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PISA 2018: Education Policies: Economic, Social and Organisational Influences

The results of the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) project for 2018 were published 3 December 2019. Separate comprehensive and detailed reports were provided for each country by a local expert organisation, in the case of Australia the Australian Council for Education Research (ACER).

The performance of 18-year-olds in three areas of literacy, reading, mathematics and science for around 600,000 participating students in 79 countries and economies was analysed. China’s economic area of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang emerged as the top performer in all categories; Australian students appeared to have slipped further down the rankings. Again!

The publication of the results reignited all the usual commentary about Australian students and the Australian school education system. Again calls were made by the popular media and politicians for a return to basics and reconsideration of the curriculum. In fact the popular demands did not address any of the conclusions of the PISA reports and several issues in the reports were ignored.

Had media commentators and politicians read the comprehensive reports? Their responses focused only on rank and ignored statistical issues. PISA tests the accumulated learning over 18 years, in other words experiences from early childhood, the influences of the home, peers, schools and a variety of other influences through to adolescence. Therefore, the assertion by some that it is a measure of the country’s education system is wrong. Problems of sampling and variation in effort by some students were known from previous discussions and other sources – pointed out by some educators – were ignored by media and politicians.

The response by educators and researchers addressed quite different issues from those of media and politicians. Contrary to assertions that the poor results did not reflect the substantial increases in funding, it was pointed out that after considering wage inflation and increases in student numbers there had not been a huge increase at all. And most of it had gone to independent schools. Comments included the need for a greater depth of thinking; students should aim for higher achievement. Deep-seated problems were being avoided. “The decades-long focus on prescription, standardisation, testing and accountability seems to have done nothing to create … successful lifelong learners” one educator observed.

The responses to PISA 2018 are a reflection of Australia’s education policy and the underlying beliefs at the political level. They hardly reflect what education is – learning – and what it is intended to achieve – an understanding of basic domains of knowledge, the ability to participate actively in the community through a capacity to analyse information, cooperate respectfully and productively with others and cope with change. And above all achieve their own potential.

In Australia policy focuses on school and therefore ignores most of life and influences on it, especially the early years. In short, the present policy, complicated by involvement of Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments and public and independent schools, is largely irrelevant to education and especially the processes and policies which might lead to success. Pasi Sahlberg of the Gonski Institute, University of NSW contends “smartphones and digital media have taken over the time that children used to have for reading and playing outdoors” and children arrive at school tired and not ready to learn. His remedy is play and more play. Declarations by ministers express important aspirations but actual policies don’t follow them!

The demand for teachers to be better qualified was a familiar response to the PISA results by media and politicians who were responding to the views of some parents. However, while qualifications are important, teaching skills – pedagogy – including comprehensive knowledge of the subject and how to present it so as to engage students, is the key issue. Recruiting academically qualified people and sending them into the classroom with a year or so’s training does not solve the problem.


“Lenny Basser began his chemistry course by doing something I suspect many teachers would like to do even today — throwing out the textbook (metaphorically of course). He suggested all the people in the honours class were likely to go to university, and therefore his job was not primarily to teach a syllabus but to teach each of us how to ask the right questions and go about fully educating ourselves.

“He taught us by not teaching us. Or, more specifically, he taught us not by asking us to memorise knowledge, but by challenging us to learn how to think.

“You will, of course, recognise that this is a most unfamiliar way of approaching teaching, and some students really disliked it. Others, like me, thought it was excellent.”

“.. for Australia to flourish this century she will need students prompted to ask difficult questions about the world and our role in it.”

Australian Robert May, a pioneer in the study of Chaos Theory and other aspects of complexity including predator prey relationships, writing for the Centre for Policy Development’s series “Secret Santas for Australia” in 2015. Lord May (1938-2020) became President of the Royal Society and Scientific Advisor to the UK Government. He died 29 April 2020.


Policy development which some 45 years ago, at Commonwealth level, recognised the need for government resources to be driven by equity and minimum private participation, has been gradually corrupted by special interest groups and special deals to the detriment of public schooling whilst independent schools, mostly serving the already advantaged, receive special support. State governments have been left to make up the difference in support of government schools but have failed to do so. Assertions that independent schooling saves taxpayer money is not supported by the evidence; students of independent schools perform no better than students of public schools once differences in socioeconomic background are considered.[1]

The performance of teachers undoubtedly makes a significant contribution to student gain but teachers cannot be blamed for the major trends. There is a need to provide extra assistance where student disadvantage is high and for some knowledge domains which are commonly perceived as difficult such as mathematics. There is helpful information available in literature and experience about enhancing student engagement, as many teachers surely know; others may not understand that. The success of mathematics teacher Eddie Woo is a case in point.

