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PISA2018 Part 5: Concluding Statement

“Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”

Donald Horne, The Lucky Country

“We need a reboot which focuses effort and resources on supporting teachers to work together, collaboratively, to improve student achievement over time. This requires that we build a narrative based on identifying and valuing expertise, working together and opening classrooms to collaboration, targeting resources at need, accepting evidence and evaluating progress transparently over time.”

Professor John Hattie, University of Melbourne

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

The late Robert May, Lord May of Oxford, polymath (1938-2020)

The ongoing impact of political intervention in education practice borders on tragedy: the failure to pay any attention whatsoever to the huge volume of quality research and its replacement by preconceived views, and the opinions of those whom they believe they must endorse, has led amongst many things to the departure of high quality and experienced teachers and in turn inferior student gains. Amongst the most dangerous ideas is that school inspectors should check on teacher performance, and performance pay be introduced for teachers. The former, in the words of Viv Grant, strikes terror into teachers and the latter is a waste of money, as already explained. Like everyone they seek recognition for superior performance, not just money. Consider banks!

Gabbie Stroud, a former teacher who now works in hospitality cleaning holiday apartments, has achieved prominence for speaking out. Enthusiasm for teaching and rejoicing in seeing young children discover the joy of reading, she was overwhelmed by the seeming never-ending demand for what passes for accountability, the narrowness of NAPLAN testing, the standardisation.

“Each decision made keeps us stuck in an archaic learn-to-work model, now complete with ongoing mandatory assessment of our student’s likely productivity and economic potential… Schools should not be framed by business models. They should not be viewed in terms of academic results based on productivity. When we look at schools in this way, we lose sight of what matters. We lose sight of students.”

Go to  “We are losing sight of students”

Stroud’s views coincide completely with those of Emeritus Professor Alan Reid: As Murdoch University’s Professor Barry Down wrote, reviewing Reid’s book, Changing Australian Education, “For a teacher, there is nothing more exhilarating than encouraging young people to realise the power of learning. But in our schools today, teachers spend so much time preparing their students for high-stakes tests, gathering data and filling in forms, that many of them feel like the life has been squeezed out of their role.[1]

Schooling has been turned into a market, and school leaders are forced to spend precious time and resources competing with other schools. Their professional experience is disregarded as policy makers turn to the corporate world and self-appointed commentators to determine curriculum and school funding.

“The outcome? Our schooling system is becoming more segregated; children from poorer backgrounds are falling behind; public schools are starved of funds; and good teachers are leaving.”

Alan Reid’s book is amongst the latest to criticise the downward trends in Australian education policy. Reid summarises the way education policy and the concern for equity has gradually been distorted over the last 45 years by the influence of lobbyists for non-government schools. He elaborates three elements of a “new educational narrative”: purposes, values and principles. He identifies blockages to consideration of those elements and attacks the model operating in most education systems that constructs teachers as technicians who merely implement plans, policies and products developed by others.

These kinds of views have been echoed and elaborated by many but ignored by governments and attacked by many in the media.


Arguably the astoundingly successful Australian produced animation, Bluey, viewed more than 100 million times since its release in 2018, makes a greater contribution to learning than anything advocated by MOST Commonwealth or State Government Ministers of Education in the last 30 years.


In a short article summarizing the Sydney Morning Herald’s 2020 Summit on education, Chris Bonnor commented on various proposals by the NSW Government and One Nations’ Mark Latham who called for school inspectors to check classroom teaching and an independent commission to monitor test results.

Bonnor concluded, “Finally one thing is certain: I am a perennial optimist – but if I was starting out now maybe I’d think twice about a career if my idealism and professionalism might morph into some colour-by-number daily grind, if the purpose, value and love of learning was to be described by meaningless measures, where our leaders exuded a lack of understanding and trust, where what I did risked being reshaped into ammunition for some mindless cultural warfare. And, as a consequence of all this, where the communities I served would undervalue the contribution made by me and so many others.”

For what can only be considered political reasons decisions were made in early March 2020 by the Berijiklian government in New South Wales to require schools to “earn the freedom to make their own financial and educational decisions”, in other words to give the Department of Education more power to intervene. Minister Sarah Mitchell admitted the government had “lost its ability to intervene in classrooms and keep track of more than $1.25 billion in Gonski money”. It is typical of the utter ignorance and stupidity of political intervention.

Nothing was ever achieved by intervention from the centre: the idea that it produces superior results is delusional.[2] Nor was anything achieved unless the solutions were based on an understanding of the problem. Success benefits from a high degree of autonomy: the superior strategy is pursuing  understanding by everyone of the goals and values and who is to benefit. Intervention stifles innovation and therefore improvement.

