Batting for Australia

Sunday Telegraph, 12/07/2009

As a kid I dreamt of playing cricket for Australia. I spent a lot of long afternoons chasing a red leather ball around the hot and dusty cricket fields of western Sydney. To be honest I still dream of playing for Australia, but when The Ashes kicks off there’s not much time for sleep.

Watching the first test late at night this week got me thinking: Australia’s workforce needs to be a bit like a great cricket team – we have got to be able to bat down the order.

Confused? Bear with me.

We live in an age where smart countries are wealthy countries. Brain power is the engine that drives GDP. We need to be smarter, faster and better than our competitors in global markets.

Education is the key. It’s the great equaliser in an unequal world. It’s also the enabler. It’s what drives productivity and economic growth.

The consultancy firm McKinsey’s recently produced a report showing that if the United States had matched the education results of countries like South Korea, their GDP last year would have been 16 percent higher – or an extra $2.3 trillion.

So how do we rate? Our rankings have slipped a bit lately – a bit like the English cricket team.

10 years ago the reading standards of Australian teenagers ranked fourth in world. Now we are back to seventh – behind Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Canada and even the Kiwis.

We have a long tail. The same test showed the difference between students from low income families and high income families is the equivalent of more than two years at school.

We are also one of only 12 OECD countries where less than 80 percent of students finish high school. Most of those who don’t finish come from lower income families and rural and regional areas.

We need to lift our game. It takes time to build a great team but the investment pays off. That’s why Kevin Rudd keeps talking about an Education Revolution.

It’s not a new idea made up for an election campaign. He has been speaking about it for years. In fact in his first speech to the Parliament 11 years ago he said “I believe that the nation needs a revolution in its education system“.

And it’s not just about building new infrastructure. It’s also about building new skills. The right mix of skills to compete against the best in the world.

The Education Revolution means:

  • 90 percent of students finishing high school by 2015
  • halving the number of adults without a Certificate III qualification or higher by 2020, and
  • increasing the number of 25-34 year olds with a university degree to 40 percent by 2025.

The most important thing in a classroom is the teacher. G’day Mr Valenti if you’re still reading. A great teacher can make all the difference. That’s why we are going to pay the best and brightest more to work in schools that need help.

Universities will also get extra funds if they attract more students from low income families. At the moment someone who comes from a high income family is three times more likely to go to university than someone from a low income family.

Postcode should not determine opportunity. We have to fix this. Not just because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s what will drive economic growth.

That’s why I think our workforce needs to be like a great cricket team.

As we have seen over the last few nights, the best cricket teams are the ones that bat down the order. We can’t rely on Ricky Ponting to score a century every time he takes guard. The stronger our batting order the more runs we will score and the more games we will win.

The same is true of our economy. The stronger our workforce the more productive our economy and the higher our standard of living.

This is what the education revolution is all about – building a stronger team, a team that bats down the order.

So while we all can’t wear the baggy green, the truth is we are all batting for Australia.