The big show playing on the national stage centres on reintroducing the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) with legislative powers to oversee conduct in the building construction sector.

Proponents claim the ABCC plays a vital role in ensuring performance and productivity improvements to the construction industry. Detractors say it is a union busting ‘overlord’ focused on the CFMEU. Impartial observers say it appears to be a convenient means to trigger an early election and clean out minor party senate seat holders.

If only there was as much enthusiasm to deal with a real danger that has serious negative consequences on performance and productivity outcomes in the building construction sector: the alarming reduction in our educational and training outcomes. It should be of concern to every Australian, and particularly those who would like to pursue a career pathway within areas of building and construction. If left unchecked, we risk a generational loss of well-trained and highly skilled personnel equipped to meet the challenges in delivering the building and infrastructure projects required in the 21st century.

Australia’s decline in education and training has been highlighted as a danger to our national economic performance. The warning was sounded by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) education chief and honorary Professor of the University of Heidelberg, Andreas Schleicher, at a recent Global Education and Skills Forum held in Dubai.

Schleicher is a key member of the OECD senior management team and works in the Directorate for Education and Skills on the global stage. This includes the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), and the development and analysis of benchmarks on the performance of education systems (INES).

When a global think tank with the status of the OECD announces that we have a significant problem in this area, there should be a serious response.

This concern is not being delivered in isolation. Recent reports by Australia’s Grattan Institute reveal that ‘learning gaps’ of up to seven years can typically be found in Australian classrooms. In practical terms, this means kids sitting in Year 6 classes with appropriate reading ages for 12-year-olds participating in a learning environment where classmates have the reading age of five-year-old. This disparity in basic educational progression and outcome is amplified when, by Year 12, students that must necessarily engage with complex text and numeracy instruction can be in a class cohort with other 17- and 18-year-olds who would struggle to read a comic book or do simple arithmetic calculation.

I don’t want to demean the increasing number of young people who get ‘left behind’ in their basic education. However, the majority of school leaver candidates who participate in post-school educational training courses can now be expected to arrive with little evidence of being capable in applying basic learning skills that were until recently taken for granted as essential prerequisites for successful progression through technical, further and higher education.

Computer skills have fallen behind targeted outcomes and far fewer secondary students choose to study maths in high school than ever before. These are problems that will have dire consequences. The steady decline in numeracy and literacy skills clearly undermines all subsequent facets of learning, particularly the learning skills sets that are essential in producing first class tradespersons, building supervisors, estimators, construction planners, engineers, surveyors and construction managers.

Of particular concern is the evidence that rather than trying to lift standards, the metrics used to measure performance outcomes are simply manipulated to suit performance indicators. The Grattan Institute found students incapable of reaching benchmarks set by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). Yet the same Year 9 students were considered to be meeting NAPLAN minimum standards, even when they were actually achieving below levels of a typical Year 5 student.

The report’s author, Peter Goss, was quoted as saying that “Australia must raise its sights. The bar we are setting with the NAPLAN national minimum standard is just too low. If we set the bar too low, it is very hard to aim high.”

Australia’s PISA results have been in a steady decline since 2003. Computer literacy testing shows only 55 per cent of 10,000 students tested by ACARA were considered proficient. Most disturbing is that NAPLAN testing continues to indicate no improvement in reading and writing abilities of all Australian school students since 2008.

Nalini Joshi, a professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Sydney and National Committee for Mathematical Sciences considers compulsory mathematical subjects to be essential to educational strategies.

“We are leaching out the mathematical skills from the majority of the population. We are not just talking about university entry anymore; we are taking about larger portions of the population who would find it difficult to work out something that isn’t plugged into a calculator,” she said.

“Apprentices are becoming bricklayers who don’t know how many bricks to order and students are becoming nurses who are unable to work out dosages.”

Joshi’s reference to a ‘qualified’ bricklayer being unable to estimate the quantity of bricks to order may be a little obscure, but her critique involving a nurse is based on fact. An incident widely reported last year involved a nurse accidentally administering a 79-year-old hospital patient dishwashing liquid instead of his normal medication. The nurse was unable to either read the label or distinguish the contents of the container despite having been awarded a degree at an Australian university and registered as a nurse by a state-based licensing authority.

Schleicher believes teacher quality and professionalism is at the heart of every successful education system and that Australia must do something to correct the downward trend to survive in a global economy.

“What I like is the image of a professional that is not just defined by delivering an established curriculum but people who see themselves as owners of professional standards,” he said. “People who learn from and with their colleagues, where there is a greater degree of professional collaboration and professional autonomy.”

The vocational education and training sector from which Joshi draws the exemplar of a ‘qualified’ bricklayer who can’t count bricks is currently in a total shambles. Since the VET Fee Help scheme debacle and the rapid increase in the numbers of privately run training providers, there is simply no guarantee that a graduate who obtains a qualification and associated licence will actually be capable in undertaking their role.

Fairfax Media reported that a private college that allegedly recruited illiterate and disabled students is being pursued by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in the Federal Court for $210 million. The ‘college’ called itself the ‘Australian Institute of Professional Education.’ It received almost $1 million in taxpayer funded fees for each student who managed to ‘graduate.’

The owners of AIPE were named as finalists in the NSW Premiers awards for business. AIPE started in a flat in Glebe in 2008. According to its website, it had pathway arrangements with six universities: the University of Technology Sydney, Western Sydney University, the University of Wollongong, the Australian Catholic University, Charles Sturt University and Central Queensland University. It had 8,000 students in an 11-floor building on Sussex Street in Sydney’s CBD. It was one of hundreds of other ‘private’ training providers operating around Australia who call themselves ‘colleges’ and ‘institutes’ even if they operate out of the back of a ‘training’ ute to dole out a nationally recognised training qualification.

Meanwhile, the Australian Technical and Further Education (TAFE) network, once held in high esteem to provide the bulk of construction trade and building graduates, is crumbling under the strain of a contestable training market that is in danger of becoming a competitive race to the bottom. A strategy to replace TAFE ‘teachers’ with ‘trainers’ and ‘assessors’ makes sense as a cost saving measure.

However, those new roles won’t be filled by the ‘professionals’ that Schleicher believes to be essential as “people who see themselves as owners of professional standards.” Trainers and assessors would only require a generic ‘Certificate IV’ in Training and Assessment qualification. No one could reasonably propose this as a ‘professional’ level of qualification in either content or application. They would be paid half the pay of teachers, and whilst that makes sense in terms of managing the ‘bottom’ line, it’s not a particularly smart strategy.

As the OECD warns us, such strategies will feed into the continued decline in delivering high quality educational outcomes which will subsequently impact on our economic performance.

Most people who have ever opted for the ‘really cheap’ quote when undertaking a building construction project quickly come to realise what compromises they have actually purchased. Smart and experienced builders know there is always a reason when a subcontractor prices works at far lower rate than any others have. The ‘cheap’ price is usually the one that has omitted some of the scope of works or that intends on taking some shortcuts to minimise their cost.

We can’t afford that sort of thing with our educational training and licence issuance anymore. As the building and construction sector is universally acknowledged as being vital to Australia’s overall economic performance, perhaps we should be focussing on an Australian Education Commissioner before we consider reinstating the office of Building Commissioner.