Education system prepared for future of work: major report

26 June 2018
A major report has rated Australia's education system as 'very good' and highlighted workplaces as a powerful site for learning.

The report, ‘Preparing for the Best and the Worst of Times’, describes Australia’s education system as “very good” but adds that “a good legacy isn’t enough and that the system requires constant evaluation and debate”.

It also calls on educators to provide children with “a strong learning disposition” and for the academic and vocational arms of education to work more closely together.

“We need new education settlements where employers are part of the deal,” said the University of Sydney Business School’s Professor John Buchanan. “We should see the role of employers in education as a public good. Workplaces are powerful sites for learning.”

‘Preparing for the Best and Worst of Times’ was commissioned by the NSW Department of Education and produced under the auspices of the University of Sydney’s Sydney Policy Lab, which was established to foster innovative and creative policy solutions to complex local and global challenges through collaborative research.

We should see the role of employers in education as a public good. Workplaces are powerful sites for learning.
Professor John Buchanan, University of Sydney Business School

“This report reflects the NSW Department of Education’s commitment to supporting informed contributions to the national conversation about how education can better prepare young people for the challenges of life and work post-school,” said Department of Education Secretary, Mark Scott AO.

In keeping with this commitment, Mr Scott asked the University of Sydney to look at the skills Australia’s children will need as Artifical Intelligence (AI) and other technologies “transform Australia’s economy, the workplace and the community”.

“Our response to that challenge is contained in this report and it is based on insights drawn from a team of internationally recognised experts in mental and physical health, engineering, education, business studies and the social sciences,” said Professor Buchanan.

Led by Professor Buchanan, the team included workplace relations expert Dr Rose Ryan; Professor Michael Anderson from the University's School of Education and Social Work; Professor Rafael A Calvo, Director of the University’s Wellbeing Technology Lab; Dr Nick Glozier, Professor of Psychological Medicine at the Brain and Mind Centre, and Dr Sandra Peter who heads the Sydney Business Insights unit.

Professor Buchanan said while AI has already been used as an excuse for cut jobs and had accentuated some forms of inequality, “technological change was usually for the good, depending on how it was handled”.

In a world rich with artificial intelligence this report helps us answer the question of how schools can help these students to not just survive – but to thrive in this rapidly changing environment.
Mark Scott AO, NSW Department of Education Secretary

“It is sometimes argued that because of the disruption caused by AI we have got to give school children 21st century skills such as creativity, collaborative capacity, financial literacy, IT literacy,” Professor Buchanan said.

“The idea that very young people can acquire generic skills in the abstract is totally unhelpful. In our view, if you want to solve problems, you become skilled in a specific area of interest and then learn to solve problems in your area.

“Someone with really good problem-solving skills who works in a childcare centre is going to be no good on an oil rig when a fire breaks out. Equally, a mining engineer who can handle a fire on an oil rig would have a nightmare trying to manage a childcare centre.

“We have got to have a dynamic relationship between the specific and the general. In Switzerland and Germany, they are still training clockmakers and watchmakers and they gain transferable analytical and dextrous capacities they can take into the medical devise or tool-making field.”

While counselling against generic problem-solving skills training, the report strongly recommends that students, particularly those in primary education, be given a strong desire to learn.

“We must nurture curiosity, give people the capacity to concentrate and the ability to follow an idea through over time,” Professor Buchanan said.

At high school level, the report recommends a greater focus on vocational education in partnership with business.

“When you get to high school there is a need to really think through the curriculum,” Professor Buchanan said. “We note that on the academic side, there has been too much of a pre-occupation with ATAR and what we call the competitive academic curriculum and on the vocational education side there has been too much of a willingness to go down market, to provide short run skills relevant to employers in the district.

“You have to enliven the academic curriculum and deepen the vocational curriculum.” 

‘Preparing for the Best and Worst of Times’ will be launched in Sydney. The NSW Department of Education will broadcast the event via Facebook Live from 5pm AEST Tuesday 26 June, Future Frontiers: Educating for 2040, with speakers:

  • Professor John Buchanan
  • Dr Sandra Peter
  • Professor Rafael Calvo
  • Stacey Quince, Principal Campbelltown Performing Arts High School
  • Emma Hogan, NSW Public Service Commissioner.

“We know that a child starting kindergarten last year will spend much of their working lives in the second half of the 21st century,” Mr Scott concluded. “In a world rich with artificial intelligence this report helps us answer the question of how schools can help these students to not just survive – but to thrive in this rapidly changing environment.”

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