Time to read the writing on the wall as education splutters into lower gear
Charlie and I were having lunch earlier 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 Il 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.
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 of the window of the fine Centro Ristorante in 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 the children emerging 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 students reveals that 15 per cent of them fall below what the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 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 - on these figures our days are numbered.
It has been a great tradition of Australian society that parents live to ensure their children have a better life than they had. For generations now, parents have worked two jobs, done hours of overtime, sacrificed weekends and generally put their own needs behind those of their children so that they could be healthier, wealthier and wiser than the generations before them.
But all that is changing and the net result is that 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:
1. Revitalise the classrooms throughout Australia with relevant and exciting curriculum delivered by motivated and skilful teachers.
2. 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.
3. Invest much more strongly in the schools that are underperforming.
It is time for political parties to come together on this.
If they don't, we will cripple and alienate a whole generation and probably the generations beyond that.