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PISA 2018 Part 3: The Social And Economic Environment

The impact of social and economic policies on education are reviewed. The critical issues of family life and the impact of work life are considered. Particular attention is paid to the stresses resulting from crossover of work life to other parts of life. The work of Michael Marmot on the social determinants of health is highlighted. The causes of high levels of stress and its trajectory to substance abuse are considered. The rise of women and the contribution of women’s work are considered. Developments in parenting and child care are reviewed. Housing and its importance are treated with particular reference to the socioeconomically disadvantaged. The ability of children to thrive in these situations is questioned.

The Social Determinants

Distinguished epidemiologist Sir Michael Marmot, delivering the 2016 Boyer Lectures for the ABC, pointed out,

“Health and inequalities in health are closely linked to the conditions in which we raise our children, the education we get, the neighbourhoods in which we live, the work we do, whether we have the money to make ends meet, our social relationships, our care for the elderly. In short, all the things that matter to us day to day and in the arc of our lives influence health. And these conditions of life that matter to us are strongly influenced by the decisions that societies make and, indeed, global decisions that influence our social environment.”

He continued, “Evidence shows that we need action from government – federal, state and local – from civil society, communities and families. The welcome news is that the action I am talking about would lead to less crime, a more cohesive society, and the opportunity for all of us to live healthy flourishing lives.”

Marmot recalled that he was commissioned by the UK government to conduct a review and make recommendations on how to reduce health inequalities in England. In Fair Society Healthy Lives, the so-called Marmot Review, he identified six domains of recommendations starting with recognition of the critical importance of the early years, progressing to education and life-long learning, employment, minimum income to live a healthy life and prevention of life-threatening events.


Michael Marmot’s domains for Fair Society Healthy Lives

First, give every child the best start in life.

Second: education and life-long learning to achieve the means of taking control over one’s life.

Third, employment and working conditions.

Fourth, every person should have the minimum income necessary for living a healthy life: everyone should be able to afford to eat.

Fifth, healthy and sustainable places in which to live and work.

The sixth is prevention: not just individual behaviour but looking at the causes of the causes.


The Political and Economic Environment

At one extreme the expectation is that people themselves have most of the responsibility to achieve the outcomes they wish for and government should play a minimum role, that to do otherwise is an intrusion.

At the other extreme it is accepted that government has an important role to play in encouraging every person to achieve their maximum potential and that conditions should prevail which recognise where special support is needed including from the earliest years: special support is given to the education and to health as well as to the economic environment including social housing, infrastructure investment and urban planning.

The former is the situation in America (the US) and some other countries such as the UK. The latter is especially typical of Scandinavian countries but also common in most of Europe and, especially in so far as education is specifically concerned, many east Asian countries including China, South Korea and Singapore.


The impacts of US policies on health was demonstrated by the response to Covid-19, the coronavirus which spread through the world in the first few months of 2020 leading to health and economic crises not seen since the Great Depression of just under a century ago. Within little more than two months the number of confirmed cases of the virus infection in the US had reached one-third of the world total and the death toll  more than one-quarter of total world deaths. Michael Marmot found recently that the gap in health inequalities in the UK is yawning even wider than it did a decade ago, in large part due to the impact of cuts linked to the government’s austerity policies.


Socioeconomic disparity has become a major issue affecting many areas of society and imposes substantial costs on society affecting both individuals and government. In respect of education, in Australia in 2020 it is a major issue because government’s funding preferences higher socioeconomic sectors of society, non-government schools attended by the more advantaged, achieve greater funding from the Commonwealth and decreases in funding of public schools by the states. The result is substantial disparity in resourcing and opportunities.

Go to Unequal Society and its Cost

But the impact of social and economic policies of the Australian and many state governments since the mid 1990s especially are far wider and include taxation, health, social welfare, industrial relations, indigenous affairs, urban planning including housing, and transport. In one very important sense fiscal policies focused on the short term largely demonise those less fortunate, restrict services for the young and the old, Indigenous persons and migrants.

The 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit observes, “While Australians rate the quality of our social services as high, our infrastructure assets and networks are often ageing and not fit for purpose. This is particularly evident for sectors like education, where advances in technology are driving the need for more digitally-equipped and flexible spaces”.

The short-term focus generates longer term problems in antisocial policies, crime, substance abuse, higher unemployment, lower taxes, increased expenditure on incarceration and its attendant compromise, even subversion, of the judicial system, accompanied even by significant limitation to community legal aid and similar services.

Australian governments have ignored the fundamental connections between their major policies in economic and social domains and education outcomes: education has meant school education and little more. To that extent education policy has focused on the wrong issues!

The impact of social and economic policies of the Australian and many state governments since the mid 1990s especially are far wider and include taxation, health, social welfare, industrial relations, Indigenous affairs, urban planning including housing, and transport. In one very important sense fiscal policies focused on the short term largely demonise those less fortunate, restrict services for the young and the old, Indigenous persons and migrants.


