Australia needs to focus on fostering agility in the education system to allow faster passage of curriculum changes and initiatives aimed at resolving inequality of access to technology, CSIRO Manufacturing deputy director Catherine Foley has said.

Speaking at the recent Data61+ Live showcase in Sydney, Foley – who sat on a committee that assessed the national physics curriculum – aired concerns about the pace of change that is currently possible in the education system.

“The slowness of changing our curriculum is something that’s a big issue for Australia,” Foley said as part of a panel discussion at the event.

“Just as we need to be agile in the way we do business, we also need to be agile in the way we educate our young people.”

She believed it was critical to educate teachers and grow their skills in order to help drive change at a grassroots level.

However, she also noted that any initiatives in this area needed to cut across all schools, and particularly focus on raising the capability of schools that were disadvantaged compared to others.

Without a cross-the-board focus on technology literacy, Foley noted the potential to widen the divide between students “that either know or have access to technology and understand it, and those who don’t have access to technology, don’t know how it works and are just excluded” from its potential benefit.

“You just have to look at data from around the world to see that as soon as you have huge variations in haves and have-nots, that’s when you get problems in your economy and every other social aspect [of society].”

Panellists including Foley welcomed the Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) as a way to bring science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education to the foreground.

“I came back to Australia two years ago and I was worried by what I saw,” GE A/NZ president and CEO Geoff Culbert said.

“I felt that we were lacking in ambition as a country. I also felt that the world was becoming a lot more competitive and there were a lot more countries out there that were more ambitious than Australia.

“They didn’t have the same level of ability, but they were very ambitious. I came back to Australia and I thought, ‘We are just not getting it, we’re not aware of what’s happening out there, and we don’t truly appreciate that we operate in a global market, and technology collapses distance’.

“I’ve seen that change though in the last 18 months. I think the government’s NISA at the back end of last year was a step in the right direction.

“I think the dialogue is now on the agenda – we’re now talking about it.”

Business Council of Australia principal adviser Angus Armour backed NISA as “a very significant first step forward”.

“We’re supportive of every element,” Armour said.

“I think government will still have a significant challenge [achieving it].

“Our economy is not as competitive as it needs to be to attract the investment required to compete in this area.

“We’re certainly not close to the ranking we’d like to achieve on innovation, for example, and we need a more flexible economy.

“Those are themes that, as the Business Council, you would expect us to say, but I think if you look at international rankings, it’s a fair call.”