The nation’s future prosperity starts at school, but a rethink may be needed on the provision of education.
A YEAR ago, Western Australian business champion Michael Chaney chose what seemed like an odd topic for his guest address at the annual dinner of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
In an era of concern about executive salaries and a jittery market that was about to experience the collapse of Lehmann Brothers, the Woodside Petroleum and National Australia Bank chairman focused on the topic of education.
"There are two things we should be worried about," Mr Chaney told the high-powered audience.
"Namely, that a significant proportion of the population is getting left behind at an early age and never catches up, and that we run the risk of our future education outcomes generally being well below current levels."
Admittedly, Mr Chaney is also chancellor of the University of WA, but the audience was somewhat bemused at his choice of topic, and his oft-repeated point that the quality of teachers was the issue.
Given the boom-like circumstances that were just about to end in Western Australia, some at the event probably should have listened more closely to the message.
The skills shortages of the past four years offered two reasons to focus on education. Firstly, the quality of our school graduates directly translates into the ability of business to get the skilled workers it needs.
Secondly, when looking overseas to meet the short-term needs created by the skills shortage, it became apparent that one of the key attractions for potential skilled migrant workers is the quality of our education sector.
In effect, poor education outcomes are doubly damaging - a poor system not only produces fewer skilled workers, but it also discourages those who might come here to close that gap in the short-term.
Twelve months later, it has become more apparent that others share the concerns of Perth's most respected business leader. The negative trends in our education system, right to the earliest stages, are exercising the minds of many in business who, like Mr Chaney, believe that schools play an important role in shaping the workforce of tomorrow, and ultimately the prosperity of the nation.
As one might expect, business has taken a different perspective on the education system's performance and is challenging some sacred cows of the sector as a result.
Last week, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA launched a discussion paper entitled 'Building a Better Tomorrow: Education Reform in WA'.
More than 18 months in the making, the 56-page document takes a wide-ranging view of school-level education and recommends dozens of reforms, many of which will be welcomed by much of the sector.
"For the jobs of the future our children will be competing with kids from the US, China, Europe and India," CCIWA chief executive James Pearson said.
"The economic future is looking brighter by the day.
"We need to build the education future."
However, when you have a business organisation examine the way things work it naturally takes a business-like approach to the subject.
CCIWA, for instance, has also focused its attention on teacher quality as a key issue.
It is no secret that the quality of teacher entrants has declined substantially in recent decades. Teaching used to be much more respected, and more difficult to get into.
"At the University of Sydney, in 1977 the cut-off for entry into a bachelor of education was nearly as high as law and well above economics," Mr Chaney said last year.
"By 2005 the cut-off was below economics and substantially below law."
The decline in teaching quality has come at a time of massive change in our economy. School graduates have many more career choices and the once heavily regulated workforce is more subject to the market, resulting in many options for those seeking a highly paid occupation.
But there is one telling variable that CCIWA throws into the mix - classroom sizes.
In WA, since 1974, the average classroom size has halved from 28 to 14.
Given this is thought by many to be a key factor in education, it should have had a big impact on student outcomes. But CCIWA says it hasn't, and research from around the world points to the same trend.
Just like Mr Chaney, the peak business group points out that quality matters - poor teachers with small classes will not do as well as good teachers with big classes.
It may be counter-intuitive but it seems that smaller classroom sizes may actually be part of the problem. By mandating smaller class sizes, well meaning education policy makers may have done two things - created demand for teacher numbers that was impossible to supply at the same level of quality (in the process stretching the public purse beyond what it was capable of paying), and pushing down teacher wages, even for the good ones.
Last year, we had about 13,000 more teachers than we would have needed if classroom sizes had stayed on average at the same level as 1974. The number of teachers has doubled, but the money available to pay them hasn't. That is $650 million at a conservative salary level of $50,000.
Has this been a big contributor to a downward spiral? As class sizes fell, more teachers were needed but there was not the corresponding money to pay them. The resulting drop in the quality of new teachers led poorer education outcomes, which resulted in concern about classroom sizes. And so the problem was compounded.
As business would say, this is a productivity issue. Paying good teachers a lot more to teach greater numbers of students will start to correct this imbalance.
However, classroom size was not the only issue at hand.
CCIWA has, among other things, identified early intervention as an issue.
The business organisation wants more effort put into identifying those with learning difficulties at an early age so that they don't get left behind and can be more productive members of the community when they finish school.
This was one area of the CCIWA discussion paper that was particularly welcomed by President of the Western Australian Primary Principals Association, Stephen Breen, who attended the discussion paper launch.
"Having business on board is so important," Mr Breen told WA Business News. "Sometimes they don't listen to educators."
The push for reform by business is matched to some extent by the mood of the state government. For instance, it has offered up to 30 state schools the opportunity to become independent of the WA Education Department in aspects of budgeting, governance and curriculum.
Premier Colin Barnett, who held the education portfolio in the government of Richard Court, and current Education Minister Liz Constable, launched the policy last month.
"This new system will allow principals to make their own staffing and disciplinary decisions, and give parents and the school community more of a say in how their schools are run and be shaped into the schools they want," Mr Barnett said at the time.
"It will also allow schools to better reflect their local communities and provide a real sense of shared ownership and responsibility."
CCIWA welcomed this move but wants to see far more autonomy for state schools.
"We think it is a step in the right direction but it doesn't go far enough," Mr Pearson said.
The Centre for Independent Studies research fellow Jennifer Buckingham was more openly critical of the WA move.
"Independent public schools in WA will still be subject to the state industrial award for teachers," she said in a commentary after the policy's recent launch.
"Schools might be able to choose the best candidate when (or) if a teaching position becomes available, but they will have no greater powers to get rid of bad teachers. They will have no flexibility with teacher salaries, and mandatory maximum class sizes will still apply."
"The risk is that these reforms will be used as evidence that school autonomy doesn't work, when in fact this not school autonomy at all."