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PISA 2018 Part 2: Education Policy In Australia And Its Failings

The development of education policy over the last 30 years is reviewed and the nature of learning and purposes of education explored briefly. The practices of standardised testing and selective schooling are criticised. The progress of First Nations/Indigenous students is reviewed. Social determinants of education and the political and economic environment are briefly considered. The importance of the early years is stressed. The influence of neoliberal economics is criticised.

What is Australian Education Policy in 2020?

Education policy in Australia continues to focus on what happens in schools, how they can be accountable, whether teachers are gaining sufficient qualifications before starting their employment and arguments about funding and whether government schools are capable of providing educational experiences at a sufficient standard. Standardised tests and parents right to choose which school their child attends dominate. Many education researchers and commentators have drawn attention to that.

These are not the issues critical to achieving the best possible outcomes. The factors which have most influence seem hardly understood whilst preconceived views are to the fore. The problem isn’t confined to Australia. But there are plenty of lessons from other countries’ systems: unfortunately the lessons often drawn are not the right ones. The home, the community, social and economic factors and the nature of the school enrolment are all critically important: the government has important influence over all these factors.

These issues, whatever it is that makes a difference to learning and education, are a focus of ongoing argument. One of the more important studies, the findings of which seem to be largely ignored in those domains where it matters, is the Report by James Coleman and colleagues in the United States, published mid-1966.

Sociologist James Coleman was commissioned by the United States Education Office in 1964 to prepare a report on the availability of education for individuals to achieve equal educational opportunities irrespective of race, religion or national origin. It grew out of the Johnson administration’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was grounded to that extent in the Supreme Court decision of 1954, Brown vs the Board of Education, known in shorthand as Brown, a decision still debated and one resisted in states both north and south, then and now.

Published mid-1966 the Coleman Report found family background was the primary determinant of educational achievement and that the nature of the school population was also significantly influential. Though it concluded that money was not the principal determinant, later research found funding levels make a difference where less advantaged children are concerned.

Choice of school is an outgrowth of the findings of Brown and are not some special, fundamental and universal democratic principal unless it is part of the ordinary rights of every citizen, one which governments are required to uphold and fund!

Important findings concerning the role of the family and the home environment, and of the composition of the school enrolment, continue to be made. And ignored.

Go to The Coleman Report and Public Education

In particular, the fuss made in Australia, and many other countries, about where students are ranked in PISA and other reports, is of questionable significance (though the decline in achievement where it occurs – in many countries – is important). Consider Australia’s performance in areas such as quality of leadership in government and business, investment in innovation and R&D, social progress[1] and a variety of other economic indicators. Whenever those statistics are published, they get a brief mention, if any, and quickly fade away. Yet every time the PISA results are published the first comment is about the rank of Australian students and how poor it is.

There is a parallel with the results for examinations at the end of school which allegedly indicate whether the student is academically fit to enter tertiary education: the focus is the school and students is with the highest results. It is as if the results determine the rest of a person’s life: they do not!

The most obvious issue, to anyone who actually knows anything about education, is equity: Australia now has one of the most inequitable systems of any developed countries. This has been elaborated over the last 15 or more years and is the continual observation of every PISA report. In Australia writers such as Chris Bonnor, Trevor Cobbold and, now, Pasi Sahlberg has drawn substantial attention to the situation. It was one of the issues to which the second Gonski report was addressed. The Morrison government has made it worse: now 80% of Federal Government funds go to independent and Catholic schools leaving State and Territory governments to make up the difference which they have been reluctant to do.

It never seems to have entered the minds of those making claims about PISA, and any other tests, that the average score of the sample aggregates all of the individual scores. If a very large proportion of the sample is less advantaged and that influences their individual results, which it does, then the average will be lower! To overcome that without addressing equity requires students from advantaged backgrounds to do even better that they would otherwise. And they aren’t! The scores of the more advantaged students are declining and many of them are “coasting’, which the second Gonski Report found!

In the United States the argument about public schools has focused on the charter school movement. The propaganda reached a peak with the film, ‘Waiting for Superman’ which depicted public schools as failing. I have dealt with this earlier.  One supporter of charter schools claimed that if the bottom 5 to 10 per cent of the lowest performing teachers every year were fired and good teachers paid more national test scores would soon approach the top of the international rankings in science and mathematics. These claims about the critical role of teachers conflate teacher quality with the quality of teaching. They are not the same!

The quality of teaching includes the engagement of the students with the teacher and is influenced, amongst other things, by the skill of the teacher, which in turn is influenced by confidence and cooperation with other teachers  and participation in personal development, as opposed to such things as formal qualifications and  experience by which is usually meant years of service. The assertion that teachers alone can overcome other influences such as poverty is nonsense.

Education historian Diane Ravitch excoriated this film. She pointed out that “nations with high performing school systems have succeeded, not by privatizing their schools or closing those with low scores, but by strengthening the education profession. They also have less poverty than we do. Fewer than 5 percent of children in Finland live in poverty, as compared to 20 percent in the United States.”


“The link between intelligence and wisdom has been broken… We are stealing our children’s future.”

