Which school leavers deserve dull and dirty work?

In NSW this year there are 75000 HSC applicants for university places, and just over 65000 places being offered. University graduates in paid employment or professional practice generally earn more than non-university graduates.

A further 225000 approximate school leavers in NSW at the end of 2006 have not applied for a university place.

Thousands of these will apply for TAFE courses, and a percentage will be turned away from TAFE, or not achieve their first preference. TAFE graduates in paid employment or running their own business generally earn more than adults without a qualification.

As these 17-19 year olds leave school, they are funnelled into the world of work where having a job, or being unemployed are defining features of their lives. Fantasies of fame and fortune are forced aside by real choices.

It looks fair enough, doesn’t it? If you work hard and you are smart enough, you get your first choice. If you don’t work so hard, or you are not so clever, then you must deserve a less desirable course or job, and you get on with it.

But it is parents, families, that make the biggest difference to students results. Parents who have spent more years in education, and who are better off than average, have children who do better in school. It’s called merit, but it’s really the luck of who your parents are, that means you will or won’t be seen to have merit in the education system.

Lots of school leavers can expect to accept if not unemployment, then the kind of work that most people would rather not do if they felt they had a choice – cleaning up after other people, processing or preparing bulk food, assembling gadgets and clothes, taking and making phone calls, serving, serving. These jobs might be acceptable for a short time, and some people may be satisfied with jobs that require no further education. But most people would choose work that is more interesting and better paid if they felt they could. Yet at least some of this low-skilled or unpleasant work needs to be done.

How would we eat and enjoy a clean, odourless, convenient world, if schools didn’t produce enough children and teenagers who would accept that dull or dirty work is their lot in life? (Immigration plugs some of the gaps but not all). In fact many of the students whose destiny is dull and dirty are those who are seen as problems at school. The might disrupt classes, or just not turn up.

They don’t expect to succeed in the competition for university places, TAFE places and better jobs. So why bother?

Education policy makers seem to be looking for ways to improve learning, behaviour, literacy and numeracy, and results for the least successful students in the system. But some students know, and some students come from families and communities who expect to be unable to compete against these kids from better schools, richer schools, richer and more educated families.

I think Australia should find a way to share the dull and dirty work fairly, and give everyone a go at spending some time working at something that is interesting to them, and reasonably paid. Then all school kids will have a reason to learn, without expecting to have to beat kids with an advantage of birth, for a place in the learning and earning lottery.

In 12 months time my oldest child will find out what she has drawn in the post-school education lottery.

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