A campaign by the Mercury has been credited with galvanising public efforts to improve Tasmania’s education outcomes, with less than half of the state’s high school students finishing year 12, Australia’s lowest rate.
The Mercury launched its campaign, Education Matters, in November as the state government began a review of the Tasmanian Education Act, and late last month packed 400 people into a forum at the University of Tasmania to discuss ways of shaking up the system.
Education Matters follows a successful campaign by the Mercury last month to defeat the Tasmanian government’s proposed changes to defamation laws which threatened press freedom.
“Unlike the defamation campaign, there is not a single outcome we can hang this campaign on,” Mercury editor Matt Deighton told The Newspaper Works. “But that was never the aim; the aim was to make a long term commitment to the issue. It’s not an issue which is going to have a quick fix.
“So we’ve broken plenty of stories, run lots of editorials, kept our opinion pages lively with debate and engaged the community face to face in forums.
“We challenged the government, and all sides of politics, to work together collectively on the issue and we have applauded the formation of the Peter Underwood Centre – a Tasmania-first collaboration between the University of Tasmania and the government – to find some answers to our education crisis.”
Mr Deighton met with the university’s vice chancellor, Professor Peter Rathjen, to “see what we could do as a newspaper to put the issue at the front of public consciousness and change perceptions”. The result was a partnership heralding the university’s 125th anniversary this year. The series of forums are part of the anniversary celebrations.
Professor Rathjen was among teachers, school principals, academics and politicians including Labor leader Bryan Green, MLCs Rob Valentine and Michael Gaffney, shadow treasurer Scott Bacon and Greens MP Nick McKim who attended the public forum on February 23.
The Mercury plans to maintain pressure on the state government in its review of the education act, focussing on moves to make years 11 and 12 compulsory, instead of the current college system, and the impact it will have on smaller schools.
“Ultimately it comes down to a cultural change for people in Tasmania – making education something we all aspire to,” Mr Deighton said.
Mr Deighton described the prevailing negative attitude towards education as a complex and intergenerational issue, linked to a cycle of other problems such as health, obesity and drug abuse.
In late February the Mercury revealed the launch of the Peter Underwood Centre for Educational Attainment, a research centre established by the state government and the University of Tasmania to get to the bottom of the education crisis. The centre is named in honour of the late Tasmanian governor Peter Underwood, who campaigned tirelessly for better education.
His widow, Frances Underwood, praised the Mercury’s approach in channelling a conversation on a contentious issue.
“So many people have tried so hard to change things, to lift our standards, and despite everybody’s best efforts we’ve had no success – and it was time to do something different,” she said.
“There was a grassroots conversation that the Mercury picked up beautifully.
“They have done a fantastic job running a community conversation that’s balanced – not throwing stones at anybody, but allowing everyone to have a say.”
Opinion pieces, articles and letters from schools, parents and the likes of UTAS professors Eleanor Ramsay and Michael Rowan, who started the Education Ambassadors program to promote the benefits of education to communities around the state, make up a variety of perspectives.
Glenorchy City Council alderman Jenny Branch-Allen, who chairs the council’s LEARN program, said it was critical for the community to change the culture, and bring people together to focus on the importance of educating Tasmania’s children.
“The Mercury is helping to highlight the issues, making us aware. That’s important so that we’re working smartly, working together – not in silos, not in isolation.
“They’re one of the enablers to get the message out to the community because the message has to be part of this is cultural change.”
Mr Deighton said the campaign focused on a section of readers the paper might not otherwise regularly engage in teachers and academics.
“In a place like Tassie, and as the only daily paper in Hobart, you try to be everything to everyone,” he said, “but drilling down into an issue like this has had a great response.”
“We have put the issue at the front of people’s mindsets. The letters, articles and feedback we’ve got has been really strong.”
Ms Underwood said getting the debate on education going was vital.
“It’s showing we value education and part of the problem is a lot of people don’t – many don’t see the purpose of education,” she said. “So often it’s another word for jobs, but it’s so much more than that.
“It’s about learning to read and write, being empowered and speaking for yourself.”
Ms Underwood said the Mercury’s front page headline, “Lift our kids up”, was something her husband would have endorsed.
The Examiner is also set to kick off a campaign on education in Launceston, she said. “This is regional newspapers doing exactly what they should be doing: raising debate and getting people to think about their community.”
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