Primatologist Jane Goodall at the World Economic Forum, Davos, 2019

“… with the advent of the 2017 Budget and the subsequent tabling of the Government’s Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017, it has now become clear that the Turnbull Government intends to entrench a structural problem that lies at the heart of national schools funding arrangements in this country; and that the special deals which have bedevilled them for years are well and truly back with us.”

Lyndsay Connors on the latest iteration of the Coalition government’s plans for school funding (a further response to the first Gonski report) in May 2017

“And from the grace of childhood, so venerated by society, children inevitably fall when they become adolescents, demonised by finger-wagging elders. The feelings and experiences of these young people are too often trivialised, he says, while we constantly worry over exposure to sugar, screens and cyberbullies… We’re failing them in different ways.”

         John Marsden, The Art of Growing Up


When it comes down to it, the argument that poor results are due simply to public schools because they employ poor performing teachers is both wrong and simplistic. Above all the arguments ignore what goes on in the classroom, how schools work and what leads to teacher effectiveness. I deal with this further below and in part 4 of this series of essays.

As Bonnor has said recently, “In more than one sense families are paying for class. This is not a matter of blaming parents; this is about how the system works for some but not for everyone. It is failing to improve overall student achievement, including in schools at the top end, which some educators consider to be cruising. Instead, we are seeing growing clusters of high-achieving students attending advantaged schools, and the opposite trend in poorer schools.”

Using data from PISA 2018, Trevor Cobbold pointed to the consequences in teacher and other resources. “Low socio-economic status (SES) secondary schools in Australia have more teacher shortages, more teacher absenteeism, more poorly qualified teachers, fewer fully certified teachers and fewer highly qualified teachers than high SES schools.

“There are very large differences in teacher shortages, poorly qualified teachers and teacher absenteeism between low and high SES schools. About one-third of students in low SES schools have their learning hindered by teacher shortages, poorly qualified teachers and teacher absenteeism compared to less than seven per cent of students in high SES schools.

“Teacher resource gaps in Australia are amongst the largest in the OECD.”

More, critically: “A 2018 OECD report ‘Effective Teacher Policies’ found that gaps in teacher resources between low SES and high SES schools are strongly associated with differences in achievement between low SES and high SES students. Cross-country correlations show that gaps in student performance related to socioeconomic status are wider when fewer qualified and experienced teachers operate in socioeconomically disadvantaged schools, compared to advantaged schools.”

As pointed out in part 1 of this group of essays, Pasi Sahlberg observed, “Rather than haphazard, simple solutions, PISA should be considered for the next steps,” Sahlberg said. “Make equity in education the highest priority. PISA 2018 shows again that the most successful education systems are those that invest equally in equity and excellence. In Australia, this means, among some other things, funding schools based on their real educational needs.“Give teaching, not testing, the highest priority. There are no successful education systems that use standardised testing as we do with NAPLAN, which pits schools against each other in a pointless contest. Australia needs a much smarter NAPLAN that gives teachers and schools a central role in deciding how children learn.

“We should focus systematically on student and teacher wellbeing. Research shows that a significant number of students today are distracted and not ready to learn the complex skills and knowledge required in schools today. Parents and schools together must find new ways to help young people to live and learn healthier and better.”

In March 2020, on the ABC site, Pasi Sahlberg wrote of the situation. “When the OECD’s PISA study first appeared in 2000, all eyes were turned on the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia.

“Sadly, today we are not anymore among those progressive and future-looking education systems that lead the way and provide good learning for all children. Instead, we are seen as having a conservative, ineffective and outdated school system moving backwards in time.

“The reason for Australian education to drop from the world class to the second league in international outlook is not because of declined student achievement in reading, mathematics and science in PISA and other comparative studies. A more important reason is a steady decline in social equality and growing inequity in school education.”

The Sahlberg article on the ABC site contains extensive interactives allowing exploration of the issues.

That the extraordinary increase in funding of independent schools has been a waste of money cannot be denied. The decline in achievement at the higher SES levels is as high as or higher than that of students from less advantaged backgrounds. Some of the difference in funding levels of higher SES schools is due to private support from parents and others. But that is not the situation with schools in regional and remote areas whose students are significantly less adequately served by resources and whose achievement levels are significantly lower, as shown by every PISA report and every NAPLAN report! No action has been taken to redress the situation: what is the National Party doing?

In mid-March 2020 Chris Bonnor and colleagues published a further analysis of the differences in funding of public, Catholic and independent schools is support of the proposition that in fact the non-government schools do not save the taxpayer money as has often been claimed. They appropriately quoted the previous work by Lyndsay Connors and Jim McMorrow for the Australian Council for Educational Research which showed that if new enrolments in non-government schools between 1973 and 2012 had instead gone to government schools the recurrent cost saving to governments over this period would have been approximately $7.4 billion.

Bonnor and colleagues point out, “If the additional non-government school students had enrolled in public schools there would be an annual saving to government of $120 million. Private schooling cost — rather than saved — taxpayers’ dollars over this period. However the States saved money! As Trevor Cobbold  of Save Our Schools has pointed out, that helps explain why public schools can’t and won’t ever be funded to their Schools Resourcing Standard!

