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PISA2018 – Part 4:  Schools as Organisations

Schools as organisations and the importance of transformational leadership by principals in their fundamental role of learning leaders is reviewed. The situations facing many teachers in coping with political and bureaucratic influences is considered. Schools approaching education as open systems in which the complete development of the student are reviewed with examples. The contribution of social capital, the way people work together, is reviewed. The major conclusions from consideration of PISA 2018, the need for a focus on those issues which most significantly influence the child’s development and recent policies are summarised. 

Schools are unique in their purpose of developing the learning and understanding of the people who would be termed clients or customers in a business. But whilst businesses have been at least able to survive by delivering minimal training to their staff, focusing on only a few products or services and even only a subset of the population or demographic, schools, even when they are not principally responsible to government, must attend to a wide variety of functions and cannot afford to provide only minimum training to their staff. In all cases, innovation generates continued success and that requires risk.

Most importantly, the outcome from the work of schools has a huge impact on the whole of the community and beyond. Equation with business normally implies capacity for efficiency, most easily achieved through employing minimal staff or paying lowest possible salaries and wages or both. Arguably schools are unique in that the downside risks to this are greater than in any other enterprise. As in every enterprise or group of any kind, cooperation drives success. Cooperation with others and adaptation to change, a search for new solutions and previously unknown relationships marks humanity, indeed all life.

In most cases, application of the business model to non-profit enterprises has led mostly to the worst of practices. Importantly that is because it is based on the belief that competition leads to efficiency which leads to success. But especially when that is asserted to be some natural law, even an important conclusion of the thinking of Charles Darwin, it is fundamentally wrong. In the closing paragraphs of his famous book, he wrote of this view of life, that adaptation was the key to success. Competition emerges in the face of limited resources. Is there a limit to imagination?


Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, in part

‘(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.


Like all organisations, schools benefit from the best of leadership through its focus on consistent encouragement of above average performance and continual improvement in skills employed, challenging goals, genuine support and ongoing professional development. Financial incentives for superior performance are irrelevant[1] but as in all organisations remuneration should recognise achievement in a manner which reinforces the values of the organisation, not as a way of identifying failure.

Organisations, Leadership and Difference: the role of the School Principal as Learning Leader

Most of the debate about schools swirls around teacher qualifications, curriculum and funding. But the school organisation, the people in it and how they work together, the role of the school principal as leader and the resources, including teacher support, are pushed to the side. Neoclassical economics again. While “teacher quality” is the single most important school variable influencing student achievement , qualifications, experience and tests of academic ability don’t capture many of the important aspects of teacher quality. The school principal is consigned to budget management, class scheduling and student discipline. Gonski’s second report made it clear that every school needed an administrative person to assist with this so the principal could concentrate on learning leadership.

Every child is different, arrives at school with a level of knowledge and understanding different from those of other children. At school the child is also exposed to other children, as they have been already and the behaviours encompassing their ability to interact productively and respectfully will determine their progress.

Within the classroom, the cognitive level reached at entry influences the child’s capacity to gain from the experiences offered. So some children will need extra support whilst others will need to make little effort to progress at the desired rate. If the students are all expected to learn at the same rate, then some will likely fall behind and others will “coast”.

As in later life, challenge produces extra effort. Whilst intrinsic motivation is common, everyone also responds to the achievement of those around them. Therefore a diverse class most often leads to superior gain by more students[2]. Diversity is important in encouraging understanding by each individual of the differences of others.

The teacher’s ability to provide quality learning experiences is critically influenced by issues such as cooperation with other teachers, hours of face-to-face contact demanded, assistance available for students needing extra support, the leadership of the school principal as learning leader.

The OECD and Teaching and Learning

The recently published OECD international survey of Teaching and Learning (TALIS) discusses fostering collaboration and improving professionalism. “Teachers who take part in the more interdependent forms of collaboration also tend to report using cognitive activation practices more frequently” and likely have higher levels of job satisfaction and self-efficacy. Where the school involves staff in school decision, there is more frequent professional collaboration.

