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Shadow Minister discusses skills shortages; school retention; trades training centres; maths and science; early childhood education; parental choice; and investment in education.

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Stephen Smith MP Shadow Minister for Education and Training Member for Perth

E&OE T42/07



KING: Australia will be short of 250,000 workers over the next five years. That’s what the figures suggest. We often talk about education and careers and how we’re going to fill these jobs, but how are we going to do that and what industries are they in? The skills shortage, our politicians keep calling it, is something we’re going to start looking at in depth on this program.

This morning, Kevin Rudd’s Spokesman on Education is in Brisbane. He’s here to address the Queensland Teachers Union, apart from other things, and I thought we’d ask him about this skills crisis.

Good morning Stephen Smith.

SMITH: Good morning Madonna.

KING: Now good news, you were just telling me that every time you come it seems to rain in Brisbane?

SMITH: Every time I’ve been in this studio it’s rained. I think it’s certainly three times, a good thing!

KING: Do you think you should come back perhaps a bit more often?

SMITH: Well, I’m scheduled to be in Queensland on a regular basis between now and the election.

KING: You and every other politician I suggest.

How serious is the skills shortage that we’re looking at?

SMITH: Well, it’s very serious and the figure you quoted is essentially the Government’s own figure. That’s arisen, in our view, from a period of long-term complacency and neglect. Not making the investments in vocational education and

training, including in our TAFEs. But also because of, more recently, a resources boom to China.

So, it’s now twofold. In the traditional trades: electricians, plumbers, painters, carpenters.

And that has adverse implications not just for industry but also for householders. I don’t know what it’s like in as much detail here, but in Perth, getting those skilled traditional tradesmen is difficult for householders, let alone for industry.

But also, we’re now seeing a skills shortage in some of the professional areas that are very important to our economic and productive future.

KING: Like…?

SMITH: Engineering, scientists, mathematicians. And last week in the Parliament, there was a Skills Summit put on by the Professional Engineers Association which drew attention to some of the professional skills deficits that we now have: Metallurgists, Geologists.

So, there’s a bit of an irony that in the industry where we’re now seeing booms both in Queensland and in Western Australia, my own State, we’ve got that professional skills shortage as well. It requires a long term investment at every level.

KING: Some people would say that your former Government’s partly to blame. I remember in the 1980s, I remember working in Canberra and the whole emphasis was on stopping your child thinking they were going to finish school in grade 12. Everyone had to have a University degree and as a result of that, some people would say we’ve stopped thinking about the trades and putting people through the trades. But you’re saying there’s as bigger problem in those areas where we have University graduates?

SMITH: Well, certainly we’ve got to do better to keep kids in school till Year 12. All of the studies show a couple of things. Firstly, that our secondary school retention rates have stagnated over the last half dozen to 10 years at about 75 per cent.

We’ve committed ourselves to increasing that to 85 per cent and ultimately 90 per cent because all the evidence says that if you finish secondary school, you’ve effectively got double the chance of getting another qualification. Now, that might be an apprenticeship or a vocational education and training qualification either from a TAFE or from a private registered training organisation, or indeed a University.

We’ve just recently launched a $2.5 billion Trades Training Centres in schools program to do two things. To increase those retention rates. But also to give kids in secondary school a much better taste of those traditional trades and vocational skills to get the numbers through to address that skills shortage that we spoke about earlier.

KING: That’s at one end of the market but at the other end, how do we convince people to become scientists and mathematicians and engineers?

SMITH: Well, again we’ve got to encourage young Australians to do those things that, to use the phrase, the Nation State regards as important. One of the early Education Revolution documents that we released in January or February this year was to encourage young Australians to both study and teach Maths and Science.

In our secondary schools, one in ten maths teachers have got a maths major and less than 25 per cent of science teachers have got a science degree. So, our suggestion was to reduce the HECS contribution that maths and science students need to pay. But then, if you stay in a relevant occupation, i.e. teaching, that we will remit by 50 per cent the HECS debt that you have to pay once you’re in employment.