In fact, some measures of inequity, such as wealth distribution, have worsened: the wealthiest one-fifth of Australians now own nearly two-thirds of all wealth, while the least-wealthy half own less than a fifth. Although there’s said to be “no better place to raise kids,” an estimated 1.1 million Australian children live in poverty.

Jennifer Doggett, Covid-19’s six lessons for Australian healthcare, Pearls and Irritations 20 March 2020


Decreasing government resources for agencies intended to ensure compliance with the law, instead of honesty and integrity, has meant increasing exploitation, multiplied by the increasing tendency of governments to outsource functions including employment and training, social welfare and health as well as early childhood and post-secondary education, all of which has meant higher charges and poorer services.

There are substantial economic policies largely determined by governments which bear upon the family. Beyond the very salient issues of food, energy, transport, health and so on, the cost and affordability of housing has become a dominant issue and one which most governments have done absolutely nothing about. Economics may lead to reductions in attention to nutrition and health which affect performance at school.

Social researcher Hugh Mackay has consistently highlighted the serious trends in society which have led, amongst other things, to a greater distance between people and communities – “we no longer know our neighbours”. Much of the change, he says, is due to changes in work, in the economy and in the way we communicate with each other. Much of that is very serious, though inadequately recognised. Our common humanity, after all, is paramount. Much of the time we wouldn’t know it.

In a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Mackay wrote, “Before the pandemic hit, we were already becoming a more fragmented society as a result of such radical changes as our rapidly shrinking households (25% of households now contain just one person), our high rate of relationship breakdown (35-40% of contemporary marriages will end in divorce), and our increasing reliance on information technology – especially social media – at the expense of face-to-face interactions. Even our relentless busyness acts like a barrier to social cohesion.

“Like all herd animals, humans react badly to being cut off from the herd. Social isolation is associated not only with a greater risk of anxiety and depression but also with increased inflammation, reduced immune function, hypertension, cognitive decline, sleep disturbances, addiction (especially to IT devices), and premature death. It’s no wonder that some health professionals now regard social isolation as a potentially greater threat to public health than obesity is.

“As we begin to experience social isolation on a massive scale, we need to be sure we are not trading one form of illness for another.”

Consider these statistics: 40% of marriages end in divorce, and in Australia 1 million children are in the care of only one parent.

The school student is influenced to a far greater extent by the home environment and peers than by what happens in the school class. There are important studies which show that. In Australia, recent research showed just how important the mother was and how independent schooling did not confer any advantage in respect of learning.[1]

As I have previously said, research published 2015 by Hong Son Nghiem of the University of Queensland and colleagues was, one would have thought, sufficient to close the matter, not least because of the substantial data set and the sophisticated statistics: it isn’t so much that private schools don’t deliver any superior gain – mainly because they are able to choose who to enrol and almost universally choose them from the more advantaged sections of society – it is that what matters is the parents and the home environment and the relationships between child and parent in the early years. Therefore, surely, whatever threatens that should be paid attention. It isn’t!

It is now common for people considering aged care, to point out that those providing care will be hindered in their role unless they themselves are looked after or looking after themselves. Similarly with parenting, in other words healthy, stable, as unstressed as possible, and so on. (A moment’s thought tells us the same applies to people working in an organisation.) It is worth noting that one of the inquiries initiated by the Whitlam Government was the Royal Commission on Human Relationships and one of the organisations established was the Children’s Commission. The Commission’s reports are difficult to access: the Children’s Commission was abolished by the Fraser Government.

Elisabeth Reid was appointed Women’s Advisor to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam: she received hundreds of letters from women about the issues they considered to be most important. Amongst them were child care, equal pay, access to contraception and abortion. Some 15 years later, when Anne Summers was appointed advisor to Prime Minister Paul Keating, the same issues were raised. The first two issues continue to be major demands, 25 years later.

Times have changed in the last few centuries in the nature of work and indeed every aspect of the dynamics of living. In relatively quick time – a few decades – the status and relationships of people relative to each other have changed. Many discriminated against in the past now assert themselves and play a greater role in the community. In particular, women now occupy many positions in work that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. Women can no longer be treated as inferior and subject to however it is that men consider they should behave; that change, epitomised by the “#Metoo movement” is less than a decade old. That is not to say the change is everywhere accepted.

It is increasingly recognised that the dynamics of the family have a profound effect on the growing child. It has always been so but it is now recognised to a greater extent. But is it? What has happened to encourage accommodation to this change where it is no longer acceptable for men to dominate everywhere?

Go to Work, rest and play in Australia

The Family and the Impacts of Change

In the aggregate, the overall level of learning achieved by school children is significantly affected by economic and social factors. (It should be kept in mind that Australian student achievement over the last 20 or so years has also seen a decline in the performance of those most socioeconomically advantaged.)

The nature of work is a major issue. That is not new and though it may seem that many of the workplaces are worse now than in earlier times, that is probably not so. The Taylorism of the factory has been replaced by the tyranny of the on-line retailers’ warehouse: the rise of on-line shopping means workers subject to exploitation in huge warehouses where pickers are instructed to complete as many orders as possible, tracked to ensure they do and punished if they fail to make their quota. This is extreme.