The Survey noted “the skillset required to be an effective teacher is expansive and complex. On top of being knowledgeable about their subject and how to teach it, teachers are also expected to be experts in child development, classroom management, administration, and even psychology, and to update their knowledge base throughout their career. .. Likewise, the expectations for school leaders have gone beyond their traditional role as administrators, and now include team leadership, instruction, networking and effective communication with parents and other stakeholders.”

The majority – 90% – of teachers in the survey reported as being satisfied with their job and as not regretting becoming a teacher. Yet only a quarter think their work is valued by society, a view more common among longer-serving teachers.

“Acute stress at work is also strongly associated with teachers’ job satisfaction and their intention to continue teaching: 18% of teachers report experiencing a lot of stress in their work, and 49% report that having too much administrative work is one of the main sources of stress.”

One of the most important issues is the extent to which the school encourages the development of social capital. It is a matter critical to all organisations.

Go to Social Capital

Chapter 5 of the OECD survey notes, “School leadership has a powerful impact on student learning. In particular, the leadership and actions of school leaders and teachers can shape effective learning environments. But, to carry out these actions, teachers and school leaders must have the autonomy necessary to make decisions pertinent to their jobs.” At least 70% of schools in the countries surveyed had control over teacher hiring practices, budget allocation within the school, student disciplinary and admission policies and the selection of learning materials and 63% of principals – 79% in the case of privately managed schools have significant responsibility for such areas. More than half report teachers as having a significant level of responsibility in choosing learning materials and determining course content.

Around half of principals say that acting as an instructional leader is something that they do often in school. Those who act as an instructional leader spend time on curriculum development and instruction, involve stakeholders in school decision making and build a supportive and collaborative school culture.

Autonomy is extremely common, more than 90% of teachers reporting they have a high level of autonomy in selecting teaching methods, assessing students’ learning, disciplining students and determining the amount of homework to assign in their class. Eighty-four percent report the same high level of autonomy for determining course content. Greater autonomy is linked with teachers’ propensity to collaborate professionally and innovate their practice, as well as with their self-efficacy, job satisfaction and stress levels.

The comment in the “Empowering teachers and school leaders” chapter is pertinent: “To effectively engage in leadership roles, schools must have the autonomy necessary to make decisions on those aspects that concern their day-to-day operations. Indeed, a crucial component of principals’ and teachers’ professionalism refers to their capacity to make discretionary judgements. The reasoning behind enhancing school autonomy is that schools have professionals with the training, knowledge and experience to make the most pertinent decisions regarding staffing, assessment and curriculum. Although autonomy in decision making is not enough to guarantee effective leadership, it is a necessary step.

The OECD Survey reports important information in respect of teachers in Australia: more than half of all secondary school teachers say they have too much administrative work which takes away time for preparing for classes: it is a major source of stress.  A quarter of teachers say they experience a lot of stress at school. These are amongst the highest percentages in the OECD. They are significant factors behind teachers leaving the profession. In particular the levels are higher than in Korea, Finland and Estonia, though lower than the UK and New Zealand.

Australian teachers also have less professional autonomy over classroom content and assessment than in other OECD countries, but there is more professional collaboration in Australian schools. However, a majority of lower secondary school teachers across the OECD do not believe their profession is valued by society (Figure II.2.1). However, the Australian proportion who do believe the profession is valued, at 45% for lower secondary school teachers (a slight increase from 39% in 2013), is the eleventh highest in the OECD behind Korea at 58% for Finland and 67% for Korea.

As Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools Australia notes, the survey results point to the need for much greater support for teachers in schools serving high proportions of disadvantaged students in Australia. Teacher stress is much higher in schools with higher concentrations of students from low socio-economic status families.

But very significantly the most important issue is the student being engaged which means that they are in charge of their learning journey. That is more critical than ever once the student enters school.

