December 7th 2013

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Abbott and the Indonesia espionage row

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Australia's enemies at home and abroad

AGRICULTURE: Fighting to keep families on their own land

SCHOOLS: Economy held back by lack of skilled tradesmen

LIFE ISSUES: Tasmania widens scope for abortion, restricts free speech

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Middle-class families struggling on two incomes

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Joe Hockey and the ADM takeover bid for GrainCorp

POLITICAL LANGUAGE: Defending the indefensible by sugar-coating killing

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: China takes leading role in new 'scramble for Africa'

CULTURE: 'Tis the season to give the imagination free play

LITERATURE: How George MacDonald's fantasy fiction illuminates reality

BOOK REVIEW When science poses as a religion

BOOK REVIEW Family decline behind loss of religious faith

CINEMA: Nostalgic retrospect on Sixties radicalism

LETTERS Why it matters who owns Australia's GrainCorp

LETTERS Expatriate Australian intellectuals

LETTER Practical fuel-reduction tip to prevent bushfires

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Economy held back by lack of skilled tradesmen

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, December 7, 2013

With year 12 HSC examinations now finishing, the family conversations in many Australian homes are likely to be dominated by the need to obtain good Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks. For many, success at school is measured by academic results and gaining entry to a good course, such as medicine or law.

At the same time, the importance of vocational education and training (VET) courses should be recognised, with the aim of encouraging more students to become apprentices and learn trades.

It is no secret that Australia’s resources boom is being held back by a lack of skilled tradesmen. So many skilled workers are being brought in from overseas because there are not enough locally.

The need to emphasise and strengthen VET is even more urgent, given reports in early November about a survey of apprentices in which more than half “lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills required for a trade”.

Meanwhile, according to research by the Australian Industry Group, 93 per cent of employers identified some impact on their businesses caused by “low levels of literacy and numeracy”.

Clearly action needs to be taken. But what?

In the 1980s the Victorian Labor government made the terrible decision to close the state’s technical schools. Before then, growing up in places such as the northern Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows, we had the choice of Broady Tech or Broady High. Those mates who went on to do a trade never looked back.

It is wrong to force all students to undertake the same secondary school curriculum, regardless of ability, interest or ambition.

We should look to countries such as Finland for examples of how to proceed, where more than 40 per cent of students aged 16 and over undertake VET courses. We need dedicated technical schools starting from year 9 and including years 10, 11 and 12.

Technical schools should have their own specialist curriculum focused on teaching trade-related subjects. VET subjects should start at year 9 and over the four years there should be at least six months of workplace experience.

This is unlike the current situation in which all schools have to follow the one-size-fits-all Australian curriculum (AusVELS) from prep to year 10.

Instead of treating VET and apprenticeships as a second choice, parents, schools and policy-makers need to dispel the myth that only those who are good with their hands should do a trade.

Modern trades and VET courses require highly skilled and intelligent students with strong literacy and numeracy skills. Whether working out measurements in carpentry or volumes or flow rates with plumbing, there is no room for mistakes – near enough is never good enough.

Many trades also require highly specialised computer skills, and, as noted by E-Oz Energy Skills Australia spokesman Juan Maddock, it is not good enough that some schools pressure under-performing students to become apprentices as their last option.

The need to strengthen basic skills must begin in primary schools. Teachers should refocus on proven teaching methods such as direct instruction, where they direct the lesson, classes are structured in a systematic and orderly way, and children fail if they are not up to the required standard.

Instead of relying on computers, primary school children should rote learn times tables, do mental arithmetic and learn how to add, subtract, multiply and divide so it becomes automatic.

Both state and federal governments need to make the VET sector more efficient and open to the market. The multiple authorities and agencies, including the Industry Skills Councils, and state and commonwealth accreditation bodies waste millions on red-tape and micromanagement, and foster under-performance.

Victoria’s state government also needs to recognise that a world-class VET system does not come cheaply, and a lack of proper funding and resources only leads to cutbacks and a system less able to deliver quality education.

My old Broady mates who went on to become electricians and builders probably earn a lot more than I ever did as a teacher, enjoying life and taking pride in the work they do.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and author of Educating Your Child: It’s Not Rocket Science! (available from News Weekly Books). An earlier version of this article appeared in the education section of the Melbourne Age newspaper (November 15, 2013). 

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