The common theme is that in many workplaces the outcome for the employee is low self-esteem or more likely, a continuation of it. The many who enjoy their job and their workplace, people in the professions for instance, probably don’t understand that. But the studies are clear. What we know to be effective leadership is being trashed by poor practices. The increasing failure to provide adequate on the job training and poor recruitment practices may be claimed to fail because education has not equipped school leaver applicants with the relevant skills. Even computers don’t arrive completely job-ready!

Unfortunately, people in more exploitive workplaces mostly end up with severe depression and respond by taking medications of some kind. The more appropriate response is counselling by qualified psychologists or similar professionals. The consequence of substance abuse or worse is punishment, possibly imprisonment. Those responsible for such responses are uninformed and/or prejudiced.

Important issues, such as those dealt with by Sir Michael Marmot, should be the topic of special discussions to clarify the importance and identify likely approaches to apply what has been learned. As is typical, those in charge, those with influence, took little notice. It is part of the common theme of preferencing one’s own views. The ignorance of those with influence is unacceptable. Instead politicians go off and do what politicians do.

Poor health is typical of those living in less advantaged circumstances. Marmot, in his first lecture, accurately summarises the situation. Recounting discussions with a London cabbie and colleagues on a tour of Baltimore, he points out the extreme differences in life expectancy between those who are poor and those who are well-off, a 20-year gap.

“What these comparisons make clear is that we need to look at the whole of life from early childhood to older age and the life chances that differ so dramatically between areas even within one city.

“A question I get asked in Australia, the UK, the US and elsewhere flows from the London cabbie’s response, and it is: why should I worry. The poor have poor health, but I’m not poor. It doesn’t affect me. If you are of one political persuasion you might think the poor have only themselves to blame. If of a different view you may think that poor health for the poor is unfortunate and a mark of unfairness in society. Either way, you think: thank goodness it’s not me.

“This emphasises two key themes of my lectures. First, health is a better measure of social progress than is national income. Second, we should be aiming to reduce the slope of the social gradient in health by levelling up, bringing the health of everyone up to the high level at the top of the social hierarchy.”

What is happening here is that common humanity is pushed to the margin. Changing that in a large part of the population is difficult, changing it at the political level can sometimes seem almost impossible. It is not an accident but a deliberate policy: as many have pointed out. It is the near blind adherence to neoliberal economics, public choice theory which posits that small government is necessary to allow business to prosper: government is pushed to the margin. Simultaneously those requiring welfare support have been subject to stigmatisation and punishment.

A growing number of human rights academics and activists are worried that the notions of welfare in the democratic west are changing – and not for the better. They’re concerned that the tools of the digital era are being used to create a new form of welfare state directed against the poor and the disadvantaged, not in their interests.

An example is the now widespread use of algorithm-driven processes such as Robodebt which sends letters to recipients of government benefits claiming they have been overpaid and therefore have incurred a debt to the government. Evidence is not provided: the recipient is required to show they do not owe the debt! The government is persisting with proposals for widespread use of “cashless welfare cards” which limit the purposes for which recipients can use their welfare payments – not drugs, alcohol etc. Studies of the use of the card show little or no benefit: they identify recipients as being on welfare which generates stigmatisation.

Go to The 2011 riots in English cities

Australia possesses one of the most targeted welfare schemes of any country. But payments in many cases are barely sufficient and require frequent justification, especially constant applying for jobs. ParentsNext is a scheme intended to benefit single parents who must show they are seeking or engaged in work or further education. It is seriously flawed with the private sector providers failing to comply with requirements, falsely claiming bonuses for getting participants jobs, suspending payments and so on. Despite evidence of failure the government has made no changes.

Writer Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream about substance addiction and Lost Connections: Uncovering The Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, points to the major contributor to depression.

“There is strong evidence that human beings need to feel their lives are meaningful – that they are doing something with purpose that makes a difference. It’s a natural psychological need. But between 2011 and 2012, the polling company Gallup conducted the most detailed study ever carried out of how people feel about the thing we spend most of our waking lives doing – our paid work. They found that 13% of people say they are “engaged” in their work – they find it meaningful and look forward to it. Some 63% say they are “not engaged”, which is defined as “sleepwalking through their workday”. And 24% are “actively disengaged”: they hate it.”


The prevalent community view is that substance abuse leads to addiction and therefore that possession and trafficking should be eliminated. The result has been the war on drugs, extraordinary levels of criminal activity in many countries often involving innocent bystanders and the incarceration of people possessing even small quantities of drugs. Thousands of people including many Nobel prizewinners have signed petitions calling for the cessation of this policy. In a number of countries drug possession is considered a health issue and not a criminal matter. The result has been a significant decline in drug use and related health problems. There is a clear and unequivocal relationship between substance abuse and depression which in turn is frequently a consequence of people feeling they no longer have control of their own lives.[2]


The attack on unions, the drive for efficiency, the nonsensical mantra that the principal purpose of an enterprise is to increase the wealth of shareholders, has led to situations like the gig economy and increasing casualisation and zero hours contracts. Working conditions are minimised and accountability for the outcomes is flouted. Is it any wonder that people are depressed, home life is made more difficult: the children suffer!