As Einstein is reputed to have said, “If I had one hour to solve a problem I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and the remaining 5 minutes solving it.” He also said, “No problem can be solved by the same level of consciousness that caused the problem in the first place”. When he was young he was told he would never amount to anything. In his first job at a patent office he missed out on promotion! Paraphrasing what he is reputed to have written on a blackboard, Not everything that can be counted is important and not everything that is important can be counted.


The GDP “measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Robert Kennedy, University of Kansas, March 1968


Judgement requires thinking and understanding. History shows that if we trusted the initial responses of publishers of music and literature, we would have no music and no literature. The lesson is that every decision must be carefully tested and debated. Far too many people with influence pursue only that which they believe they know about. The understanding of what actually leads to success and popularity is generally poor.[3] Too often people trust their own judgement, or intuition, but avoid careful analysis of the problem and the options. (One of the outcomes is the promotion of too many mediocre men to important positions.[4])


Hilary Mantel’s third book in the trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, The Mirror and the Light, has been greeted in some quarters with adulation, presenter Kate Evans telling listeners to the ABC RN program The Bookshelf on March 4 that the writing was so wonderful that she bookmarked every page! The Cromwell series has turned Mantel into a literary celebrity and a national icon. The first two books collectively sold more than five million copies and have been translated into more than 30 languages. Both “Wolf Hall” and its 2012 sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” won the Booker Prize, making Mantel the first woman to win twice, and the first author ever to win for a sequel. The books were adapted into an award-winning pair of plays by the Royal Shakespeare Company and a BBC mini-series. 

Alexandra Alter in the New York Times, writing about the latest book – 800 pages long! – notes, “Mantel finished her first book, a novel about the French Revolution titled “A Place of Greater Safety,” in 1979, and sent it to publishers and agents, but no one wanted a 700-plus page historical novel by an unknown writer. She wrote a second book, a brisk, darkly comic contemporary novel, “Every Day Is Mother’s Day,” which became a critical success when it was published in 1985.


The demand for measurement is one such example! Sometimes dressed up as accountability.


Somehow, we have ended up in the situation where the principal influencers of education policy are not those intended to be the principal beneficiaries, are not cognisant of the most significant factors which drive outcomes and not accountable in any meaningful way for the decisions they make. Indeed they pursue that ultimate foolishness of advocating solutions to emerging problems in the very domains where they started. Like the disturbed, they deny past failure as they continue to pursue their previous policies even more vigorously.

A reconsideration of capitalism

The adherence to neoliberal economics, and its partner, public choice theory, has been under attack by economists and others since they first became prominent ideologies. But the contribution they have made to the increase in inequality and the demonstration by noted behavioural economists that the  model of human behaviour on which the theories are based is inconsistent with the evidence has strengthened the opposition.

The criticisms have included a defence of a proper role for government. In Governomics: Can we afford small government? (Melbourne University Press, 2015)  Ian McAuley and Miriam Lyons show that an emaciated state is bad for business, and that standing up for government means standing up for a public sector that truly serves the public.

Most recently there have been several very considered demonstrations of the dangers in the way neoliberal economics has overtaken government to undermine its proper contribution leading to inability to cope with the challenges society faces. The contributions of a large number of economists including Thomas Piketty and Mariana Mazzucato and philosopher Michael Sandel, as well as a clutch of behavioural economists starting with Daniel Kahneman, are critical.

Go to Neoliberal Economics, Democracy, Organisations and the Consequences for Education

Thomas Piketty has pointed to the outcome of recent decades as prosperity for nativist parties who oppose educational and economic inequality and branded inequality as illegitimate. Mariana Mazzucato has asserted that the notion of value creation has morphed into a justification for financial institutions which are value takers, not creators. And Michael Sandel has attacked the marketisation and monetisation of everything as an intrusion of concepts into domains where they do not belong.


The work of French economist Thomas Piketty has gained very substantial attention with his first book, Capital in the Twenty First Century. His second book Capital and Ideology, published late 2019, argues inequality always relies on ideology. A review of the book notes, “inequality is illegitimate, and therefore requires ideologies in order to be justified and moderated. All history shows that the search for a distribution of wealth acceptable to the majority of people is a recurrent theme in all periods and all cultures,’ he reports boldly. As societies distribute income, wealth and education more widely, so they become more prosperous. The overturning of regressive ideologies is therefore the main condition of economic progress.”

The financial elite favour open markets and stand in opposition to an educational elite that stands for cultural diversity but has lost faith in progressive taxation as a basis for social justice. The result has been prosperity for nativist parties who oppose educational and economic inequality. Piketty’s program to meet the challenge includes an equal education budget for every citizen, to be invested as they choose; but it mostly rests on ideas of participatory governance, progressive taxation, and democratisation.


