School’s Out

Many will have heard John Howard’s latest advice to school students that they should drop out at the end of Year 10 and get a trade.

There are so many things wrong with this advice it’s hard to know where to start. But for the sake of accuracy, and for the sanity of my readers, I shall spend some time on this issue in an extended entry. But before I submit to the extended entry edition of this post, I will say that there are about three careers I can think of that justify leaving school early… and none of them are in industries where Australia suffers a shortage of workers.

Oh and thanks to Troffie for encouraging me to post on this issue.

So first of all I should start by identifying those three careers where leaving school early may be justified. Those careers are dance, music and screen acting. To be a classical ballet dancer, the body must be trained rigorously at a time when it can bear such strenuous training. Most dancers need to work full time on their bodies from the age of 16 in order to properly prepare their bodies for professional performance as an adult. The mind can wait but the body can’t, so leaving school to pursue a professional career in dance is justified. Similarly in music, a gifted concert performer needs time to perfect their craft, and in the case of popular music performers, needs time to record and tour. Fame is fleeting in the popular music scene, and if a performer can generate enough income to sustain their future by leaving school at 15 and touring internationally, good on them. They can always go back to study later. Finally in screen acting, a young performer with a contract to work on a series of films probably cannot sustain normal schooling, and probably needs time off study during the peak of their career in order to properly meet the needs of their contract. Once again, they can always return to study when their career has peaked and fallen.

So, those careers aside, and assuming that none of these were in Howard’s thoughts when he made this recommendation, we come to the reason why Howard’s advice is completely flawed.

First of all, there is no reason to believe that a drop in apprenticeships is concerning in Australia. Growth in apprenticeships in the late 1990s was profound, and any readjustment that is occurring now is merely periodical. Further, many of the apprenticeships that were established during the period of 1990 to the present day were based on the fact that new apprentices were school leavers (finishing Year 12), having shown the ability to sustain learning. There needs to be some comparative analysis of the success of apprenticeships among Year 10 graduates in comparison with Year 12 graduates. So far there’s no evidence to suggest any difference between Year 12 and Year 10 graduates as successful new apprenticeships, but I would tend to suspect that Year 12 graduates would be more inclined to complete their apprenticeships, and to establish successful businesses in the longer term.

Secondly, while there is a shortage of skilled workers in the Australian labour force, there is no reason to discourage students from finishing school in order to fill this shortage. While there may be a need for plumbers, metalworkers, mechanics, electricians, hair dressers and construction workers, in many cases, these industries require or at least prefer HSC graduates as apprentices in their industry. In some cases it is regarded as advisable for workers to consider tertiary and even graduate education in business management in order to effectively sustain a business in a competitive trade environment.

Thirdly, the most significant problem in Australian employment is actually a lack of executive and senior professionals across a range of industry sectors. Our best thinkers and managers are being snapped up by overseas companies and research groups as part of the national “brain drain”. Apprenticeships cannot assist with this problem, but they can certainly draw attention away from it, and that seems to be the objective of Howard’s advice.

But trying to solve a skilled worker shortage by having apprentices start two years sooner will do absolutely nothing to our present situation. Indeed, by advising students to leave school at Year 10, Howard is effectually shutting these people out of alternative careers, or effective management of their own trade businesses. Because without their High School Certificate (HSC or state equivalent, awarded on successful completion of Year 12), these apprentices will not gain entry to any higher education course of study, and even their choices at TAFE courses are limited.

Howard’s arguments are specious and should be denounced for the way in which students may be mislead as a result of his advice. Because while locking a Year 10 student into a trade for the rest of his career may address some of our skilled worker shortage, it’s reducing that student’s opportunities in the longer term, and that’s patently unethical.

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