Profound changes in the structure of families, disruption of neighbourhoods and stress-induced loneliness are getting inadequate attention. As already pointed out, resources to address mental health problems are not receiving adequate attention. Not the least disturbing is the seeming lack of understanding of people with mental health issues by police, resulting in deaths in the face of disturbing behaviour. Coronial inequities seem unable to confront police or prison authorities, or sometimes agencies such as ambulance services, in seeking responses to entirely unacceptable outcomes.

What is Good Parenting?

The situation concerning parenting and effects on young children are summarised in Parenting Matters (National Academies Press, Washington (DC) 2016).

Child outcomes are interconnected within and across diverse domains of development. They result from and are enhanced by early positive and supportive interactions with parents and other caregivers. These early interactions can have a long-lasting ripple effect on development across the life course, whereby the function of one domain of development influences another domain over time.”  The words of Masten and Cicchetti (in the 2010 edition of Parenting Matters, p. 492) are quoted, “effectiveness in one domain of competence in one period of life becomes the scaffold on which later competence in newly emerging domains develops . . . competence begets competence.” Health and safety are essential for achieving other important outcomes.

Children need to be cared for in a way that promotes their ability to thrive and ensures their survival and protection. Safety is an important need for all children but especially critical for the very young who find it difficult to avoid danger. They rely on primary caregivers everywhere to act on their behalf. “At the most basic level, children must receive the care, as reflected in a number of emotional and physiological protections, necessary to meet normative standards for growth and physical development..”

Children need care that promotes positive emotional health  and that supports overall mental health including a positive sense of self. “Provision of support by parents helps minimize the risk of internalizing behaviors, such as those associated with anxiety and depression, which can impair children’s adjustment and ability to function well at home, at school, and in the community.”

Social competence includes the ability to develop and maintain positive relationships with parents and other adults, and with people of different race, ethnicity, religion and economic background. Such competence is positively associated with success at school and elsewhere and in later life.

Cognitive competence – possession of skills in language, communication and problem solving – develops in an environment that is stimulating, challenging, and supportive. Children brought up in such an environment  by the age of 5 have acquired a vocabulary significantly greater than those from disadvantaged – low socioeconomic – backgrounds: the gap between a child read to regularly and one read to rarely can be as great as a million words. The difference is explained by the fact that learning occurs in a socio-cultural context in which carers “scaffold” young children to higher levels of thinking and acting. They have also developed a capacity for self-control, a significant indicator of success in adult life.

It is self-evident that a child growing up in a disadvantaged environment will be at a disadvantage through all their life unless there is significant intervention! Supportive parenting in the early years, up to perhaps 12 or so, is critical. Where conditions are imposed which restrict that, the community will face the costs in later years. That seems to be a truth lost on those with most influence!

The Rise of Women

Combined with the changing nature of work, greater casualisation, the gig economy and on line retailing with its consequential employment in warehouses, even zero hours contracts, some occupations traditionally occupied by men are disappearing and others are severely affected by technological advance. Increasing economic pressures have led to ever more people moving out of the country to the city and then to the suburbs, stagnant wages. Out of control house price and rentals increase, the pressure is as great as it ever was. It means much greater stress on families, a situation never really addressed.

Ongoing discrimination against women, in daily life, work and domestic situations is an affront to humanity and amongst many things, grounded in ignorance and obsession with male power. Literature such Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Hedda Gabler depict women trapped in unfulfilled lives, ignored or betrayed by the men important to them. Failure to ensure that merit is applied in work situations and the consequence of stereotypical views diminish the quality of the organisation’s contribution. Lack of support in the home, along with crossover of pressures elsewhere, leads to violence and ultimately damage to the children as well as emotional and economic hardship of the woman. The issues most important to women, freedom from domestic violence, respect for reproductive life and child care, have been made clear for decades but continue mostly to be ignored politically, as already pointed out.

Nordic countries are rightly praised for many advances in the area of social policy from housing to prisons to education to health care. In the last year, in Finland, women have become the leaders of every political party. It could be assumed that this equality has led to greater cohesion and a new understanding of the capability of women. But instead it has led to increasing domestic violence.

Emma Graham-Harrison writes in The Guardian, “The country has a 16% gender pay gap, gig economy work is on the rise, and it has one of the more gender-segregated labour markets in Europe, with men and women clustered in different professions. “I’d say half of the inquiries we receive from people are about working life, and half of those are pregnancy and family leave,” said Jukka Maarianvaara, the ombudsman for gender equality. “This has been a similar proportion year after year, not the nicest thing in a country where you think there are no equality problems anymore.”

