“Education has not been more closely linked to work in a century. The slogan is no longer “Learning for life” but “A lifetime of learning”. “Today’s education system,” says Kim Beazley, “was designed for the economy we used to be …[not] for the economy we must become. We are already seeing big skills gaps opening in the IT industry, coinciding with record numbers of our brightest young people leaving our shores permanently to plug gaps in higher-paying economies.”

The Education Minister, David Kemp, says Australia has been forced to recognise its future lies with skills and a flexible training system. And John Howard believes school hours should be more flexible.

As a First World nation, Australia must compete in a market of global service industries. Emerging economies, whether in Eastern Europe or South-East Asia, have undercut highly industrialised Western nations in traditional manufacturing and processing industries.

Australians, Canadians, Western Europeans, Americans, Japanese, the First World, must now compete at a more highly developed level for a market share of the new economy. Australia is not without its first-rate scholars and students who can achieve highly and adapt readily to a global market. Its school system, however, is threatened by an aging staff pool with low morale and status and a dearth of top graduates joining the ranks.

Added to this is an attitude from successive governments that teachers are too radical to deal with, not helped by the NSW Teachers’ Federation scuttling a million dollars’ worth of English language tests.

Leftist thinking on education has had its day. In Britain, with Tony Blair’s New Labour, the leftist-dominated education authorities are under siege from parents seeking schools free of bureaucrats imposing educational ideology rather than educational standards; they want schools to offer academic excellence and to be accountable to the families who patronise them.

LGrant-maintained public schools, begun under Britain’s Conservatives, are so successful that a survey by The Times Educational Supplement suggests two-thirds of secondary school heads favour private companies being involved in education services. Sue Williamson, head of Monks Dyke Technology College in Louth, Lincolnshire, complained about bureaucracy in education: “In the private sector people come to you with expertise, not dogma. In the future, I don’t think local education authorities will exist.”

Attempts to overturn British grammar schools in favour of comprehensive schools struck a rock in March. Parents voted 1,494 to 747 against 445-year-old Ripon Grammar School scrapping its selection test and admitting pupils of all abilities. In response, the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, committed the Government to “raising educational standards in all schools”.

The new economy has the flexibility and uncertainty of a frontier. Individuals must learn to manage uncertainty and a fluid labour market, global in focus. Schooling faces radical change.

Competency in literacy and numeracy is OK as an electoral slogan. In 2000 and beyond, the cry is far more radical.

In Learning Beyond The Classroom by Tom Bentley, promoted by Britain’s New Labour, traditional education is questioned – “information can be collected, synthesised … our conventional conception of schooling, its purposes, methods and scope, are in fact limited to a relatively narrow range of capacities, outcomes and types of challenge”.

State-provided classroom education is being overtaken by what Bentley terms the “private sector”: “If people can gain access to knowledge on demand through the Internet, the Open University, interactive television or firm-based universities, what is compulsory education for? … The private sector in Britain already spends more on education and training than the public sector.”

For state-based schooling to continue, schools, over time, need to become “neighbourhood learning centres offering learning opportunities to a wide range of people in their local areas”. Learning, as Bentley rightly acknowledges, can take place outside school settings.

Interactive learning, where school is combined with work experience and off-campus activity, will become the norm. The separate worlds of work and school will overlap, with work experience, apprenticeships, on-job training, whatever.

In The Creative Age (Demos, 1999) Kimberly Seltzer and Tom Bentley recommend reducing the traditional curriculum by half to “create space for a broader range of learning experience”, IT-based learning portfolios for every student, extended work placements as part of degrees, retraining for teachers and a fresh view of measuring and teaching skills.

The challenge is moving from what people know to what they do with their knowledge. This is central to creativity – the ability to think, to solve problems, to recognise that learning is incremental and involves making mistakes – and offers something for everyone, whether quick learner or late starter.

Queensland’s New Basics program is about to test students on real-life tasks. Years 1-3 will write a Web page, Years 4-6 will design a product and research legal issues, Years 7-9 will plan community events and conduct business enterprises. It echoes the Seltzer/Bentley thesis but has yet to impact beyond Queensland or on senior secondary levels.

A sense of crisis could bring radical reform to Australia’s education system. But taxpayers increasingly demand more and more services for less and less tax. And education reform requires Budget willingness.

However, as an election issue, education reform could also encourage the excitement Beazley recognises when he talks of the global information and communication age that “brings with it massive change, but also great national opportunities”.

Fingers crossed.”

Article published in The Sydney Morning Herald