Go to The Cost of Independent Schools

I have previously commented on that in three essays discussing the myth of school choice. Trevor Cobbold of Save our Schools has relentlessly pursued this issue for more than 10 years with detailed statistical analyses, the latest dealing with teacher resources. Advocates for independent schools consistently question any data which shows their claims of saving taxpayer money to be unfounded.

Of course some will claim that parents make choices for reasons, such as school location, philosophy of the staff and facilities, that have nothing to do with end of year test results. That would mean that the propositions advanced by adherents to market economics and Public Choice Theory, which has led to huge sums of money being devoted to standardised testing, are not relevant. That doesn’t mean that government should fund extra costs.

As Sahlberg observed, when he and the family came to live in Australia, they thought they would, as in Finland, simply choose the neighbourhood public school. He observes that that privilege is a result of deliberate public policy thst views education as a human right rather than a commodity. But instead most parents they knew spent time exploring Sydney to find the best available school and best value for money!

“It all starts from an understanding that the importance of education to a society can be judged not just by how much is spent on education but by how public money is invested to serve everyone’s individual needs and desires in as fair way as possible.

“Rich countries vary greatly regarding how much of their national wealth is invested in schools. Nordic countries typically cover about 99 per cent of their total education expenditure from taxpayers compared with 81 per cent in Australia. Furthermore, in OECD countries, on average, four out of five children attend public schools.

“In Australia it is three out of five children.”

Sahlberg continues, “For many OECD countries that has meant a faster, smarter, and fairer way to achieve educational excellence. The OECD suggests that school choice should be managed to balance parental choice while limiting its negative impact on equity. Competition between schools delivers bad outcomes.”

New Zealand found that 20 years ago![2]

What is learning?

The following paragraphs are critically important in understanding how  education can be improved.

What we are talking about is learning. Learning begins at birth, and continues through life. It is influenced by the context, the surroundings, by other people. And that means the conditions in which one is living, the intellectual and physical environment, productive relationships and not least one’s health, wellbeing.

Learning is the incorporation of new ideas into the understandings already held. It depends on engagement and on being in charge of the learning journey. Learning is experience and it includes play, an activity in which children engage well beyond the first few years. Learning doesn’t have to be hard work, unlike play as it is often thought, even though gaining understanding requires effort.

In play, which is usually a group activity, young children learn about their social and physical environment through experimentation which often involves failure. They try something else. They watch other children and learn from that. Young children are tolerant of ambiguity and relationships between things and events which to adults do not make sense. They are incessantly curious: they are continuously learning and what they learn about themselves and others contributes to their attitudes and behaviour in later life. This is a time of life which emphasises the sociality of people.

It is essential to understand the learning process, how and where and when it occurs and under what conditions and where and when it does not. These are questions of neurophysiology and behaviour. School supplements the learning achieved in the years before school is started. Within the school, the dynamics of the classroom are critical, a matter which New Zealand researcher the late Graham Nuthall and others explored.

Play is a part of daily activity and contributes essentially to learning. Play is most common in young children but once the child enters school it is sometimes contrasted with education which is envisaged as some kind of work in the traditional sense, as if it isn’t supposed to be pleasant. The importance of play is recognised by Finnish education authorities.

At school learning is not confined to the classroom and the teachers are but one of the influencers. The home environment continues to be important. So are the relationships with other persons, especially peers. These are issues not very well addressed simply by applying a set of metrics, certainly not standardised tests, so beloved of education traditionalists and anyone who has not kept up with advances in learning.

Time and time again, responses to the results of PISA and NAPLAN focus on the qualifications of teachers, often on the scores gained by those entering teacher course at university. The claim is that academically poorly qualified people are admitted by universities driven to increase their fee revenue; the assumption is that if teachers were more qualified their teaching would be better and student learning would be greater. The claims have been examined by numerous researchers: they are the basis of the recruitment of academically qualified students into “Teach for America” and its counterpart in Australia, “Teach for Australia”. The well qualified graduates after completing their first degree are given short courses on teaching and placed in schools.

The claims are not sustained by the evidence. What matters is deep knowledge of the relevant subject and skill in engaging the student, superior pedagogy. Formative evaluation of the individual student’s progress is important also, as pointed out by the second Gonski report, which in recommendation 11 said, “Develop a new online and on demand student learning assessment tool based on the Australian Curriculum learning progressions.”[4]

As one would expect of such an important topic, there are a large number of studies which have examined what it is that leads teachers to be successful in enhancing the learning of students. Unsurprisingly the critics don’t bother to look those up. As composer and director Tim Minchin once said, “opinions are like arse-holes, in that everyone has one”.

One of the studies by Linda Darling-Hammond, with Elle Rustique-Forrester, investigated student testing, teaching and teacher quality.[5] They noted that standards-based reform, centred on test-based accountability, had become a centrepiece of education reform: “by holding students, teachers, schools, and districts responsible for results on standardized achievement tests, expectations for students will rise, teaching will improve, and learning will increase… most posit that better learning will result primarily from better teaching— due to curriculum changes, greater attention to student needs, stronger teacher motivation, or focused investments in professional development, the hiring and retention of more expert teachers, and other school resources”.