Maarianvaara said he also got complaints from men apparently unhappy about the progress of women’s equality. When [Prime Minister] Marin’s female-dominated cabinet was named, he got three written complaints and one phone call about the gender balance. “In the last government the cabinet was only 26% women and no one contacted us,” he said wryly.

“That resentment often manifests in online abuse. Most of the new government are on Instagram and other social media platforms, making it easier for them to connect with voters, but also easier for them to be targeted.

“Here, almost half (49%) of all women in a 5.4 million population confess they were victims of violence by a partner a much bigger percentage than that of other Nordic countries for example, Denmark (22% in 2003) or Norway (26.8% in 2008), both of which have roughly the same population as Finland.  On this front, women even fare better in  Albania, a much poorer country by far, where 31% of women are victims of partner violence.”

In Finland, close to one-quarter of police house calls are about domestic violence. Finland is also a place where being raped by your husband was no crime until 1994, more than 20 years after Finland’s Nordic counterparts criminalized it.

One commentator wrote recently of the situation in Finland, “When it comes to domestic violence, however, the figures tell another story. It is a country where more than half the workforce is female, as well as almost 50% of the cabinet ministers. Here, maternity leaves are well-paid and don’t hinder your return to work. If you are a female voice in the media or in business, you are going to be respected and possibly praised. No wonder this country is number three in the gender equality index of the European Union.

“When it comes to domestic violence, however, the figures tell another story. Here, almost half (49%) of all women in a 5.4 million population confess they were victims of violence by a partner a much bigger percentage than that of other Nordic countries for example, Denmark (22% in 2003) or Norway (26.8% in 2008), both of which have roughly the same population as Finland.  On this front, women even fare better in  Albania, a much poorer country by far, where 31% of women are victims of partner violence.”

This could be repeated in almost every country!


There are a large number of studies of domestic or Intimate Partner Violence IPV. Many seek causal relations with factors such as unemployment or post traumatic stress. The conclusions are unclear though there seem to be gender differences. The very common response to perpetrator violence is, eventually, imprisonment justified by advocates that this amounts to accountability. Imprisonment is extremely costly and has not resulted in significant decrease in violence. Ongoing studies by Professor Leigh Goodmark[3] concludes criminal legal system harms rather than helps those who are subjected to abuse and violence in their homes and communities: it drives, rather than deters, intimate partner violence. Social, legal, and financial resources are diverted into a criminal legal apparatus that is often unable to deliver justice or safety to victims or to prevent intimate partner violence in the first place. However, alternatives like restorative justice, which seeks recognition, admission, of the significance of their actions and its impacts is also costly.


As already pointed out, the issues of child care, family violence, access to birth control and to abortion are still to the fore! Fifty years later: one woman dies every week at the hands of her partner. The impact on children is profound. The demand has been for accessible shelter for abused women: it is in short supply. The demand is for greater action by police: there is still too little response!

Much of the consequence of continued unsatisfying work is driven by gender socialisation which is part of early life through to adolescence. Political and economic policies of government significantly affect the way gender expectations are worked through. The socioeconomic background of the parents and the background of their parents influences their parenting behaviour and in turn educational achievement.

Gender socialisation affects the principal expectations held by both parents. Males are socialised to believe that their role is principally as the provider and defender, of being strong: the achievement of success at work is a principal driver of personal satisfaction and indeed identity, including feelings of control over one’s life.

Problems such as unrewarding or exploitative situations at work, failure to achieve what is believed to an outcome deserved as a result of effort can lead to resentment and severe stress. The failure to achieve expectations and to be recognised for their contribution, which applies to men and women, can lead to severe conflict in the home as frustrations at work are visited on other members of the family. Often the stress is worked out through dominance behaviour. Stories such as James Joyce’s Counterparts, one of the stories in the series The Dubliners, illustrate the way maddening routine of work bleeds into the situation in the home leading to passivity but also to violence.

There can be no excuse for the violence perpetrated by men against women, actions at an unacceptable level in large numbers of societies around the world. The situation is not being sufficiently addressed by governments. Family, domestic and sexual violence is a major health and welfare issue. It occurs across all ages, socioeconomic and demographic groups but mainly affects women and children. Indigenous women, young women and pregnant women are particularly at risk. It is not unreasonable to ask what was the outcome of the appointment of Rosie Batty as Australian of the Year. The cost to the economy in Australia is estimated at 13.6 billions.[4]

A great fuss is made about the learning achievement of school children and no greater progress has been made in regard to women or many other aspects of organisations, gender disparity and the home situation. What on earth is Australia doing?

If violence in the family is to be overcome it needs strong involvement by government to explain the changes in the role and status of women, the absolute need for respect and the way that is achieved from the earliest years. It is not a private matter, the impacts on the community are severe.

Women’s Work

The mother ordinarily takes on the bulk of the parenting responsibilities. The contribution in the home is unpriced or worse: unrecognised! Requirements for engagement in work and/or study in order to receive child support payments including preschool childcare, the situation currently applying in respect of Commonwealth Government policies, is an affront to the mother’s contribution to both the family and in the longer term to the community.

