(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

As lockdown closed schools in Brisbane last week, we saw the return of a familiar refrain: “What about Year 12 students? What about their ATARs?”

The ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) is the chief way students access the nation’s public universities. Each university and course has a minimum ATAR rank (or cut-off) which decides whether a 17- or 18-year-old “earns” a place in the university course. Last year exemptions were made and universities changed entry procedures, recognising the unforgivable slog that goes into the final years of high school.

But does an ATAR truly show the capacity of an individual to succeed? And at what point will we begin to acknowledge the other attributes that are more important than a mark on a page?

Let’s take Andrew Laming as an example. Educated at one of Brisbane’s finest private schools, he went on to study medicine before gaining qualifications in the highly-specialised field of ophthalmology. He holds diplomas in other areas of medicine, along with a string of Master’s degrees in public administration, public policy and philosophy. One of those is from Harvard University, no less.

And this week, he’s taken time off his job as a taxpayer-funded MP to attend “empathy” school.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to Laming, given there are so many other stellar examples. The Hayne royal commission produced thousands of pages about our top bankers, their apparent lack of empathy, and their inability to communicate even basic knowledge of the lives of their customers. Now, two years later, some of the boom companies on the stock exchange are the consumer lenders who charge higher rates to people who have trouble repaying.

Or what about the companies collecting and counting the JobKeeper allowance with one hand, and giving bonuses to their executives with the other?

The public has consistently been let down by the poor judgement, appalling leadership and basic lack of compassion by those running our big companies, churches, public utilities and police services. Read a report from a royal commission into any one of those, and you’ll see they pinpoint many of the same problems.

The best people are not always — and very often not — those in the top jobs. And therein lies the problem with what is being taught in our schools and universities.

A clever doctor might get the diagnosis right. But a good doctor will get the diagnosis right and be able to explain it to their patients. A clever CEO might raise profits and delight shareholders. But the best will do that, while understanding diversity and the importance of culture and morale in a workplace.

Over the past few years, both here and overseas, many have called for a greater focus on these skills that dictate whether someone will be a good leader. Empathy. Compassion. Leadership. Critical thinking. Good judgement. An ability to communicate. A focus on listening. Valuing diversity. They’re called “soft skills”, but these are the things that determine whether someone is truly good in their field — whether they’re a plumber, a teacher, a doctor or an MP.

Having undervalued these skills, we find ourselves facing the comical situation where someone like Laming is being paid by the taxpayers to be taught to understand the viewpoints of others, and where many of our MPs don’t appear to understand the basic fact that women are equal to men (and should be treated as such).

Schools have so much on their plate, and our educators do their best to help students understand these issues in a packed curriculum. But until we value them enough to measure and test for them — and include them on an ATAR — we’re never going to get the leaders our communities deserve. (And yes, you can assess them: psychometric-type testing is included in all sorts of job applications across all sorts of industries.)

If we don’t disrupt education we risk continuing to limp along, sending CEOs and priests and bankers and MPs to jail or night school to learn that a good mark on a page is just that.

Good leadership requires so much more.