The education of young Australians took a belting in 2020.
A rampaging COVID-19 in February and March saw early childhood centres, schools, colleges and universities nervous about how to manage face-to-face learning.
At the start of April, the NSW government told everyone to stay at home, pretty much, although basic care was still provided at child care centres and some schools. Online learning threw up challenges, more daunting for some than others.
Students without a quiet room and supervised siblings, let alone a dedicated laptop with an internet connection, struggled unfairly. Some, as I can attest, simply cranked up their motorbikes and smothered their neighbours in noise and dust.
Pre-schoolers lost friends and daily rhythms. As did those at university.
Most challenged, surely, were those studying for the Higher School Certificate. In late March this group was told that the HSC was going ahead, with full assessment and examination procedures in place. What a call this was for these young people in such an important year in their lives.
Out in the valley, however, the level of workplace qualification is dismal.
Now, as schools, colleges and our splendid university gear up for 2021, we should be wary of hoping that things return to normal.
I've examined what normal education achievement looks like across the Hunter, and there is much to be concerned about.
At pre-school level, the region's performance is well below standard. Three of every 10 Hunter toddlers aren't enrolled in an early childhood program in the year before they start school.
The national target is 15 hours a week of formal educational experience for four-year-olds. Our 30 per cent absentee habit is a major problem.
The Hunter's schools also have a performance gap.
NAPLAN results are mediocre, while HSC performance is disappointing. Last year's HSC results across the Hunter were sub-standard. The Sydney Morning Herald's success index (the proportion of a school's results, subject by subject, that receive band 6 awards) shows 18 of the region's 24 government schools in the data base had success rates below the NSW median. Moreover, 11 of these schools performed worse on the index in 2020 than in the previous year.
Sure, education isn't a competitive event. But it's hard to find economic, social, or cultural explanations for such widespread underperformance. We don't live in a region beset by chronic poverty or economic malaise. Is it that we are complacent about the importance of educational achievement?
The achievement gap persists post-school. Statistics from the last census tell us that over 22 per cent of 15 to 19 year olds across the region were not enrolled in an educational institution, be it school, uni or TAFE.
The not-enrolled rate climbs to 60 per cent for 20 to 24 year olds. The not-enrolled figures for Greater Sydney, warts and all, are much lower, 13 per cent for 15 to 19 years and 47 per cent for 20 to 24 years.
Not taking on post-school education and training is probably the dopiest thing anyone can do in the 21st century. Forty-four per cent of workers aged in their 30s in Greater Sydney hold university qualifications.
In Newcastle and Lake Macquarie the equivalent figure is only 33 per cent, although the gap between us and Sydney is equalised when TAFE qualifications are included, which is commendable.
Out in the valley, however, the level of workplace qualification is dismal. Only 16 per cent of workers aged in their 30s have degrees, while 41 per cent hold a TAFE qualification, meaning 43 per cent have no post-school qualification at all.
Two things need saying about the value of education. The first is that we live at a time of human history when the need for an educated population is intensifying - for jobs, of course; but also for understanding the issues of our times, climate change, racism, populism, basic rights.
The second concerns our exit from coal, a task that will especially confront the younger generation in our region over the next two decades. There is merit, for sure, of picking and investing in industries capable of generating good jobs in place of coal mining jobs.
There will be winners and losers in this game.
Yet there are only winners from investing in education. Educational achievement guarantees success. And, in aggregate, a large pool of educated young workers is the best economic asset a region can imagine.