Quite rightly, women demand the opportunity to engage in paid work if they so choose and to be paid the same rate as men and indeed have the same access to promotion. Fifty years after wage equality became a legislated requirement of the work place the issues are still unresolved with arguments about how women might achieve parity in promotion and in areas such as election to political positions and to the senior ranks of organisations.

The recognition of the women’s role in the home has profound impact on their participation in the workforce. But more importantly, it has impact on their access to childcare, again an issue which has not progressed sufficiently in 50 years. That is despite major studies which demonstrate unequivocally the very high value of the contribution that women make in child care and home duties. The efforts of New Zealander Marilyn Waring, professor of public policy, one-time politician and Nobel Prize nominee in 2005. She is often considered the founder of the academic discipline of feminist economics.

As Anne Manne wrote in The Monthly for May 2018, her book, Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth, first published in 1988, is considered “a sharp-eyed analysis of how mainstream economics and the calculations that are the basis of gross domestic product – used as the universal measure of progress and a nation’s wellbeing – exclude and make invisible women’s huge contribution to society through their life-sustaining unpaid labour. These calculations, ” she pointed out, “attribute no value to nature and fail to take into account the cost of “progress” on the environment.”

Go to Marilyn Waring and Women’s Work

In Australia, counting the continuing unpaid contribution of women continues to labour!

“Feminists have long said that the personal is political. Establishing gender parity can carry underlying assimilationist assumptions. Men are more likely to occupy high-status, high-paying and powerful positions; they are presented as role models to emulate. Women entering public life are criticised for not conforming to feminine stereotypes – for example, not having children. Yet at the same time, to be taken seriously, they must also assimilate to the male norm: dropping the pitch of their voices, minimising emotional expressiveness, adopting traditionally male behaviour patterns and keeping care responsibilities hidden … somehow to become less female. As Waring’s or Julia Gillard’s experiences in male-dominated parliaments show, some male behaviour, far from being something to emulate, can be in desperate need of changing.”

Parental leave, sharing child care

Parenting largely determines the success of the child in later life. A UNICEF study in 2008 suggested that ‘government policies on maternity leave and childcare provision could be at odds with ‘today’s knowledge of the critical developmental needs of the very young child’.[5] The report cited research from Britain and the US suggesting that children who spend too long in formal childcare at too young an age may suffer from long-term effects, including behavioural problems, aggression, antisocial behaviour, depression and an inability to concentrate – although the effects are thought to be relatively small.

For parents the early years of the child are also times of significant challenge. For many there is the struggle of accommodation, increasingly difficult as a variety of factors continue to lead to increasing prices for both purchase and rent. For at least one, and increasingly both, parents the early years of the child coincide with early years of employment when employment security seems most uncertain and, in many cases, hours of employment may make contributing to the home more difficult.

In Australia, in low- and middle-income families, the combined effect of both parents working, especially if the hours of work are not the preferred ones, ends up with children spending significantly less time in language-related activities.[6] In high income families, parental employment hours has no impact on children’s time use. Thus for children at greatest risk of poor developmental outcomes, developmental opportunities may be enhanced by strategies that reduce levels of long work hours by fathers.

Engagement of the father with the child is influenced by attitudes of others in the workplace and community generally and very often there is not much sympathy for arrangements influenced by the wish for greater involvement in parenting. Many European countries have responded productively to this; mothers in the U.K. have fewer work opportunities and less childcare support than mothers in a number of European countries and have to pay more.

Gender socialisation affects the extent to which parenting responsibilities are shared and can contribute to the stress of family life. As Annabel Crabb points out in a recent Quarterly Essay[7], male participation is often considered by peers and supervisors to diminish work performance and indicate lack of commitment. Workplaces often fail to adapt to the parenting demands. The common view that greater participation in parenting is detrimental to productivity is wrong.

“Half a century of modern feminism has changed the way women conduct their lives almost beyond recognition. But men are still in their old box.” Young men arriving at work, who have often been outperformed academically by their female peers find workplaces have schemes to increase the employment and promotion of women. Though many are keen to be more involved with their children, flexible work and parental leave are options largely reserved for women.

“And this discrimination against men in the area of parenting is commonplace; it’s even sanctioned by Commonwealth law[8].. and underpins ancient structures that disadvantage not only men, but women and children too.” The situation for women is unremarkable, yet for men it’s a matter of privilege. Working flexibly or part-time is assumed something mothers will do, something they’re excellent at but if they ask for more money, responsibility or promotion they are rubbished!

The common situation is that governments may provide financial support at some level but it is in the context of social security when in fact it is an important part of long-term healthy community support.