In another study Darling-Hammond found, “among variables assessing teacher “quality,” the percentage of teachers with full certification and a major in the field is a more powerful predictor of student achievement than teachers’ education levels”.[6] Furthermore, “certified teachers consistently produce significantly stronger student achievement gains than do uncertified teachers” and “Teachers’ effectiveness appears strongly related to the preparation they have received for teaching”.[7]

Distinguished educator David Berliner observes, quoting previous research, “Under the best of circumstances, it would be difficult to define a quality teacher; under political mandate to do so, it is likely to lead to silly and costly compliance-oriented actions by each of the states. The discernment of quality, an integral part of the identification of a highly qualified individual, always requires keen insight and good judgment”.[8] Since judgement is difficult, there is the almost compelling tendency to look to some measure or other. One can’t argue with numbers is of course nonsense!

In a landmark paper about teacher bashing, Berliner traversed the arguments such as subject matter is all you need and any reasonably smart person can teach. Along with accusations about a desire to exclude anyone who isn’t a teacher from making a judgement. He quoted a study demonstrating that anyone, even if they are smart, are placed into teaching without preparation they “will deny their students the benefits that accrue to teachers who have acquired more and better contextual knowledge through a high-quality, field-based teacher education program”.[9] Students who were not especially smart but with deep knowledge of the context, when given a text to read performed significantly better than students who were very smart but lacked context knowledge. Berliner concluded, “students learn best within cohesive and caring learning communities”. Maintenance of engagement, clear goals for the learning and questions planned to engage students in sustained discourse were all identified by Berliner as amongst the principles of effective teaching.

Lauren Resnick (University of Pittsburgh) points out in a paper with Megan Williams Hall, “Children develop cognitive strategies and effort-based beliefs about intelligence-the habits of mind associated with higher-order learning-when they are continuously pressed to raise questions and accept challenges, to find solutions that are not immediately apparent, to explain concepts, justify their reasoning, and seek information.”[10]

And distinguished science education researcher Jonathan Osborne (Stanford University), advocating the importance of argument and debate, which he notes is largely absent from science education, points out “opportunities for students to engage in collaborative discourse and argumentation offer a means of enhancing student conceptual understanding and students’ skills and capabilities with scientific reasoning”.[11]

Simply asserting that better qualifications, like standardised testing, improves learning is far too simplistic, if not wrong. Again, it ignores the nature of learning and what actually goes on in the classroom, and elsewhere.

But there is an important related issue. It is common for teachers to be asked to teach in areas and subjects that they do not have a deep knowledge of; the teachers may not be given extra support to help them come to grips with the subject and make less use of activities such as visits to museums or parks to bring real-life context to the experience because they are not familiar with what such activities might contribute. The argument is advanced in defence of this that principals must have flexibility as to how they deploy their staff. In discussions with schools and, where unions might be involved, the issues should be pursued because there is a significant effect on student learning.

Too many shortcomings fail to be confronted and resolved. Amongst them are attitudes to certain subjects. The problems are not confined to Australia. Three  subjects, amongst several, could be mentioned: history, mathematics and science. In all three cases, lamentations are frequent that students aren’t interested or, in the case of mathematics, no-one is interested. Is there really little interest? Many people are interested in history but it centres on their family, their ancestry.

Science is hardly of little interest, students enter competitions with enthusiasm and people flock to museums, to see dinosaurs when they are young or all kinds of other life-forms and audiences for TV presentations are large.

As to mathematics, why was the suggestion of UK expert Celia Hoyles, attending a curriculum symposium at Melbourne University a few years ago, that every school have an expert mathematics teacher, not taken up? And why does Sydney teacher Eddie Woo have an audience in the thousands for his YouTube presentations on a subject which is said to be of no interest? Is it that he engages the students with his enthusiasm, that he doesn’t promote one right answer, and/or explains concepts rather than requiring learning of simple repetitive facts? Math is after all extremely exciting and achievements of leading mathematicians such as in proving Fermat’s Last Theorem a story, as told by Simon Singh for instance, of persistence, ingenuity and gaining help from unexpected quarters.

The Australian government has over the last 30 years steadily reduced the funding for scientific research in its own agencies especially and state governments have done the same: there are few jobs. Why would young students with a concern for their future employment prospects choose advanced courses in science or mathematics? Unless it was in the area of digital technology.

There are important issues which influence teaching including the extent to which teachers cooperate and the burden of administrative tasks, in significant part imposed by government policy. These are taken up in part 4 of these essays.

Go to Emeritus Professor Alan Reid on Education

Standardised Testing and NAPLAN

One of the more destructive aspects of policy pursued in the last 15 years has been the emphasis on standardised testing through NAPLAN, administered to every student in alternate years. Recently there have been attempts to have it administered on line; These issues were traversed in detail in July 2010 in a symposium organised by the Australian Education Union supported by the two government school principal associations.[12] Its ongoing use has been criticised by many state education ministers and many teachers. Seemingly it is retained because according to Commonwealth ministers, parents “find it useful”. NAPLAN, like all such tests, measures learning over many years involving many teachers as well as the influence of parents and peers!

