry worked together to make students work-ready, and the business community “stands ready to play an active role”.
One initiative called P-TECH – already operating in 10 schools, including McCarthy Catholic College in Sydney and Newcomb Secondary College in Geelong – links industry to students interested in a qualification or career in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.
Students participating in the program get early hands-on workplace experience, mentoring and visits from industry partners, while working towards an accreditation such as a Certificate III. Such programs were also endorsed by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel in a recent review into STEM.
Mr Gonski said it would be mutually beneficial to “have the walls dropped” between industry and schools. He said local accountants could help schools with paperwork and the onerous insurance requirements of excursions, or firms could assist in the design of work-ready courses.
“We strongly felt that the schoolyard should be part of the community rather than being an island all on its own,” Mr Gonski said. “McDonald’s does it and does it brilliantly.”