The gains delivered by leave arrangements are clear and include positive impact on employee morale and productivity. That has been the experience of Iceland, Norway, Germany and Canada (especially Quebec). In Australia firms such as Tooheys, Medibank and PwC have adopted schemes giving flexible parental leave schemes and flexible work arrangements through careful planning and found high take up and few problems.[9] A 2014 OECD study of fathers in four countries found taking parental leave early in a child’s life was correlated with deeper engagement with the child in later life. A 2010 global study of IBM workers found fathers of young children could produce up to 30 hours more work a week if they could set their own hours and work from home.[10]

It is extraordinary that one of the arguments about marriage equality and the rights of persons in same sex relationships is that a child needs both a father and a mother, yet gender socialisation and male expectations means that the amount of time the father spends with the child is often minimal. The result has ramifications for the child in his or her adult life.

The major issue is this: policy development fails completely to understand the vast complexity of human relationships, the choices, the pressures, the tensions, the crossovers between different domains of work and home, the gender expectations and the economic and social impacts, the choices about family formation which turn out to be not what one or both participants expected. (Think of the common theme of popular song for centuries.) It is not because there is not sufficient information or experts. Large numbers of academic and not for profit organisations, many faith-based, have developed substantial expertise. Quite simply, those making policy don’t care! Simple explanations based on simple models and ideology are accepted. As in so many areas of policy formation. A sensible government would explore all of these matters and draw conclusions to inform policy and ensure consistent and coherent implementation.

If a group in Scotland can develop a program to buy toy bears so parents can read stories to them and their children whose bears they are and thereby achieve a significant decrease in stillbirth rate, infant mortality, deaths of children in hospitals and improved uptake of services including improved monitoring of child development (see Part 2) can it really be all that difficult?

Why is the prevailing view that behaviour which fails to conform with the law deserves punishment, even imprisonment? Even when that punishment fails to decrease the incidence of the unwanted behaviour but nevertheless costs millions of dollars! In every aspect of life from road use to debt to arriving at work on time!


Housing policies have led to accommodation no longer being driven by the need for shelter but by opportunities for capital gain assisted by various taxation provisions leading to severe rental stress. That has been exacerbated by the entry into the market of the “sharing economy” and platforms such as Airbnb allowing owners of houses and apartments to preference short-term rentals at high prices, crowding out longer-term renters. The result is increased homelessness, solutions to which can generate local backlash.

Some countries and parts of countries have made an effort to address the critical issue of housing and homelessness. The three biggest economies in Europe – the UK, Germany and France – are not among them. In those countries as of the beginning of 2018 the number of people sleeping rough rose by 7% (UK), 35% (in two years in Germany) and 50% (over 11 years). Most homelessness policies are based on the premise that the homeless person’s problems have to be sorted out first. That is a very widespread view.

Finland however, has taken a different view. “The homeless are given permanent housing on a normal lease. That can range from a self-contained apartment to a housing block with round-the-clock support. Tenants pay rent and are entitled to receive housing benefits. Depending on their income, they may contribute to the cost of the support services they receive. The rest is covered by local government. Since the scheme started, thousands have benefitted.”

At the same time tenants receive individually tailored support services and financial and debt counselling services are available.

Alex Gray, Senior Writer,  World Economic Forum reports, “Chronic housing shortages contribute to homelessness. In Finland, increasing the supply of affordable rental housing was a critical part of the approach. Finland used its existing social housing, but also bought flats from the private market and built new housing blocks in order to provide homes. There are no more homeless shelters in Finland. They have all been turned into supported housing.”

Housing First works so well because it is a mainstream national homelessness policy with a common framework. It involves the state, volunteers, municipalities and NGOs. The savings in terms of the services needed by one person can be up to 9,600 euros a year when compared to the costs that would result from that person being homeless, according to the CEO of the social enterprise Y-Foundation which provides housing to Housing First. The Foundation says, the state’s firm guidance turned reducing homelessness into a shared goal.

In Australia, the Commonwealth Government lauds the aims of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Unit but housing is in the political too-hard basket. Peter Mares, now with the Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership, criticised the views of Assistant Minister Luke Howarth’s statements at an August 2019 conference on housing. Howarth rejected the idea that Australia has a housing crisis: “a comprehensive response would cost a lot of money and upset core constituencies. It affects only a “very, very small percentage of the population”. On average, keeping a roof over your head is no bigger burden on your household budget —around 13–14 per cent of gross income — than it was a decade ago. “Rising house prices may have forced buyers to take out larger mortgages, but falling interest rates have brought down the cost of servicing loans.”

Mares observes, “The Coalition says it is open to new ideas but only appears to be interested in initiatives that don’t cost much. The refusal to raise the level of Newstart payments shows that the government has no inclination whatsoever to increase social spending. Neither the Commonwealth nor most of the states and territories have clearly articulated targets for increasing the share of social housing or even for preventing it from declining further.”

Mares described housing as essential economic infrastructure, the foundation of good health, a building block for educational success, and the cornerstone of flourishing communities and flourishing lives.

The problems flowing from big increases in housing prices are evident in all big cities around the world from Vancouver to London to Auckland. In New York, attempts by Mayor Bill de Blasio that the homeless can be placed in the neighbourhoods from which they came so that they can renew connections and have a better chance of getting back on their feet only compounds the insult in the minds of locals who branded the scheme as “ethnic cleansing”.