KING: We’re not going to fix this skills crisis in five years are we?

SMITH: No, we’re not. It requires a long-term investment and this is our great criticism of the Government generally when it comes to economic policy. Yes, we’ve had 16 years of continuous economic growth, a lot of that, everyone acknowledges, set up by the reforms of the previous Hawke-Keating Labor Governments…

KING: Well, not everyone…

SMITH: Oh no, I think even John Howard, you know, in his begrudging moments will have to acknowledge that. But all the objective economists and commentators do. And then more recently a resources boom. But the Government hasn’t provided for our long-term productive future. That means making the investments in education, and in skills and in training.

KING: I don’t think there’s an issue we report on more on this program than education. You know, whether you’re a mum, a dad, a grandparent, a teacher, whatever, it’s crucial for our future.

In really simple terms, where does the proposed Kevin Rudd Government differ most from the education policies put out by Julie Bishop?

SMITH: Well, we believe you’ve got to invest much more in education at every level. Investing in education, skills and training of our people and our workforce is the single most important thing we can do, firstly, to maximise an individual young Australian’s potential, give them a chance to get ahead. But, secondly, and this is the real

importance these days generally, it’s the single most important economic investment we can make.

Our argument is that at every level, whether it’s early childhood education, primary, secondary, vocational education and training, Universities or on-the-job training and professional skills development, the Government has not invested as much as it should.

KING: How much more in money terms would you put in?

SMITH: Well, our comparisons now have to be international. In the old days you’d make a comparison between what was being invested in, say a Western Australian school or University, versus a Queensland school or University. Our horizons now have to be much broader than that. How are we going as compared with neighbouring countries and internationally? We are now in an international competition for education at every level.

KING: But, that doesn’t answer the question of how much more money an ALP Government would give to education than a Coalition Government?

SMITH: Well, I don’t think we can invest enough, that’s the first point. Secondly, it’s got to be a long-term enduring commitment…

KING: But, there has to be a limit too…I mean…

SMITH: Sure, you’ve got to be responsible. But we need to start thinking in terms of a long-term investment, not a cost. Just a couple of examples, in early childhood education we are one-fifth the OECD average. So, in January this year we announced a half billion dollar program to open up early childhood education, 15 hours a week for four year olds. And in our Trades Training Centre program, that’s a $2.5 billion program giving every secondary school, 2,650 secondary schools across the country, and a chance for up to $1.5 million in assistance in those traditional trades training areas.

KING: Then how are you going to fund these things?

SMITH: Well, as I say, we’ve had economic growth for 16 years, a resources boom to China, we see surplus after surplus, and we will do it in a responsible way. We of course want to continue to operate with surpluses, we will do it in a responsible way. But we’ve just said we will make investing in education at every level our top priority.

KING: You mentioned about the four year olds, and this is often a big debate on whether we’re requiring our kids to begin formal schooling too early. Are we forgetting to let kids be kids? What do you think there?

SMITH: Well, firstly, our Early Childhood Program won’t be compulsory. It will be 15 hours a week of play-related education if mums and dads want to take it up. But again, all the studies show that, particularly for kids that might come from a disadvantaged background or a dysfunctional background, that if you can get the

investment in early, you’ve got a much better chance of getting, ultimately, a successful educational outcome.

KING: But is four too early? In other countries around the world do they do it earlier?

SMITH: Well, as I say, when we talk about early childhood education we’re talking about, you know, four going on five, so the year before you go into primary school. The investment we make in early childhood education is one-fifth the OECD average. Fiona Stanley from my own State of Western Australia has done a lot of work in early childhood development, and she’s developed a thing called the Early Development Index.

KING: We’ve spoken to her about that.

SMITH: That follows on from a lot of good work internationally, particularly in Canada. But all the evidence, all the research shows that if you can make an investment early in kids, you’ve got a much better chance of a first class educational outcome.