There are three other issues often overlooked or even wilfully ignored: trust, play and difference. The child has to trust the teacher and the teacher must be trusted by the parents. It is hardly relevant that almost all parents have been to school: that does not make them expert. It is no different from other group activities where each person has different roles. If those “in charge” continually intervene to instruct the others then the productivity – the volume and quality of the task achieved – will be lessened. In many situations, who is the leader depends on the circumstances, on the challenges and the goals.

As I say in Education Reform: The Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity, the pervasive influence of neoclassical economics has led to demands for accountability of schools and teachers through standardised tests and application of merit pay for superior achievement by teachers, as assessed by the test scores of the students they taught in that year.[3] An emphasis on content knowledge also leads to demands for uniform curricula and intervention by groups such as school boards in the US, and sometimes in some other countries by governments in response to demands of some parents, that the content of the curriculum, especially in history and science, be closely controlled to ensure that the ‘right views’ are taught. What is important is a rich curriculum well taught. Excessive privileging of facts leads to boredom, little takeaway knowledge and less understanding. Children don’t like it!

In high performing education systems testing is used only to inform the teacher, schools do not compete with each other, teachers have considerable time for professional development and are assisted by extra staff where the class contains students with some disadvantage such as their native language not being the dominant language of the country. Additionally teachers are recruited from highly successful university graduates, are paid more than average, highly regarded in the community and given considerable freedom in senior school years in curriculum development: they are trusted!

But when all is said and done, a school is an organisation and, as a group of people, it is like other organisations in terms of how it works and what it achieves. In other words leadership is a very significant factor. And what makes the difference is how people work together and how decisions get made. Authenticity of leadership, clear goals and values and a concern for people are essential. Qualifications and experience are important, the latter more than the former according to some studies, but they are not the drivers. Unless the school functions as an organisation everything else stumbles.

The feature of leadership which makes most difference is termed “transformational”: ambitious goals are set, the focus is continuous improvement and people are challenged and feel part of a team: cohesion. Four factors have been identified: Idealised Influence based on authenticity and purpose, Inspirational Motivation including enthusiastic promotion of an appealing vision, Intellectual Stimulation questioning old assumptions and searching for new perspectives and Individualised  Consideration including listening, advising and coaching.

One of the really peculiar features of the Australian scene is that very good studies of school leadership have been undertaken by Bill Mulford, now Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Tasmania, but I have never seen his name mentioned in all the debate.[4]

Much of this was recognised by the second Gonski Report. And an important statement is made by executive coach Viv Grant who recalled that when Masai meet each other their first question is, “How are the children?”. Grant recalled her own experience of a confronting education system exploited by politicians and of difficult interactions with parents.

Go to Viv Grant & How are the Children 

Instead of looking at the issues in a holistic manner, at all the factors bearing on the outcomes, the same remedies are promoted that have been favoured for decades. The result is continuing failure including loss of otherwise quality teachers and bored students. The significant decline in student scores in PISA over the last 15 years is wrongly blamed on teachers. If blame is to be directed at anyone, it should be politicians.

The principal focus of the school organisation has to be the student and their learning capabilities and progress. That was a major focus of the second Gonski Report. It means pedagogy is more important than content and cooperation and professional development by and for teachers are critical.

Are these the issues addressed by commentary of the media and politicians? By and large no! Gonski referred to what was called an “industrial model” where every student was expected to make the same amount of progress. Instead the panel recommended individual focus. Instead of standardised tests, summative evaluation, which occurs long after the content being examined has been the focus, the recommendation was teacher-led formative evaluation. It is supported by evidence.[5]

IN home schooling the student feels in charge of their own learning journey. Engagement is critical in getting what is learned into long-term memory. That is advanced by what some have called argumentation and others accountable talk. Understanding the dynamics of the classroom is essential, yet few who choose to comment know anything of that. Studies such as those by New Zealand educator, the late Graham Nuthall are ignored.