Standardised testing and support for independent schools have ignored quality research and experience. Successful education systems elsewhere do not focus on standardised tests but trust teachers to deliver effective learning experiences; public schools dominate and non-government or independent schools are uncommon and not funded to any extent by government. Australian policies are generally behind those of other countries, especially Scandinavian and some other European countries and several countries in southeast Asia, especially Singapore. There is little evidence of a preparedness to learn from those countries.

How people work together and how decisions get made defines organisational success. Conversations are the basis of that. Through conversations people plan and take decisions… develop new ideas, share knowledge and experience, and enhance individual and collective learning. Social capital reflects interactions between people, sharing knowledge and other resources. High social capital increases job satisfaction. In schools with high social capital, teachers work in a trusting, collaborative way to focus on learning and the engagement and improvement of student achievement. In those schools student achievement is higher. More effective principals define their roles as facilitators of teacher success rather than instructional leaders and provide teachers with the resources they needed to build social capital.

School enrolments characterised by a relative homogeneity of social, economic and ethnic background diminish the learning achievement of all. Engagement in a wide variety of activities and a broad curriculum including languages and arts subjects stimulates greater cognitive gain.

The issues are wider however. Successful learning outcomes depend principally on investment in the early years, especially in less advantaged children by professional early childhood educators. The economic and social gain from such intervention is considerable and long-lasting. Important influences from the early years through to adolescence are mainly in the home, involve parents and also peers. The most important issues are social and economic and include the child’s access to a diversity of opportunities, something often lacking in many crowded urban areas.

The emerging situation of children in Australia is extremely serious: 17 per cent or 3 million live in poverty. There are increasing rates of out-of-home care, self-harm and suicide. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in September 2019 called for urgent measures to be taken in Australia to protect children from violence and in relation to mental health, environmental damage and climate change and drew special attention to refugees seeking asylum and the administration of justice.

As with health, social determinants are critical. A set of interrelated issues are significantly within the responsibility of governments. These include the family environment and the work situation, both of which are in turn influenced by gender socialisation and the perceived role of women, especially the mother. Unfortunately, the contribution of the mother is discounted by government policy, especially in achieving support for childcare, an issue prominent in the list of major concerns for women for over 40 years. Employer policies on parental leave lag behind emerging knowledge.[2]

The workplace environment, influenced by employment policies and leadership practices, can lead to considerable stress and cross over to family life affecting the environment of the growing child, including relationships of the father with children. Housing has increasingly become a vehicle for wealth creation rather than a source of essential shelter. That in turn influences health, transport and family and work and ultimately participation in the community.

Policies on urban development and social infrastructure influence capacity of both the income earning father and the mother and impact time planning. All these can lead to severe stress which can develop into more destructive situations such as loneliness, substance abuse and self-harm. Official responses to substance abuse commonly bear little relationship to the facts. That and other difficulties can lead to mental health issues and incarceration.

Mental health treatment is inadequately resourced despite its high profile. That can lead to further problems. Suicide, affecting young people in large numbers is not being addressed satisfactorily. Policies and resources including housing, affecting First Nations/Indigenous people are inadequate and lower education performance, as in the case of health, is one of the many consequences.

Some politicians have mistakenly considered attendance at school as the key issue for First Nations children when in fact student engagement and trust are critical. So is learning in language at least during the first years of school. The situation of all students in regional and remote communities is of particular concern, surveys showing continuing gaps in achievement compared with people in large cities.

The ability of children to thrive is critical yet these areas just mentioned are not joined-up with education policies in any meaningful way. School education is increasingly treated as little more than preparation for paid work. Practices by employers which deliver inadequate on-the-job training and increasingly destructive resourcing by governments of post-school training and education including opening the system up to private sector providers have diminished the community’s skill base in trades.

As is well-known, diminished funding of universities and increasing reliance on fee-paying students has reduced the variety of courses offered and failed to improve teaching. Emphasis in funding on outcomes contributing to economic growth has reduced activity in basic research critical to economically valuable research. The same can be said in respect of funding of research in government scientific enterprises and support for arts organisations.

Understanding the nature of learning from the earliest years through school and beyond essentially requires recognising that practices which minimise a student’s ability to take charge of their learning and participate meaningfully in the evaluation of their progress are destined to failure. The situation at any one stage of life does not irrevocably determine the future and the preferences, skills and choices preferred at any one stage may not be those which prove most favoured in later life.

Creativity and innovation should be encouraged but that entails risk. Those features typify the behaviour of young children but gradually diminish in later life through a variety of pressures which drive conformity. Many who go on to be successful are not recognised as especially capable in their young life yet in some quarters there is a drive for special support mixed with over encouragement of young people who seem to be exceptional. Numerous longitudinal studies in many countries provide a rich source of information about young people!

If education gains are to be achieved then recognition of wider issues of community cohesion, respect and tolerance is needed. (Some parents consider these issues to be more effectively promoted at independent, including faith-based, schools.) Governments must be prepared to commit to these matters and to appropriate funding of the economic and social programs underpinning them. That requires attention to relevant information and intelligent analysis of it. When those who are properly accountable fail to give appropriate attention to that, the system fails and the outcomes are poorer results often leading to greater costs over the longer term in seeking remedies.

