If we don't gang up together and invest in education we'll be hit hard
Charlie and I were having lunch this week with one of the heavy hitters of the global advertising industry who was visiting from France, when we started talking about the importance of education in building prosperous and stable civil societies.
And it was a very civil lunch of risotto al coniglio and a Margaret River red (Fermoy Partnership cabernet merlot) that had our European guest in a swoon of obvious surprise and delight at the quality and sophistication of our antipodean offerings. Louise our resident linguist says risotto al coniglio is Italian for rabbit, for those of our readers that aren't bilingual. Louise claims to speak at least five languages, as my global industry guest does.
But as the conversation moved to the hard edge of the matter, the need to quickly improve education standards, all hell seemed to break loose outside in the street.
As we glanced out the window of the fine Centro Ristorante Italiano in downtown South Melbourne, we observed the arrest of the sergeant-at-arms of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club, Toby Mitchell (no relation).
For a moment I thought we were the only ones in the neighbourhood without guns drawn. The police were cleverly undercover in plain clothes and sporting what I guess they hoped would pass for long-nosed iPhones on their hips.
The alleged bad guys on the other hand went for ultimate branding with red and gold Bandidos T-shirts and logo tattoos down each side of the skull.
Well, at least they got the spelling correct, which is more than we can say for too many of our kids as they emerge from our education system. The Gonski review stresses that we are not performing well by international standards. In fact, in terms of the most basic measures of education in maths, reading and science, we sit around the middle of the pack internationally.
Probably most disturbing of all is that the testing of our student population reveals that 15 per cent of our students fall below what the OECD calls "baseline proficiency". In Shanghai, the figure for the same tests is just 5 per cent. In Finland it is about 8 per cent.
And it's not just about those students who struggle at the bottom of the education ladder. Our top performers have also lost ground against the world's best. The OECD analysts report that in the decade 2000-2009, the reading skills of Australian students declined by 20 per cent - a collapse of an essential ingredient of education during a period of unprecedented national prosperity.
This is just not acceptable for a country that continues to be one of the wealthiest on earth, but on these figures our days are numbered.
It has been a great tradition of Australian society that parents strive for their children to have a better life than they had. For generations now Australian parents have worked two jobs, done hours of overtime, sacrificed weekends and generally put their own needs behind those of their children so their offspring could be healthier, wealthier and wiser than the generations before them.
But all that is changing and the net result is we are about to produce a generation of children who are worse off than their parents. What a disgrace!
However, there are solutions. We need to:
■Revitalise classrooms throughout Australia with a relevant and exciting curriculum delivered by motivated and skilful teachers.
■Support all schools in the country with world-class infrastructure delivered by education departments that are accountable for the highest standards of performance across the board - from students and teachers to the bureaucracies themselves.
■Invest much more strongly in schools that are underperforming.
It's time for the major political parties in federal and state governments to come together on this. There is no time to waste in self-serving point scoring.
If they don't, we will cripple and alienate a whole generation and probably the generations beyond that.
And we will not be thanked for our neglect. Quite the opposite. We may well find our grandchildren and their grandchildren are living by the motto of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club: "We are the people our parents warned us about."