The situation is depicted in the film, “The Dead Poets Society” featuring Robin Williams.


In the film The Dead Poets Society (director Peter Weir) English teacher John Keating (Williams) inspires his students through poetry. As students join the class they are surprised by the teacher’s unorthodox approach. With the motto carpe diem, “seize the day”, he encourages the students to “make your lives extraordinary”. He has them stand on their desk to demonstrate different ways of looking at life and invites them to make up their own style of walking in the courtyard.

One of the students, Neil, restarts the Dead Poets Society: members sneak off to a cave to read poetry and compose their own. Neil discovers his love of acting, gets the role of Puck in a local production of Midsummer Night’s Dream: Keating helps him realise his potential, taking him through an exercise in self-expression.

However Neil’s conservative father, hearing of his involvement in the play, forces Neil to quit on the eve of the play, though Keating encourages him to stand his ground, withdraws him from the school and enrols him a military academy. Unable to confront his father, and lacking his mother’s support, Neil commits suicide.

The headmaster, Nolan, investigates the suicide, the members of the Society are identified and the boys are forced sign a letter blaming Keating for Neil’s death.

Keating is fired and Nolan takes over the class intending to adhere to the traditional approach to teaching. As Keating leaves, the boys of the Society stand on top of their desk, saying “O Captain! My Captain!”


External influences cannot be discounted and often derail whatever is going on within an organisation. Intervention by government ministers, bureaucrats and parents, most of them insufficiently informed, can undermine progress. In successful school systems detailed intervention is eschewed in favour of development amongst all participants of shared goals and values! Detailed instructions are seldom needed because everyone understands what is to be achieved and who is to benefit. Not in Australia.

Why on earth should we expect a minister to determine what mode of teaching generally and reading in particular should be applied[6], especially when there continues to be substantial argument amongst scholars?[7]

The notion that politicians or parents can fix whatever they think are the problems in schools is fanciful. The most important contribution politicians can make is to ensure that best practice is pursued everywhere, that resources are directed to where they will make the greatest contribution, that achievement is recognised where it occurs and that the professionalism of teachers, and their development, are supported. Unfortunately for some, that does not lead to greater control of others.

In opposition to a curriculum focused, summative test-based system, many schools have adopted an approach which involves the students and encourages their freedom to focus on favourite and interesting subjects, what Sir Ken Robinson refers to as their “element”. [8] They engage in stimulating experiences outside the school’s physical environment. One example is the Reggio Emilia movement which has been adopted by many preschool programs around the world. Its foundation is the view that children should be given some control over their learning: teachers are facilitators of learning rather than instructors.

Amongst the many extremely important observations Robinson frequently makes is that the children now at school will reach adulthood many years in the future and we have almost no idea what that future will be like yet “we are supposed to be educating them for it”. Secondly that children have an extraordinary capacity for innovation. Robinson says, “Music, dance, art and poetry along with humanities and history are those things which speak to the nature of what it is to be a human being and the understanding of how to make one’s way in the world. Children should have the opportunity to do other things, not as a default, but as an entitlement. More than that since creativity involves bringing lots of different things together to produce something innovative and since any activity of that kind involves a degree of trial and error, making mistakes is a part of life. Unfortunately, schooling and worklife eschews mistakes.”

When young climate activist Greta Thunberg first came to prominence adults said she should be in school or even attacked her for speaking out. Yet any time young people have the opportunity to speak publicly it is clear they are very capable of articulating what they think and in words that make a great deal of sense, often a great deal more than those of adults![9]

Student-centred Schools

Addressing the assertion in the second Gonski report that schools were being run like factories, writer Tom Greenwell reviewed a number of schools running innovative, student-centred programs. Lindfield Learning Village in northern Sydney enables students to progress through stages of learning at their own pace: year levels, school bells and the word ‘classroom have been eliminated. Like some schools in the US and New Zealand students are given the agency to make their own decisions about what they learn, when, how and with whom.

