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Australia needs a new national threshold educational qualification

By Richard Curtain - posted Sunday, 21 April 2002

While reform of the universities was been given centre stage in the recent debate on the quality of Australia’s education system, little attention has been given to the issue of the education levels for the population at large. Low levels of educational attainment for young people in particular undermine their chances of being able to live a productive life. And compared with other comparable countries, Australia’s basic education levels are low.

What happens to early school leavers?

Many school leavers in Australia continue to face major difficulties in finding work. This is particularly so for those who have not completed Year 12 or equivalent qualification.

Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that over a third (37 per cent) of the school leavers in 2000 who did not go onto further education were not in paid work in May 2001. In raw figures, this amounts to some 39,600 young people aged 15 to 24 years who six months after leaving school have not made a successful transition from education to work.


The situation is worse for the ‘early’ school leavers who account for half of all school leavers not in further education. As many as 48 per cent of those who leave school before completing Year 12 and who do not go on to further education are not in paid work some six months after leaving school.

Need to set national targets

Australian governments need to define a new threshold education level for every young person to attain. Year 12 school retention rates are a totally inadequate indicator. Vocational qualifications equivalent to Year 12 completion are now important alternatives to Year 12 completion.

The target for increased levels of educational attainment for 19-year-olds was set by the State and federal governments in 1991 for the year 2001. And no new national targets have been set. Victoria, however, has taken the initiative and set a target of 90 per cent of young people to have completed Year 12 or the equivalent by the year 2010. While Queensland and South Australia are thinking about it, no other States have yet followed suit.

Other options to Year 12

The difficult issue for setting new targets is defining the equivalent to Year 12. There are a myriad of occupational qualifications created in recent years that belie any attempt to define equivalence. One answer is to use independent locator tests of adult literacy and numeracy and related skills. These can assess whether young people in pursuing alternative education routes are gaining the same level of basic education that Year 12 is assumed to provide.

The other issue in setting new education targets is to work out who will monitor them. In the past when left to education authorities, redefinitions were made which produced a better set of numbers than was really the case. It is important that responsibility for monitoring performance lies with an agency that is independent of the authorities which fund or deliver education services.

Minimum standard of learning expected

We need to identify a minimum standard of learning expected of someone completing upper secondary school. The holder of the new qualification needs to be able to show to themselves and to employers that they have achieved learning outcomes that are equivalent to the successful completion of Year 12.


The best way to do this is set up an external reference standard. The Australian Council for Education Research (ACER), an independent agency, could devise a series of tests to measure the outcomes of a Higher School Certificate level education program.

In the USA, the widely used General Education Development (GED) Tests perform this role. The GED tests are based on up-to-date secondary school curriculum standards and standardised assessment practices. Persons who pass the tests gain a widely recognized high-school-equivalency credential. The standard is assessed against a reference group of high school graduates who also undertake the tests. The pass rate is based on a result which is above the performance of at least one third of high school graduates in the US.

One in every seven people who earns a high school diploma each year in the USA does so by passing the GED Tests. More than 95 percent of employers in the US are said to consider GED graduates the same as traditional high school graduates in regard to hiring, salary, and opportunity for advancement. GED Tests are accepted by 90 per cent of US colleges to evaluate entrance applications.

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About the Author

Richard Curtain is a public policy consultant with a strong interest in skills formation policy. He is a member of an expert panel for Higher Education and Skills Group, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Government of Victoria. He has also recently prepared a response to Australia’s Skills and Workforce Future Focus Discussion Paperof the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency for the Recruitment and Consulting Services Association of Australia and New Zealand.

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