"We are condemning our children to a second-class future."
The maths, reading and science skills of average Australian students are barely on par with Singapore's most disadvantaged teenagers and risk undermining Australia's economic prosperity, warns the man responsible for the gold standard in international tests.
Andreas Schleicher, the coordinator of the respected Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), arrives in Australia today and is sounding an alarm for the nation to halt its academic free fall.
Importantly, he says "the most significant drop in Australia's PISA scores occurred among its top performers".
"Without the right skills, people end up on the margins of society, technological progress doesn't translate into economic growth, Australia will face an uphill struggle to remain ahead in this hyper-connected world, and ultimately, lose the social glue that holds together democratic societies," Mr Schleicher writes in The Australian today. "Achieving greater equity in education is not only a social justice imperative, it is also a way to use resources more effectively, and to increase the supply of skills that fuel economic growth and promote social cohesion."
He is urging Australia to look to the surprising number of features shared by high-performing nations such as Singapore and China. These include convincing the community to value education, believe in the success of every child, and ensure teaching is more intellectually attractive.
"Australia used to have one of the world's leading school systems," Mr Schleicher writes, "but over the last decade learning outcomes have dropped to levels closer to the average of school systems in the industrialised world.
"The quarter of the most disadvantaged 15-year-olds in Singapore now show results similar to the average Australian student."
PISA is conducted every three years and measures the ability of 15-year-olds to use their science, mathematics and reading knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. Students from Singapore, the world's smartest 15-year-olds, are two years and four months ahead of Australian students in maths, 18 months ahead in science and 12 months in reading.
Former Business Council of Australia president and Audit Commission chairman Tony Shepherd lamented Australia's lack of academic competitiveness on the world stage. "It is a disgrace given the substantial investment we already make and not to mention the projected substantial increases," he said.
Education Minister Simon Birmingham, who earlier this year finalised a $23.5 billion school funding shake-up, said "while a strong level of funding matters, what's more important is how that Continued on Page 5 COMMENTARY P12 LAGGING BEHIND Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 Results released in December 2016 Average scores Science Reading Mathematics Singapore 556 535 564 1st 1st 1st Rank 510 503 493 14th 16th 25th Australia 493 493 490 Rank OECD average Singapore's most disadvantaged teens on par with our students Continued from Page 1 funding is used". Senator Birmingham added: "That's why we've asked David Gonski to lead a panel of experts to examine best-practice initiatives in classrooms to ensure the additional resources we're delivering are used as effectively as possible to give every student the opportunities they need to reach their potential," The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry's director of employment, education and training, Jenny Lambert, said it was encouraging that the government had embedded minimum literacy and numeracy standards in its state funding agreements, but these should be tied to the aims of PISA, "and we are just falling behind relatively".
Last year, the results of the 2015 PISA round were released and revealed Australian students had slipped 12 months behind where they were in maths in 2003, seven months behind in science compared with 2006, and about 10 months behind in reading since 2000, when PISA began.
PISA is conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Mr Schleicher, the directorgeneral of the OECD's Directorate for Education, says leaders in high-performing countries have convinced their communities to make choices that value education. "Chinese parents and grandparents will invest their time, energy and money into the education of their children, their future," he writes.
He also points to the belief in the success of every child. "And the fact that students in most East Asian countries consistently believe that achievement is mainly a product of hard work, rather than inherited intelligence as many Australian students say, suggests that education and its social context can make a difference in instilling values that foster success in education."
In Australia as a keynote speaker at the Early Start Conference 2017 at the University of Wollongong, Mr Schleicher says it is important to select, train and invest in teachers.
"The challenge is not just to make teaching financially attractive - Australia does reasonably well on that - but to make teaching intellectually more attractive," he writes.
Success is about giving children a strong start, but "Australia still has some way to catch up".
"High quality early childhood education and care can have a major impact on children's cognitive abilities as well as on their socio-emotional development and it can improve social mobility across generations."
Senator Birmingham said the government agreed investment in the early years was important, "which is why we're overhauling early education and child care and delivering an extra $2.5 billion".
"With our support, the states and territories have lifted enrolment rates in early education to more than 90 per cent but they clearly still have work to do in boosting actual participation rates, with attendance data suggesting that around 30 per cent of children enrolled in early education are not participating regularly for the full 15 hours a week," the minister said.
'Chinese parents and grandparents will invest time, energy and money into education' ANDREAS SCHLEICHER OECD EDUCATION LEADER
From: The Australian, Australia by Stefanie Balogh
27 Sep 2017