How high schools can best prepare students for the real world

Maxwell Yong

Financial literacy, workplace skills, health consciousness and independent living should all be core lessons for Australian high schoolers.

29 April 2024

There is always a lot of talk around high schools failing in their duty to teach students “real world” skills as opposed to calculus, creative writing, and other theoretical skills. Though this undervalues the genuine contribution that teachers make to high school students in their formative years. Nonetheless, it exposes a potential flaw in the curriculum. According to research by global education provider Infrastructure, 61 per cent of students and 73 per cent of parents believe that life skills are the most important aspect missing from the Australian education system.

From a social equality perspective, it is important that these skills are taught to all students. Otherwise, better-off parents who often possess better financial literacy skills, for example, will educate their already well-off children, whereas poorer kids can struggle to get a financial education at all.

A few pillars build up “life skills”: financial literacy, employment, health and living independently. Having high schoolers learn these skills would support every student in their transition to adulthood. Moreover, strong financial literacy will reduce rates financial hardship, which often ends up being a cost on society through employment welfare.

Financial literacy

Research from the University of Newcastle shows that greater financial literacy leads to better life satisfaction. This should be unsurprising as financial insecurity is highly stressful, affecting over 330,000 young Australians aged 15-24 every year. Worryingly, 43 per cent of Australian young people aged 18-24 reported they could not meet their personal debt obligations. Clearly, something is wrong.

We should embed basic financial literacy education into the Australian curriculum. Despite calls from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), federal MPs, and even The Barefoot Investor, not much has happened.

As a start, budgeting, banking and debt awareness should be taught to instil important lessons – not least, “spend less than you earn”. Highlighting the risks of credit card and buy-now-pay-later debt accrual will go a long way to reduce the number of young Australians with debt issues.

Second, investing, tax and scam awareness are all important concepts which will help young Australians avoid pitfalls, while helping them grow their wealth from a young age. Vital concepts like compound interest and marginal income tax treatment will set up students well for success.

As a stretch target, the curriculum could consider adding lessons in insurance, consumer rights, financial planning and basic economics. Although these might be slightly lower priority than core financial literacy concepts, they are all integral lessons to learn at some stage in life.

An investment in financial literacy for all young Australians will pay dividends. It will protect them from financial distress, and set them on a track for financial independence. It will also improve the overall economy as more people become financially independent, relying less on social welfare.

Employment

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” – a common idiom for job opportunities. However, this is not just about nepotism. Successful people can also give great advice on how to navigate the workplace, making those in their proximity more likely to know the right questions to ask and things to do. How does one write a best-practice CV and cover letter? How does one find new job opportunities?

Let’s give all high school students this information so they can compete on an even playing field. Students can be set up for success if they are taught how to be savvy when chasing opportunities. More than just CV tips, students could benefit from insider advice from successful people in different fields. Many private schools already have programs to this effect, so we should ensure public schools put students on a similar footing with a curriculum-embedded program.

Moreover, young people should know their rights as workers. Stories of teenagers paid less than minimum wage at their local café are all too common now. We need young people to be informed so they can fight for fair treatment and wages at work.

Health

Navigating the medical system in any country is difficult (and often expensive), so it’s helpful to understand the basics.

Young adults should understand what the Medicare system is and why it exists. Then, what the costs and benefits of private health are, and what to consider when selecting a health fund. In terms of navigating the Australian medical system, it is vital to understand gap payments, waiting lists, bulk-billing, and other key concepts. These lessons would reduce the stress that young people feel when accessing health services in Australia.

Moreover, mental health is equally important as physical health, and it is important for young people to be aware of this. According to HILDA survey data, 42 per cent of young people between 15 and 24 experience mental health issues. First, they should understand that experiencing difficulties with mental health is normal and treatable, and should be aware of options available to them. Second, they should understand mental health first aid to be able to support friends and family.

Living independently

In a time where house prices and rent are unaffordable to most, it is particularly important for young Australians to learn how they can feasibly move out of home and live independently.

Basic information on rent, utilities and share-house living would make moving out for the first time just a bit easier. Among changing legislation in different Australian states, young people better understanding their rights as renters will help them avoid unfair treatment from their landlords.

Small but important life skills matter too. How to save money by preparing food in bulk and freezing it. How rice always cooks at a 2:1 water-to-rice ratio. How to iron a shirt. I concede that these small skills are hard to build into a curriculum, but many skilled educational professionals can share their own life hacks to give their students a bit more confidence to move out.

Equipping high school graduates with the right skills

The challenge with teaching life skills is that schools will need to consider how to find time within already busy student timetable. There’s a few options here.

First, manage a program taught by teachers in specialty areas. The commerce teacher can teach financial literacy, the careers advisor can teach employment, the physical education teacher can teach health, and anyone can teach living independently, although a younger teacher is most likely to connect with students.

Another option is to run a national program that goes into schools to teach life skills. Similar to the primary school Healthy Harold program run by Life Ed Australia. For those not blessed with a visit from Harold, the puppet giraffe tours Australia’s primary schools teaching physical health, emotional wellbeing and child safety.

However, what is really needed is support from education ministers around Australia to view life skills as a priority. They need to back this idea with budget and work with their departments to find time within the high-school curriculum.

An investment in young people’s life skills will set them up for success in society, reducing the stress associated with transitioning into adulthood. This will not only help them, but also society in general, as we will see more successful and independent adults in the community.

Maxwell Yong is an economist and policy researcher. Max is currently working with co-authors at Melbourne University on higher education policy research. Max periodically writes for Australian and international media outlets.

Image credit: Monkey Business Images

Features

  • Jessica Cocks, Rob Ryan and Ben Spence

  • Osmond Chiu

  • Angela Kaplish

Subscribe to The Policymaker

Explore more articles

  • Christopher Day

  • Maxwell Yong

  • Rys Farthing and Lorna Woods

Features

  • Jessica Cocks, Rob Ryan and Ben Spence

  • Osmond Chiu

  • Angela Kaplish

Explore more articles

  • Christopher Day

  • Maxwell Yong

  • Rys Farthing and Lorna Woods

Subscribe to The Policymaker