All standardised end of year tests have serious problems, not least the removal of the teacher from any level of evaluation of student progress. The second Gonski report, very appropriately recommended formative evaluation by teachers of the progress of each individual student. Fundamentally, a program of formative assessment allows the teacher to give feedback to the student in the same timeframe as the instruction and learning experience occurred.

One of the consequences is the narrowing of the curriculum through a focus on the three areas of literacy examined. The evidence, as author and communications consultant David Epstein found in talking to cognitive psychologists, is that “an enormous and too-often ignored body of work [demonstrates] that learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress… the most effective learning looks inefficient – it looks like falling behind.”[13]

Shortly after joining the Gonski Institute, Pasi Sahlberg went on a tour around Australia: he was left “heartbroken” by stories of young children facing the pressure of stringent academic expectations. “I heard some teachers telling how children are experiencing stress-related crying, vomiting and sleeplessness over the high-stakes standardised tests. Play is being squeezed out of Australian schools as politicians force more stringent academic expectations upon younger and younger children.” In their pursuit for results, Australian politicians have placed too much emphasis on competition between schools and students, making education “too high stakes”, Sahlberg said.

Emeritus Professor Alan Reid in his recent book Changing Australian Education[14] identifies the failure to understand the purposes of education as underlying the failure of policy over recent decades. Reid strongly criticises PISA. Most particularly, he points to the error of regarding the results as somehow defining Australian education: they do not! Reid mentions cultural factors and the assumption that young people in every country should know the same things and develop the same skill set. There are also doubts that curricula and pedagogical practice can be transferred across countries.

Reid challenges intrinsic assumptions about the classroom environment including student engagement and discipline. It is fair to observe that there may indeed be assumptions by PISA about the importance of certain behaviours but the results contributed by school principals have to be related to the student test scores: possibly assumptions may prove wrong. That doesn’t mean that relatively informed media commentators will correctly report the results.

Reid considers one of the reports on students’ results from selected countries by the Grattan Institute whose investigators drew concerning students from Asian countries based on PISA data. What is the validity of any of the conclusions drawn when the data is problematic? That didn’t bother politicians like then Coalition’s education spokesperson Christopher Pyne. However, Pyne was responsible for many much more egregious behaviours than drawing invalid conclusions from Grattan reports. Other people have used PISA results and drawn certain conclusions.

Reid also considers the campaigns of Dr Kevin Donnelly, a person with questionable qualifications, whose opinions anyway are based on no good evidence whatsoever: he is the education equivalent of a climate denier. And the contribution of New York official Joel Klein who then education minister Julia Gillard invited to advise government. Klein’s agenda turned out to be irrelevant. The same is true of the commentary of Rupert Murdoch. The views of Donnelly, Klein and Murdoch do not merit serious consideration! I drew those conclusions in the book Education Reform: The Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity.[15]

Reid properly identifies adherence to neoliberal economics as a principal contributor to the policies that have failed in Australia, in particular the “standardising” approach commonly applied by consultants and economists as part of the global education reform movement (GERM).

Selective Schools and “Exceptional” Children

One of the most unfortunate approaches is to identify supposedly gifted children and give them special attention. That is done through streaming, so that classes have low variability or through independent schools which can select who they enrol. It doesn’t work. Selective schools offer such supposed advantages as more academic subjects. In Australia they have continued despite earlier commitments to a more universal system.

Distinguished educator Margaret Vickers has said, “‘Choice’ is only possible because of the proliferation of private schools, the segmentation of the public system into selective and specialised schools, and other forms of selection associated with the de-zoning of catchments. ‘Choice’ is encouraged by government rhetoric that characterizes parents who choose non-public and selective schools as ‘responsible citizens’ while characterizing schools that are residualised as ‘failing schools’… Enrollment mobility is driven by market choice, and it leads to residualisation. Residualised schools become ‘internally homogeneous’ as they are left with students that no-one fights for”.

Go to Selective Schools and Exceptional Students

Benjamin Bloom’s research finding, that students should be helped to achieve the goals of the curriculum they were studying, supports those views which advocate each child needing to progress at their own rate and not be lumped in with everyone else, something that can lead to those having difficulty giving up and those doing well, coasting, as the Gonski panel observed in the second report.

Beyond school, attitudes to learning, behaviour learned in previous years and expectations dominate, whether in continuing education or in work. The economic and cultural issues of the community determine the environment. In some cases, especially where individuals and communities have suffered severe stress in previous times, there are predispositions through the impact of epigenetics. That is again something mostly ignored though leaders in the Indigenous community for instance are increasingly aware of it.[3]

First Nations

The educational progress of children of First Nations background is of special importance within the context of social justice. Achieving gains has been a major component of the Closing the Gap program. At one time, poor results for children in the Northern Territory led a prominent Territory minister to advocate ensuring that young children were taught in English from the start of their formal education. The link between language and identity is ignored in such situations; most indigenous children in remote locations are fluent in several languages by the time they reach school age.

