New OECD data shows that Australia has made spectacular progress in the last 30 years in reducing the percentage of adults who do not complete secondary school. It shows that the percentage of low educated adults dropped by nearly three times, from 39 to 14 per cent.
However, the new data also shows that further improvement is necessary. A significant percentage of young people leave school before completing Year 12 and they are twice as likely to have low numeracy scores and to be unemployed as those who complete secondary school.
The OECD’s latest Education Indicators in Focus brings together data from the Education at a Glance 2015 Interim Report and the Survey of Adult Skills. It shows that 86 per cent of 25-34 year-olds in Australia in 2013 had completed secondary school compared to only 61 per cent of 55-64 year-olds. In other words, the share of low-educated adults has been cut by nearly three times in the last 30 years. The percentage of 25-34 year old Australians who have completed secondary school is slightly higher than the average for the OECD of 84 per cent.
This dramatic improvement demonstrates the general success of Australia’s education system over a long period. It makes nonsense of claims by the Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, and the Government’s Commission of Audit that increases in education funding had no effect on student achievement.
Nevertheless, there is room for more improvement. A large proportion of young people who have not attained an upper secondary education have low literacy and numeracy skills. For example, 30 per cent of 16-29 year-olds in Australia without an upper secondary education have a low level of numeracy skills. This is double the percentage for those who have an upper secondary education. The percentage of 16-29 year-olds without an upper secondary education who have low numeracy proficiency in Australia is the 8th largest of 22 countries participating in the survey of adult skills.
Low literacy and numeracy skills amongst those who do not complete secondary school reduces their employment prospects. Across OECD countries in 2013, the unemployment rate among 15-29 year-olds with an upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education degree who are not in education is 16.5%, 13 percentage points lower than for those who have not attained this level (29.5%).
In Australia the unemployment rate amongst 15-29 year-olds who had not achieved an upper secondary education was double that of those who had achieved this level of education 20 per cent compared to less than 10 per cent. The unemployment rate for those with a tertiary education was less than five per cent.
The modern day reality is that completion of upper secondary education has become the minimum threshold for successful labour market entry and continued employability. As the OECD brief states:
Upper secondary education today thus represents the last stage in a basic schooling system whose key objective is to ensure that young people leave education with at least the minimum qualifications required for employability and for further education and training. [p.1]
Continuing education to and beyond secondary school also has significant other economic benefits. The brief notes that across OECD countries, adults with tertiary education earn about 60 per cent more than those with an upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education and double what those who have not attained upper secondary education earn.
Achieving universal education to the end of Year 12 must remain a national education goal. Increased funding has facilitated major progress towards this goal in the past 30 years. Adequate funding remains central to its full achievement, in particular for disadvantaged students whose Year 12 completion rates lag far behind those of advantaged students.