Australia’s schools are in crisis, so why isn’t education a national priority?

Australia’s schools are in crisis, so why isn’t education a national priority?

Over the years, a growing body of research has highlighted how greater funding for public education can deliver long-term economic benefits for Australia.

However, we approach a crucial election at a time when the economy is reeling from pressures such as rising inflation, interest rates and global supply chain disruptions, Australia’s leaders are instead prioritising the lowering of living costs – an action item they rightly argue cannot wait. 

Prominent economist Adam Rorris points out that capital investment in the poorest 20% of Australian public schools, along with targeted increases to recurrent spending, could help generate approximately $5.2bn every year in economic activity.

“More than $100 billion in benefits over the next twenty years. An additional annual investment of $3.8 billion per annum would bridge the gap between public and private schools in per student capital investment,” Rorris said.

“Closing this gap would deliver an ongoing annual return of 37% above investment and an additional 37,000 full time construction jobs – many more than the 1,000 or so jobs that the much-vaunted JobMaker has been able to provide to date.”

Some influential education leaders say education should not only be a priority for government, but our top priority as a nation.

“Australia’s education policy framework has to be based on sound theory and practice,” Greg Whitby, executive director of the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, told The Educator.

“It shouldn’t be used as an ideological football. I’d like to see an approach that’s inclusive of early learning through to ongoing lifelong learning post-schooling.”

Mr Whitby said the policy needs to be “built from the ground up” and “respect the professionalism of teachers to frame challenging and demanding learning experiences for every student.”

“To really engage with making sure that every child and young person has the skills they need for the future, we need to break the nexus between the perception of hard and soft skills too.”

Professor Pasi Sahlberg is the Professor of Education at Southern Cross University. Previously, Professor Sahlberg was the deputy director at the Gonski Institute for Education at UNSW.

He says it is no surprise that education is viewed as the most important key to sustainable recovery from current global crises.

“Whether it is about economy, environment, health, or peace of the world, we won’t be successful in the end without education,” Professor Sahlberg told The Educator.

“Now, it is not enough to just repeat education as national priority in election time. No politician would think that education is unimportant. What we need is common understanding of what kind of education we need for recovery for a better world for all of us.”

Professor Sahlberg said there are several long-term benefits of prioritising the creation of a system that provides everyone a fair opportunity to adequate, high-quality education.

“These are stronger faith among young people the value of education in their lives, stronger public education system that can better tolerate external shocks like those experienced in Australia during recent years, and a nation that is able to collectively change the course of current developments for brighter future for next generations.”

Mr Whitby says perhaps the greatest long-term benefit of placing a national priority on education is addressing the fundamental problem of equity across Australia.

“Following on from COVID-19, there is a one-off chance to do things differently,” Mr Whitby said.

“Some of the things that I learnt from the pandemic are that we need to do better on student and staff wellbeing, as well as ensure that all students have access to learning technology and internet access at home to support equity.”

Mr Whitby says education “ought to be the great leveller”.

“A forward-thinking education policy aimed at enabling every Australian not just to participate but to make a difference is the smart way to secure our future.”

Professor Sahlberg says another way to understand why education should be a national priority in political elections is to predict some of the immediate consequence not to do so.

"Australia has clearly been in a downward trend in both quality and equity of education longer than a past decade now. Without refocusing education better on combatting current inequalities will only make situation for increasing number of children worse," he said.

Professor Sahlberg said Other harmful consequences of failure to make education as a top national priority include accelerating nationwide shortages of qualified teachers, further educational segregation of children to schools based on their socio-economic backgrounds, and, as a result, growing frustration among parents due to "broken promises of giving all Australian children a fair go through education."

"Evidence for changing the course of these national education priorities is clear, and so should be a road ahead after this election."