Tony Abbott, when he became Prime Minister in 2013 proclaimed himself Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs – though Senator Nigel Scullion was appointed responsible minister – and set about severely reducing expenditure on Indigenous programs. In the initial months of the Morrison Government after it won the 2019 election, Abbott was appointed Prime Minister Morrison’s “Special Envoy for Indigenous affairs” saying school attendance and performance were to be his focus. The CEO of the Stronger Smarter Institute responded that what actually were important were trust by students and student engagement!

The research by Nobel Prizewinners for economics in India revealed promising enhancement of learning when women recruited from local communities taught literacy and numeracy to children having difficulty. Smaller classes didn’t make a difference.

Go to Nobel Prize in Economics 2019 – Poverty and Education

There are some major achievements in First Nations education, not least that in recent years more young people have graduated from university than have been imprisoned.

Chris Sarra’s Stronger Smarter Institute provides leadership programs supporting teachers of Indigenous school students.

A number of small schools in regional areas run by First Nations people are successful and there are a variety of programs advancing various domains of knowledge and learning. A recent study by John Guenther (see below) shows financial investment in remote schools works, particularly where it is directed at teachers and local support staff, and apart from any other benefits, that investment is reflected in higher levels of engagement and better academic performance.

A study for the Centre for Policy Development using MySchool data, by Chris Bonnor and Christina Ho showed disturbing situations. Bonnor asked, “To what extent are Indigenous students in Australia ‘in a class of their own’? Despite some improvement, the educational gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians remain very wide. Will we really ‘close the gap’ if the school experience for most Indigenous students compounds the disadvantage they already face?”

Bonnor and Ho’s report showed, “entrenched disadvantage, location and the operation of school choice combine to worsen the odds for most Indigenous students. At one level the Indigenous school experience resembles that of other disadvantaged school students in Australia. But the plight of Indigenous students is more visible; it challenges our oft-claimed commitment to equity and it demands something better.”

AIME, the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience, founded in 2005 by Jack Manning Bancroft, then a 19-year-old university student, provides mentoring for young indigenous students entering university. About 10,000 Indigenous high school students, about 25 per cent of the Indigenous high school population, are part of AIME, and 7,000 university students volunteer as mentors. AIME offers 100 hours of support to students from the ages of 12–18, including free tutoring, career transition and visits to university campuses. For the past six years, the rate of AIME students entering university, employment or training after high school has hovered between 73 and 78 per cent — compared to 40 per cent for the general Indigenous population — on par with 75 per cent for Australia’s non-Indigenous population.

There are widespread practices involving Indigenous children which severely damage them and therefore pose severe future problems. In several states and the Northern Territory, young adolescents are held in custody, often for minor infringements; despite Royal Commissions and inquiries, those destructive practices continue.

Removal of children from their family continues despite the Royal Commission which inquired into the issue decades ago. A recent review in NSW chaired by Professor Megan Davis found that child protection workers regularly gave “misleading” evidence to the children’s court, often took the most traumatic option by removing Aboriginal children – including newborns – from their families, and operated in a “closed system” that lacked transparency, had no effective regulator and was run with little or no genuine consultation with the Aboriginal community.

Laws enabling the adoption of thousands of children from the state’s foster care system without parental consent were passed in the New South Wales parliament in November 2018, despite fierce opposition from community organisations to the “regressive” changes they say will have a heavy impact on Aboriginal families. Aboriginal children and young people make up almost 40% of those in the out-of-home care system.

Go to John Guenther on First Nations students in Remote Communities

The failings of the present “Close the Gap” in many areas is well-known and have been for years: the problem is not that the targets are too difficult, it is that those intended to benefit are not in charge. Discrimination continues, incarceration rates continue to be high and youth suicide is at unacceptable levels.

An episode of the ABC Four Corners program revealed graphic images of the disgraceful treatment of Indigenous youth in the Northern Territory, locked up in institutions where their privacy was invaded and their physical and mental integrity undermined regularly by staff who were clearly inadequately trained. Prime Minister Turnbull instituted a Royal Commission. Three years after its conclusion and report most of the recommendations remain as no more than words on paper.

Cultural appropriateness of policies and actions pervade many issues which bear critically on the situation. Not least is youth suicide, children as young as 10! Forty percent of all child deaths.[16] There is a lack of Indigenous psychologists: understanding of the problems is therefore inadequate.

So long as non-Indigenous people continue to have a major say over the future of First Nations people and they have little say, severe problems will continue. There is little political recognition of the fact, increasingly enunciated by prominent Indigenous people such as Stan Grant, that Australia was not settled by Europeans but “invaded” and that the land was “stolen”. That is what the High Court in Mabo found in 1992: Coalition governments have steadfastly continued to oppose its genuine implementation of the right to self-determination, the consequence of Mabo. Many of those opposing Indigenous rights represent sections of the community who have most significantly benefitted from involvement of Indigenous peoples!

Present policies in 2020 and the critical issues

The present education policies not only ignore all the evidence from high quality research, especially from the US but also Australia, the UK and Europe as well as the lessons from successful countries, as well as the experience of students and teachers over the last 30 years and more. They are misdirected. They address the wrong issues! All one can say is that people have a tendency to diagnose problems and devise solutions within the context of their own experience and areas of knowledge.

