Sam Crosby for The Sydney Morning Herald.
I was a typical nine-year-old, obsessed with Lego, Transformers, and Peter Sterling. I was different in one way though. I had the reading age of a five-year-old.
That is to say, I was functionally illiterate.
There wasn’t anything physically wrong with me — my hearing and eyesight were fine — so my overworked primary school teachers concluded I was just not very bright.
But I was lucky. I had a mother who would not accept such a bleak diagnosis for her son. She insisted on a second, and then a third opinion. It was only then that I was diagnosed with dyslexia.
For the next five years mum took me to specialist tutors who intensively taught me methods of reading and spelling to push through the jumbled labyrinth of letters that appeared on the page. They used customised rules to help me make sense of the English language’s byzantine structures and nuances.
In retrospect, my entire future hinged not only on that diagnosis, but on the years of educational support my middle-class family was able to provide.
Dyslexia today affects a disturbingly high proportion of kids across the country — some estimates put this number as high as 10 per cent. The kind of tutoring I received, however, is beyond the reach of most of them.
Many don’t have parents with the capacity to repeatedly question misdiagnoses. Most would likely accept the rushed judgment of a stretched teacher. And therefore life options that could have arrayed before a child, will narrow dramatically.
We know education is associated with nearly every positive life indicator.
And despite the gloomy economic news of the day, we still live in one of the wealthiest societies the world has ever known.
The option is open to us to ensure every Australian child receives a broad, attentive, high-quality education.
But even if put aside all moral considerations, the nation’s future depends on us doing just that.
About 70 per cent of the jobs created in Australia between 2005 and 2010 were in high-skilled and professional occupations. The number of low-skilled jobs inched up by just 2 per cent during the same period.
Education is critical to filling the employment opportunities of tomorrow.
It has been often suggested that Australia wasted the spoils of our recent period of resources-led prosperity, which could have been used for nation-building.
Yet future generations may well consider the greater historical howler to be the squandering of human potential over the same period.
The OECD has a test to benchmark 15-year-olds across nations, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Since 2000 we have seen a steady deterioration of Australia’s performance in the PISA Maths and Reading tests — a fall in the number of highest achievers, and a rise in the lowest achievement category.
And it’s not just performance where we’re slipping, it’s also in approach. We understand that innovation and nimble-mindedness are key to the employment opportunities of the Asian Century, yet Australian students are scoring well below the OECD average for “openness to problem solving,” which the research tells us correlates strongly with drive and self-belief.
Myriad complex factors are driving this deterioration in both attitude and aptitude. Yet underlying them all is inequality.
Educational under-performance correlates strongly to areas of socioeconomic disadvantage. A socio-economically disadvantaged 15-year-old is five times more likely to be a low performer in school than an advantaged student.
Of course, tackling a challenge like ‘inequality’ can be daunting, and can lead to woolly proposals.
But that should not overshadow the fact there are very tangible and executable things we can be doing today that research indicates will work.
The McKell Institute has attempted to distil these measures in our latest report, No Mind Left Behind: Building an Education System for Modern Australia.
The report contains 10 very tangible and executable recommendations, including ensuring needs-based funding continues through the Gonski model, implementing parent-training programs in areas with low educational opportunities, reforming the selection criteria for entry into teaching courses at university, and creating better employment-based teaching pathways especially to candidates from STEM fields.
But arguably the most important step we could take today is to make early childhood learning, for three- and four-year-olds, a universal national program.
We are still looking at the education of pre-primary school children through the lens of a childcare measure to get mothers back into the workforce and ignoring the fact it is also in the best interests of the child.
Those who have experienced high-quality early childhood education are more likely to keep pace at school, and less likely to end up unemployed or tangled up in the justice system.
Investing in such a universal scheme would require significant resources, there is no question.
But as a relatively low population nation on the edge of booming Asia in the 21st century, we simply cannot afford to leave huge reserves of human potential untapped.
Yes, it is important to live within our means, as our Treasurer implores. But those means will be far broader if we educate our population today.
Sam Crosby is the Executive Director of the McKell Institute and the author of The Trust Deficit (MUP 2016).