Schools do make a significant contribution to eventual learning outcomes . They must be treated as organisations and, as such, seen as sharing many of the same characteristics as others, notwithstanding their unique features. This includes an emphasis on the school principal as learning leader pursuing transformational leadership and not absorbed by administrative issues, an issue addressed by the second Gonski report.

It means understanding the dynamics of the classroom and those features which engage the student and build trust with the teacher. Individual students progress at individual rates and formative evaluation by teachers is productive whereas externally controlled summative evaluation by end of year standardised tests is not. Encouraging cooperation among teachers, providing extra support where necessary and professional development opportunities are important: financial bonuses are largely irrelevant. 

A number of schools engage students in a wide variety of experiences, unencumbered as far as possible by the tendency for excessive control by parents. They have important lessons to share!

Close intervention in the day-to-day operation of schools, so typical of government policies is, as in all organisations, counterproductive and stultifying. Instead, governments should consistently encourage best practice and above average performance through development of appropriate organisational cultures to achieve agreed goals and the aspirations of those are involved and those intended to benefit. Use of metrics and assertions about the necessity of quantified goals and key performance indicators replaces critical judgement with indicators seldom relevant to the most important outcomes in the longer term and gives false confidence.

Governments need to pay attention to the best of the substantial high-quality research in all these relevant areas and ensure that those supporting students, including educators, those supporting schools in their relationship with communities and education departments, have the time and resources to understand and incorporate the best of the conclusions from that research and the courage to pursue innovative responses where appropriate.

The present polices are driven largely by adherence to the tenets of neoliberal economics and public choice theory which privilege competition, choice in the name of democracy and measurement and efficiency as well as independence from government control. Control in practice actually has not lessened and efficiency, meaning reductions sometimes in staff and resources including infrastructure has been a significant demand! It has led to inadequate capability to face unusual challenges, which early 2020 saw so dramatically in a succession of challenges, as yet unmet.


Advocates for neoliberal economics appropriate the contributions of Adam Smith, preferring his book The Wealth of Nations rather than The Theory of Moral Sentiments. But as Nobel prize-winner Amartya Sen points out, in examining Capitalism Beyond the Crisis Smith “viewed markets and capital as doing good work within their own sphere, but first, they required support from other institutions—including public services such as schools—and values other than pure profit seeking, and second, they needed restraint and correction by still other institutions—e.g., well-devised financial regulations and state assistance to the poor—for preventing instability, inequity, and injustice”.

The extreme view that markets will “sort things out” and government “should get out of the way” is no more a central tenet of economics than is the role of competition as the driving force. A number of prominent economists have made that clear. For example, Nobel prizewinner Kenneth Arrow was recognised for launching the discipline of health economics with his 1963 paper ‘Uncertainty and the Welfare Economics of Health Care’ that showed how existing competitive market models cannot be applied to the health care industry. Nobel prize-winner Paul Samuelson strongly criticised Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek arguing their opposition to state intervention “tells us something about them rather than something about Genghis Khan or Franklin Roosevelt”.


Policies and practices have distorted the perception of who and what adds real value[3], driven the pricing of many practices to domains where it is irrelevant and treated merit as an attribute of those who are perceived as successful without consideration of what has led to that success, including chance and inherited wealth.[4]

The advantaged “elites” perpetuate the policies which have helped them succeed, not least through appointment and promotion of people with attributes similar to them, without considering the wider impact on the community and those less fortunate, many of whom have at least as much capacity to contribute to the creation of value.

Judgement is critical: the exercise of it is diminished by present economic and social policies and the withdrawal of government in favour of the private sector. Practices in the private sector which would benefit government organisations were they adopted have mostly been ignored. The result has been diminished capacity of government departments and agencies to effectively carry out their unique functions.

Many practices of the private sector in the finance, retail and extractive industry areas contribute to diminution of community and individual wellbeing, not least through tax minimisation, but are allowed to continue whilst less damaging behaviour of the less advantaged is pursued almost ruthlessly, increasingly by the advance of digital technology.

In all these circumstances can Australia possibly look to a successful future, including the progress in education needed in a democratic society?


[1] Lyndsay Connors & Jim McMorrow, Imperatives in Schools Funding” Equity, sustainability and achievement, Australian Education Review No 60, 2015

[2] Annabel Crabb, “Men at Work”, Quarterly Essay 75, 2019

[3] Mariana Mazzucato, The Value of Everything Making and Taking in the Global Economy (Allen Lane, 2019); Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology (Harvard University Press, 2020)

[4] Michael Sandel, author of What Money Can’t Buy The Moral Limits of Markets  (Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 2013) in an address to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce on 10 December 2018