For politicians, whilst it is often said that they lack the requisite specialist knowledge of any domain of activity, the point rather is that they require the ability to gather data and draw conclusions about the meaning from that data. In Australia with very few exceptions, such capacity has been lacking for some 50 years. The Whitlam Government established the Australian Schools Commission chaired by Professor Peter Karmel and committed to funding school education on the basis of need. It was necessary to have government fund Catholic schools in order to gain parliamentary approval. State aid, government funding for Catholic schools, was resolved by Robert Menzies as Prime Minister and the issue became part of the faction fighting within the Labor party.[17] The initiatives of the Karmel Committee were gradually whittled away! Catholic schools have achieved a high level of autonomy as to how they distribute the government funding.

The Whitlam Government also initiated a variety of other programs of varying direct relevance to education. These included a Children’s Commission and support for preschool through a Preschool Commission. The role of women received special support through the appointment of the first advisor to the Prime Minister. Elizabeth Reid received hundreds of letters from women all over Australia: they raised issues of family violence, access to contraceptives and right to abortion. Subsequent Labor Prime Ministers including Hawke and Keating also appointed women to advisory and then Ministerial positions.

The critical issues are early childhood and the conditions in which children spend their first years: they include parenting and the parent’s wellbeing. Government funding directed to child care, parents’ support, especially for less advantaged persons, are important. So is the support for preschool.

The second critical issue is the school environment including the school as an organisation, the role of leadership and the way the resources are applied and how governments plays its role in every area affecting the family and the child.

The critical outcomes for each child are a genuine interest in learning, critical thinking and the ability to relate to others. They require self-control and self-confidence, the most reliable indicators of future wellbeing, which are gained in the early years and are long-lasting.[18]

Much of present policy ignores critical evidence about the course of people’s lives and the impact of their surroundings and heritage, not least the economic and social policies of government.

These subjects, in particular early childhood, are dealt with in the reminder of this essay and in PISA 2018 Part 3.

The Early Years

The most important issue for learning, for education, is what happens in the early years. That is when maximum brain development takes place. Unless early childhood is attended to every effort made later must be greater. Problems which emerge in later life are often grounded in the early years. These are the domains of neurophysiology and behaviour. I have drawn attention to this in the book Education Reform and in several essays on this website under the heading of “Education: Life’s Choices”. The research on early childhood is comprehensive and high quality: in Australia it is given grossly inadequate attention!

The Heckman Equation website summarises the gains from attention to the early years and provides a wealth of resources. Heckman, a University of Chicago Nobel prizewinning economist, says, “the best way to reduce deficits is to invest in quality early childhood development for disadvantaged children. It creates better education, health, social and economic outcomes that increase revenue and reduce the need for costly social spending.”

Parenting is critical, yet the stresses of housing, work-life balance, work environment including remuneration and employment security impose upon the child and its much-needed support. Everything influences the level of interaction and the nature of the relationships. Early childhood support is not child-minding! For working parents, parental leave is critical. The mother’s unpriced work in the home and with the child is critical.


In a recent ABC RN Health Report, Dr Norman Swan interviewed Sir Harry Burns, Professor of Global Public Health at the University of Strathclyde Glasgow; former surgeon; former Chief Medical Officer for Scotland. They discussed what’s behind the historical gap in life expectancy between people in disadvantaged areas of Glasgow and the rest of the city and Scotland — and what’s been done to improve it. What Burns had to say was an illustration of just how true Michael Marmot’s Fair Society Healthy Lives recommendations are!

Burns talked of the consequences of the clearing of the appalling slums in Glasgow known as the Gorbals no longer fit for human habitation, the breakdown of community, the decline in life expectancy especially amongst poorer people affecting younger people disproportionally. Previously, the support amongst people living together disappeared as they spread into new towns in pursuit of jobs as employment in heavy engineering, ship-building, steel-making and so on disappeared.

Burns cited the Adverse Childhood Experiences study which found that exposure to parenting problems such as neglect, abuse, domestic violence and ill health led to increased risk of violence and substance abuse in children.

… when the parents lost a stable existence, that instability was communicated to the children, and at that age, it’s very clear that uncertainty in childhood leads to an increased propensity to experience stress and an increased propensity to inappropriate behaviour, emotional ability, being anxious or fearful or aggressive and so on. And these are all factors that can lead to significant behaviour problems, increased risk of suicide and so on, and increased risk of offending behaviour that ends up in prison.

Burns and colleagues established the Early Years Collaborative which explored ways to support parents who had themselves suffered domestic violence and parental mental health issues; parents are desperate to be good parents. “… we have to break the cycle. We have to make sure that something changes in the parenting of the second and third generation.” The impact was epigenetic, that is the genes controlling the function of other genes, were altered and the impact inherited.

Staff who worked in supporting parents were asked to develop ideas, test them, see what worked and implement those that had and implement them consistently. The evidence was that having a bedtime story improves parent-child relationships but it also improved children’s speech and language and so on. So in nurseries developed policies to improve the uptake of bedtime stories; giving parents information, running a library and allowing them to take books home with them. One program was “Bedtime Bear”, the children given a teddy bear and asked to tell their parents that the bear needed a story at bedtime. Nurseries were asked to record the results, how many bedtime stories were being given.