Just very quickly, I still go to primary schools in my electorate and I see kids in grade 3, 4, 5, and 6, their ultimate educational outcome has already been determined. And it’s not finishing secondary school, it’s not going to TAFE or doing an apprenticeship, it’s not going to University. It’s scarpering from school at the first available legal opportunity.

KING: It would be naïve to think that you can fix that?

SMITH: We can. In the 80s and 90s we massively increased secondary school retention. We think we can do that again by making the traditional trades training suite available to young Australians. If you finish secondary school you’ve got double the chance of getting another qualification and double chance of staying in gainful employment for all of your adult life.

KING: Well, one of the things your doing up in Brisbane is addressing the Queensland Teachers Union, what’s the point of that address?

SMITH: Well, it’s the Queensland Teachers Union Conference today. They invited Kevin. Kevin couldn’t do it, he’s up in Cairns, and so I’m a substitute.

I’ll be speaking to them about some of the important areas where we think in schools investments need to be made.

I think historically in Australia we’ve occasionally been at risk of ending up with a two tiered system. For a while in the 60s and the 70s that was poor Catholic schools. If we’re not careful now it’ll be poor Government primary schools.

So, I think we’ve got some areas crying out for greater investment: Government primary schools; education in rural and regional Australia generally, the further you are away

from the GPO in the capital city of the State or Territory in which you live, then the more chance you have of having a reduced educational outcome; and then special education and indigenous education. They’re the areas, I think, that are crying out for greater investment.

KING: What do you think is the difference between what’s offered now from our private schools and our public schools?

SMITH: Well, in very many schools there’s no difference.

Our attitude is very strong on this. It’s entirely a matter for parents to choose where they want to send their kids. That’s a matter of their choice. Some people do it for personal reasons or for religious reasons and some parents will send their kids to a Government school for primary school and a private school for high school and vice versa.

We say we’ve got to make a greater investment in all of our schools.

We’ve also made it clear that we think that the debate we had in the past about taking money off some private schools was divisive and we thought that was a mistake and we won’t be going down that road. But we’re happy to leave that choice to parents. Our key objective is to increase investment in all of our schools and to improve the educational outcomes of all of our schools, irrespective of whether they’re Government or private, whether they’re religious or secular.

KING: Last question. You’ve got kids that are early teenagers?

SMITH: I do. Our son is fifteen going on fifteen and our daughter is thirteen going on sixteen, Year 11 and Year 9.

KING: So what do you think kids that age, teenagers, we all talk about them, what do you think is the biggest issue facing them? There was an amazing study that came out a couple of weeks ago that showed that 25 per cent, one quarter of kids, who are teenagers between 10 and 14 didn’t think that they would make it to adulthood because of terrorism and the like. I mean is it bullying, is it the fear of getting a job? What is it in kids’ minds?

SMITH: Well, in some respects it’s all of those things. You made the point earlier about are we letting kids, you know, avoid the innocence of childhood. I think, now for example when I go to secondary school graduations and the kids are 16 or 17, often I say to myself they’re like we were in my generation when we were 26 or 27. I think that has a lot to do with the modern mass media information that’s provided. And it’s not just electronic media, it’s online, it’s digital. So the array of information and materials which kids are now exposed to is massively much more than what we were exposed to when we were their age in earlier generations.

KING: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

SMITH: Well, it’s both a good thing and potentially a bad thing. One of the things parents do worry about very much is kids being exposed to inappropriate content. The other point is that now, instead of worrying about whether you’ve got an up to date text book, kids get online, they google stuff, they go to reputable sites and they’re much more well informed and that’s obviously a terrific thing.

KING: Stephen Smith, thank you.

SMITH: Thanks Madonna.

KING: That’s Opposition Education Spokesman, Stephen Smith.


Contact: Adam Siddique on (02) 6277 4108 or 0407 473 630