Better Education Tops the List

The Australian Financial Review

By Angus James
Chief Executive, ABN AMRO Australia
Member of the BCA Board and BCA Education, Skills and Innovation Task Force

Future prosperity rests on the success of the school system, writes Angus James.

The most important resource for businesses in the 21st century is our people. If, as a nation, we are to continue to improve our standard of living, then education – as the facilitator of human capital – must be included among our highest priorities.

Education is not an isolated process that takes place during certain years of one's life in particular institutions. Rather, I see it as a continuum whereby individuals are "students" throughout their lives as they continue to acquire knowledge and skills relevant to their personal needs, work aspirations, their communities and ultimately, the country as a whole.  

The school system is the foundation of this learning continuum and should have as its aim the creation of the best learning environment possible for all students. Every individual – no matter what their background – ought to be able to finish school with the knowledge and skills that will give them real opportunities to choose a rewarding career and to fully participate in the life of their local community. 

Yet, international testing of secondary school students shows Australia has a significant group of students who do not perform well.  Too many Australian children fall behind in their learning from an early age and are never able to catch up and reach their full potential. 

Studies have shown that the quality of teaching is the main driver of successful student outcomes. 

The first change that needs to be made is to allow school principals greater autonomy to make the most important decisions about their schools, including the appointment of teachers.

The head of a school is in the best position to know the needs of his or her school and to match those needs to the skills of potential recruits. Furthermore, giving this responsibility to principals increases their accountability to the school community. They have a greater incentive to make the best possible recruitment decisions because they are a leading members of their local communities, as distinct from individuals in a centralised bureaucracy.

For these reasons, the Business Council of Australia commends the decision of the NSW government to give principals a greater say over the appointment of teachers in their schools.

Second, governments and education bodies need to clarify their roles and responsibilities. A greater role for the federal government is warranted in providing national leadership and co-ordination on key issues, such as the registration and recognition of teachers, and in putting in place a national curriculum.

Finally, the quality of education needs to be supported by reducing duplication in the bureaucracies, and devoting a greater proportion of resources to the delivery of education services. The resulting efficiency dividend could then be best employed to reward teachers who invest in skills training and who are successful at constantly improving educational outcomes.

Recent research has shown that in relation to school curricula, the states and territories each have their own bodies but the content of the respective curriculum in each state can be very similar. What is needed is to remove duplication that adds no value, and to have all governments working co-operatively by pooling the most talented people to come up with one national curriculum.

The BCA has identified four other priorities to lift education outcomes in Australia.

  • The most important reform, in conjunction with improved governance, is to lift the quality of teaching.  Doing this would involve initiatives to attract and retain the best possible teachers in the classroom, and to help teachers continue to improve their teaching.
  • As well as a national curriculum, we need content that can be customised to the individual learning requirements of students.
  • Australia also requires a national early-intervention strategy to identify students who are falling behind.
  • Finally, Australia does need increased and more effective investment in education and training in return for the achievement of the other reforms.

What is crucial is that all reforms are directed toward improving the quality and effectiveness of teaching for all students. The legacy of these changes will be a sustained growth in the intellectual, economic and creative capital of the country from one generation to the next.