If all goes to plan, three thousand new affordable apartments will be created in East New York by 2024. It is possible, however, that just as many older stabilized units will be lost to predatory investors, putting the city in the impossible position of promoting affordable housing with one hand and working against it with the other.

The issue involves both house purchase and renting. Housing, either purchase or rent, is increasingly absorbing unsustainable proportions of available earnings, leading to further stress and worse. Market economic policies have left government on the sidelines only too willing to let the market determine prices and conditions as well as seemingly ignoring the consequences: a level of irresponsibility on the part of many developers allowed by government can only be described as close to criminal!

The ultimate location of residence may lack many of the opportunities important to productive growth of children, including areas to play. Facilities such as play centres, libraries and so on, where mothers can meet each other and share problems and solutions and gain support, may well be lacking. In the neighbourhood itself, often dominated by poor local government services, young people unemployed, end up with higher crime rates. Children followed by police who are set targets so as to control crime, detained for minor infringements, possibly imprisoned leading on to a further deterioration in social behaviour.

The differences between areas in which well-off people live and those inhabited by poorer people are substantial. In many cases the latter areas are poorly serviced, prices of goods may be higher, local schools less well-resourced and areas for recreation inadequate and few in number.

How is it that children in these situations might thrive, or even survive? The answer is that many do not. In the case of rural communities, especially for Indigenous peoples, housing and services are often poor. There are even more serious problems. For decades it has been obvious that the achievement levels of children in those areas perform to a very substantially lower level. Nothing is done: the disproportionate low funding of schools in regional and remote areas is a consequence of the increasing bias of funding independent schools. The expectation is that the parents of public schools will support their school through donations and volunteerism!

In all these issues it is not that somehow government should take over the problems besetting every family in every situation but that there is an important role for government to protect the citizenry from undue economic hardship resulting from actions by another sector of society, actions over which they have no control, indeed actions facilitated by governments. The failure of governments to take appropriate action leads to further costs which inevitably are borne by government, or increasingly by citizens themselves. Lack of action generates an unresolved future liability. In the extreme, citizens simply don’t notice and politicians just walk away.


The nature of the family and the social and economic environment are influences just as critical to the development of the child as is health. Indeed they largely determine health: as Michael Marmot points out, health is a better measure of social progress than national income. Parenting activities benefit substantially when both parents are involved. However, governments and employers have been slow to support that despite demonstrated improvements in productivity. Work life influences cross over into family life and other activities. The family situation and the years through to adolescence have been affected by changes in the status of women and their participation in the workforce; their contribution to the household is not recognised in considerations of access to child care. The change in value of housing from shelter to financial investment and the rise of the gig economy has placed increasing pressure on housing with all its consequences for every other part of life. Little progress has been made in provision of social housing which is influenced especially by attitudes about the homeless.

Continue to PISA2018 – Part 4: Schools as Organisations  or return to PISA 2018: Education Policies: Economic, Social and Organisational Influences


[1] Hong Son Nghiem, Ha Trong Nguyen, Rasheda Khanam & Luke B. Connelly, 2015. ‘Does school type affect cognitive and non-cognitive development in children? Evidence from Australian primary schools, Labour Economics 33: 55-65.

[2] In the 1970s,  Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver Bruce Alexander noticed that if rats were put in the cage all alone, offered only a choice between clean water and water laced with heroin and with nothing to do, chose the water drugs. He built Rat Park, a lush cage where the rats would have coloured balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did. (Johann Hari Huffington Post 01/23/2015)

[3] Decriminalising Domestic Violence: A Balanced Approach to Intimate Partner Violence (University of California Press, Oakland CA, 2018); Goodmark discusses her views with Paul Barkley on ABC RN’s Big Ideas 19 February 2020.

[4] It is estimated that, on average one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner, 1 in 4 women have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner since the age of 15, 1 in in 5 have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15. Children of mothers experiencing domestic violence have higher rates of social and emotional problems than other children.

[5] Alexandra Freon, 2008, ‘Childcare is bad for your baby, working parents are warned’. The Times December 11.

[6] Judith Brown, Michael Bittman & Jan M. Nicholson, 2007, Time or Money: The Impact of Parental Employment on Time That 4 to 5 Year Olds Spend in Language Building Activities. Australian Journal of Labour Economics 10:149-165; Adele Horin, 2010, Long work hours leave little time for child’s play, Sydney Morning Herald December 11.

[7] ‘Men at Work’, Quarterly Essay 75, 2019

[8] The Sex Discrimination Act passed by the Hawke Government intended “to make workplaces safer and fairer for women then moving into the workforce in greater numbers and were encountering harassment and discrimination”.

[9] Crabb, p 37-64; flexible work is facilitated by activity-based instead of time-based accountabilities requiring signing off and on.

[10] Crabb, p 67-68