Templestowe College in the northeastern suburbs of Melbourne, students have similar opportunities. “In student-led electives like Geek Studies (robotics), the Science of Warfare, and Working with Animals, students negotiate their study focus and level. And because classes aren’t confined to one age group, students at Templestowe are able to choose from over 150 subjects.” The course load is similar to that of students in a regular school! “Students sit on curriculum committees and selection panels for new staff, and at the end of last year they decided to abolish the school’s uniform. The school’s One-Person Policy— “All people will be treated equally regardless of the position they hold” — encapsulates this egalitarianism.”

Peter Hutton is Principal of Templestowe College. He is adamant that in Australia, we have reached the point where education in schools is no longer fit for purpose. “School does not have to be what we are told it has to be.” Peter, his staff and parent community have jettisoned many of the traditional structures in order to turn their focus on things they considered more important. This has included shifting the focus from test scores to whether students feel they have mastered a subject or needed skills, and critically, putting a focus on all students driving their own learning.

A similar situation exists at Mount Alexander College in the Melbourne suburb Flemington.

At Reddam House in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, the approach to teaching is described by some parents as “intensive”. There are high expectations of students, teachers don’t teach to average and there are weekly “cycle tests” in a different subject designed to ensure students achieve a minimum of 60 per cent. “For teachers, the test ensures students understand the material, have done their work, and are trying.” If the minimum is not achieved there are discussions with parents and the student and remediation is put in place. Hard-copy text-books have replaced digital devices in the classroom.

Reddam House turned back a $5 million dollar annual government grant in 2019: uses venues at Centennial Park and the University of NSW for sport, and the North Bondi campus rents space from Galilee Catholic Primary School. “RH students regularly makes the top 10 of schools in university entrance exams. There is intense competition for enrolment. It does not have an entrance test… for intakes in older years, the school takes into account elements such as the child’s past academic performance, and their motivation for learning.” Co-Principal Dave Pitcairn says, “I look at the all-round child. More than academic achievement, I’m looking at academic attitude and aptitude. Enthusiasm, their attitude to learning.”

These schools share many features with those described by Kristina Rizga (reviewed by Diane Ravitch).[10]

The approach of these schools and the ideas of John Marsden (see below) recalls the philosophy of Vasily Sukhomlinsky (1918-1970), a teacher in country schools in southern Ukraine. Sukhomlinsky placed great emphasis on the health of the school children whom he taught as the basis for all development. He also gave a lot of attention to aesthetic development and development of an appreciation of beauty in nature, in music, in art, literature and in human relationships. He encouraged pupils to take responsibility for their environment. At his school there were many clubs offering a variety of after school extracurricular activities.


The late Peter Ustinov, author, film director, actor, Fellow of learned societies and University Chancellor, once told the story of his days at school and in particular mentioned several questions in a test they had to do.

“Who is the greatest composer ever. The correct answer was Beethoven. I wrote that is a bit hard on Bach. I was made to write out 100 times Beethoven was the greatest composer.

“Another question was name one Russian composer. I wrote Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov. The correct answer was Tchaikovsky. After the school authorities had looked up Korsakov in the encyclopaedia, I was chastised in front of the whole school for getting the answer wrong.”

One of the many conclusions one might draw from this story is that schooling is irrelevant. Ustinov never gained the equivalent of university entrance. His ancestry was astonishing. His ability to mimic the speech of others was almost as great as was Peter Sellers’.


To a large extent students end up in schools where the curriculum dominates and other more traditional approaches prevail because of the attitude of parents. John Marsden, writer, teacher and founder of schools is especially concerned about excessive parental control which limits young people’s experiences. In The Art of Growing Up (Pan MacMillan, Sydney 2011) Marsden emphasises how he wanted the children at Candlebark, one of the schools he founded, to have first-hand experiences and he aimed to provide “a wealth of these”. “Children can only grow emotionally, socially, spiritually if we step back and let them be adventurous.” He describes 21st century parents “who want to wrap children in cotton wool to protect them from harm” as physically ill.