In February 2020 a new virus – Covid-19 – in the Coronavirus family emerged from China and soon swept the world precipitating financial and related crises in its wake. It was evident by mid-March that the government and community resources needed were in many cases insufficient. The capacity of the health sector was of particular concern. In many countries the need to take emergency action to minimise deaths was compromised by the consequences of economic decisions taken over previous years. Several commentaries were published which seriously questioned, indeed attacked, the adoption of market economic policies and called for their continued persistence to be most seriously reconsidered.

Go to Value Creation, Merit Selection and a Moral Society


Significant gains in education will be achieved only through thoughtful contributions and understandings of the impact early childhood has on everything that follows, of recognition of the social and economic conditions which lead to successful transitions to schooling and of the importance of the family, not least the value of the mother’s contribution, notwithstanding that it is mostly unpriced.

Education will succeed where early childhood has been successful, where the myriad influences on the family, and especially on the children, are understood and they are given the opportunity to achieve their own goals. Schooling requires adoption of the best practices of organisations, especially in leadership.

In all of this, the critical importance of equity, fairness and recognition of the value of one’s own identity should be paramount. Exclusion of certain sectors of the community by reason of socioeconomic background or ethnicity, including indigeneity, like other reasons for limiting participation should be eschewed.

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

The wider issues of community cohesion, respect and tolerance need greater attention. Governments must be prepared to commit to these principals and the appropriate funding of the economic and social programs underpinning them. That means attention to relevant information and intelligent analysis of it as well as ongoing review of changes over time. Failure of those who are properly accountable for that will ensure failure of the system and poorer results.

In the concluding chapters of his book Changing Australian Education Alan Reid advocates a new educational narrative supported by four actions:

By no means the least important issue in proceeding with such an approach will be the acceptance of the last of these actions at the political level. The approach of the Morrison Government, the view that policy is made at the political level and the bureaucracy’s role is simply one of implementation, stands in the way of achieving Reid’s narrative. Interventions by government over the last 25 years, especially during times when the Coalition has been in power, demonstrates that conclusively.

Prime Minister Morrison’s decision to merge a number of government departments, seemingly without any understanding of the likelihood that such a process fails to achieve any degree of coherence or sensibility, constitutes a threat to the future of the country.[5] Politicians seldom have the knowledge or skills to independently frame policies in the increasingly complex world! They have in many cases presided over the downsizing of government functions leaving it stumbling at times of crisis and lacking needed resources.


This will probably be my last contribution to education. Learning and the intellectual endeavour are amongst my most treasured pursuits. The people I most admire are those who are clearly engaged in thinking, in inquiring, in asking why and how and why not. People like physicist Richard Feynman, so widely admired.

In this series of essays the three people in that category who stand out for me are world famous epidemiologist Michael Marmot, who happens to be an Australian and a graduate of Sydney University, the sociologist the late James March (with his 17 honorary doctorates from more than a dozen universities). Marmot’s ability to calmly identify some of the most critical issues facing humanity is profound. I return to my favourite essay by March, delivered first at a AAAS meeting in the US time and again, marvelling at the lucidity of his explanation of how people behave in an organisation and why. And not least of his metaphor of the sloping multi-goaled soccer field. And Australian Bob May, who became Lord May, President of the Royal Society and scientific advisor to the UK Government. In 2015 he recounted a pivotal moment in his education.

I close with the views of one other, not in the category of the academically distinguished but intellectually engaged nevertheless. Australian Tim Minchin is a composer/lyricist, musician, comedian, actor, writer, producer and director. He is the composer and writer of the wonderful stage musical Matilda based on the children’s story by Roald Dahl centred on a precocious 5-year-old girl with the gift of telekinesis, who loves reading, overcomes obstacles caused by her family and school, and helps her teacher to reclaim her life.

In September 2013 Minchin delivered the occasional address at the graduation ceremony at the University of Western Australia where he was awarded an honorary doctorate.[6] He enunciated what he called “nine life lessons”.

Lesson 5 was “Be Hard On Your Opinions”: “A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like arse-holes, in that everyone has one. There is great wisdom in this… but I would add that opinions differ significantly from arse-holes, in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.

“We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat.

Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege.

Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.”

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


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

[2] See Strong Leadership or Strong Leadership: That is the Question

[3] Go to Simon Nasht 2020, The New Science of Success, ABC RN The Science Show 8 February

[4] Oliver Burkeman 2019, Why do so many mediocre men rise to the top? The Guardian 10 May

[5] The response of the present government led by Scott Morrison to the review of the public service by David Thodey and other distinguished leaders, as reviewed by former Secretary of the Department of Finance Michael Keating and former Public Service Commissioner Andrew Podger, highlights the critical issues.

[6] The YouTube video of the address has been viewed more than 4 million times!