“The results were significant decrease in stillbirth rate, significant decrease in infant mortality, decrease in general in deaths of children in hospitals, improved uptake of services, improved monitoring of child development and so on. And it’s maybe a bit early to be confident about this, but improved performance as children arrive in school in terms of improved developmental progress.”

Burns went on to mention other relevant evidence and emphasised the importance of persistence, not simply stopping funding because a certain intervention didn’t work. Use of big data approaches would allow improvements to be seen much earlier. Objections to interventions evaporate when positive results are achieved.


The most disturbing feature of education policy development over the last 25 years has been increasing inequality reflected in increasing resources provided by the Commonwealth Government for independent schools which chose who to enrol, whilst State and Territory governments are left to make up the difference in public schools which must accept all who seek to enrol. The nature of learning is largely ignored and the purposes of education, the encouragement of all to achieve their potential so as to engage productively in the community, have been corrupted by special deals with various sectors and the focus on paid work as the principal outcome. Standardised testing has distorted the perception of progress. Early childhood, where resources will produce most gain, has largely been ignored, a major difference from most other advanced economies.

Continue to PISA2018 Part 3: The Social and Economic Environment  or return to PISA 2018: Education Policies: Economic, Social and Organisational Influences


[1] Australia ranks 10th in the social progress indicator, first released in 2013 and created by Michael Porter (Harvard Business School), Scott Stern (MIT Sloan School of Management) and the Social Progress Initiative: it is noted for nutrition and basic medical care, health and wellness but 29th in access to basic education and 64th in ecosystem sustainability. Frequently, international organisations are strongly criticised when they comment negatively on Australia. Several Scandinavian countries rank in the top 10.

[2] The study of New Zealand schools by Hugh Lauder & David Hughes, Trading in Futures Why Markets in education don’t Work, Open University Press, Buckingham, 1999) found that competition between schools exacerbated economic disparity and reduced cooperation between teachers in different schools. These features emerged following the adoption of what became known as Rogernomics after the Minister for Finance (1975 to 1984) in the Lange Labour Government.

[3] Epigenetics concerns changes in organisms resulting from changes in the genes which control the expression of other genes, ie “turn them on or off” affecting how cells “read” genes. The changes result from environmental impacts including stress. The changes are heritable, in other words current generations experience the consequences of deleterious impacts on ancestral generations.

[4] In a consideration of what was actually advanced in the Report, Alan Reid worried that what was being proposed by the use of the learning progression model was overly prescriptive and consistent with Direct Instruction; it does not involve skilled teachers helping students make connections across the curriculum, they key concepts of which are understood through negotiation and collaboration. In other words it would narrowing and limiting.

[5] The Consequences of Student Testing for Teaching and Teacher Quality, Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (Blackwell, 2005)

[6] Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: A Review of State Policy Evidence Education Policy Analysis Archives, 8 (1) 2000

[7] Linda Darling-Hammond et al,  ‘Does Teacher Preparation Matter? Evidence about Teacher Certification, Teach for America, and Teacher Effectiveness’, Education Policy Analysis Archives 13(42), 2005

[8] The near impossibility of testing for teacher quality. Journal of Teacher Education 56.3 (May-June 2005): p205(9).

[9] A personal response to those who bash teacher education, Journal of Teacher Education 51(5), 2000.

[10] Learning organizations for sustainable education reform’, Daedalus. Fall 1998. Vol. 127/4, p 89; see ‘Best Teaching Part 3: Lauren Resnick & Accountable Talk + Stephen Raudenbush – More from Chicago’

[11] ‘Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse’, Science 328, 463-466, 23 April 2010; see ‘Best Teaching Part 4: Jonathan Osborne, Argumentation and a Science Curriculum’

[12] Nic Barnard (editor), 2010, The NAPLAN Debate, Professional Voice 8(1); several previous essays deal with NAPLAN and its shortcomings. A detailed consideration is here;

[13] Epstein also observes that research shows highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident (a dangerous combination).

Irish poet W.B. Yeats reflects that In “The Second Coming”,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

[14] Changing Australian Education – How policy is taking us backwards and what can be done about it (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2019)

[15] Springer, 2014

[16] A major problem is that there are too few Indigenous psychologists and assessments therefore do not necessarily lead to an understanding of the story told by the patient: the wrong risk factors are being looked for. Racism and breakdown of relationships with the principal parent are major factors; decisions are impulsive. Self-harm is also common.

[17] See Andrew Hamilton’s commentary referencing Class Wars: Money, Schools and Power in Modern Australia by Tony Taylor (Eureka Street 28(11) 2018: Irish Catholics regarded public schools as “de facto Protestant”.

[18] In “Are we really running schools like factories?” (Inside Story 17 January 2019) Tom Greenwell comments, “Whether the recommendations made in “Through Growth to Achievement” will ever be implemented with any fidelity is now a very open question. The political circus has well and truly moved on since May, and where Gonski was concerned that spending on schools should be cost-effective, the Morrison government is clearly more focused on whether it is politically effective.”