He refers to Fitzroy Community School in Melbourne and Tudor House in Moss Vale, NSW: there “the students look healthy because they are engaged in healthy activities every day”. Candlebark students go hiking, bike-riding, canoeing and rock-climbing in Australia and other countries and visit museums and arts festivals. “These adventures can only take place if teachers are creative and adventurous in imitating and organising them.”

Marsden writes, “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.”

Continue to PISA2018 Part 5: Concluding Statement PISA2018 Part 5: Concluding Statement or return to PISA 2018: Education Policies: Economic, Social and Organisational Influences


[1] Teachers operate in a ‘social market’.  Professor Dan Ariely, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics at MIT, with various colleagues, has examined the relationship between behaviour and effort and the nature of rewards in money-markets and social-markets. In fact (James Heyman & Dan Ariely. 2004, Effort for Payment: A Tale of Two Markets. Psychological Science 15:787-793), ‘… in social-market relationships (unlike money-market relationships) effort is shaped by altruism, the amount of compensation is irrelevant, and individuals work as hard as they can regardless of payment. Altruism results in a level of performance that is high, constant, and insensitive to payment level. … rewards can decrease motivation and attitudes alter self-perception, increase over justification and turn feelings of competence into feelings of being controlled.’

[2] See Laura Perry and Andrew McConney of Murdoch University, in ‘School socio-economic composition and student outcomes in Australia: Implications for educational policy’, Australian Journal of Education 54 (1), p 72-85, 2010 and ‘Science And Mathematics Achievement In Australia: The Role Of School Socioeconomic Composition In Educational Equity And Effectiveness’, International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education 8, p 429-452, 2010.

[3] Springer 2014, p 287

[4] Bill Mulford, Quality Australian evidence on leadership for improved learning. ACER Research Conference 2007 – The Leadership Challenge – Improving learning in schools;

[5] Paul Black & Dylan Wiliam. 1998a. ‘Assessment and classroom learning’. Assessment in Education: Principles. Policy & Practice. 5:7-74; Paul Black & Dylan Wiliam. 1998b. ‘Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment’. ; see also Best Teaching Part 1: How teachers make a difference – John Hattie.

[6] Minister Tehan strongly promoted phonics as the preferred mode of teaching reading. But over 180 literacy educators, in an open letter to the Minister, voiced their concerns. Objections included an erroneous assumption that phonics is not being taught in schools and universities and the emphasis on reading appears to privilege one mode of language over others. The composition of the task force was criticised for being biased in favour of phonics and some members having  a conflict of interest.)

[7] Uninformed interventions are by no means uncommon. In 2019, as Dan Tehan succeeded Simon Birmingham as Education Minister, it emerged that Birmingham had refused to approve a grant from the Australian Research Council for a study by Hollis Taylor of Macquarie University of whether Pied Butcher Birds made music (Pied Butcherbirds, Virtuosos of the Bird World Croon Like Jazz Singers). Taylor: “Since each bird sings differently, and the songs can change annually, each night is always a thrill. The musician in me recognizes the musician in them.” Australian Magpies are known to sing along with a person playing a harmonica! New research appears almost monthly revealing previously unrecognised capability of non-human animals.

[8] Robinson is the author of ‘The Element’; his talks are amongst the most watched of TED talks.

[9] The March 9 episode of the ABC TV panel programme Q&A featured a number of young people speaking about their school: Vy Tran, a Year 12 student from MacRobertson Girls’ High School was a member of the panel! (Video and transcript are available!)

[10] Rizga points out, “too many politicians, powerful bureaucrats, management and business experts, economists, and philanthropists are making decisions about the best solutions for schools. In short, the people in charge don’t know nearly as much about schooling as the students and teachers they are trying to “fix.” (See The Myth of School Choice)