WALTER HAMILTON. Education as a way of life

The OECD-endorsed rankings of educational proficiency recently released give the lie to those in Australia who attribute outcomes solely to levels of spending. Throwing more money at the Education Establishment will not automatically produce smarter students.

Contemporary Australia has a cultural ‘black spot’ when it comes to learning. I don’t mean just sending kids to school; I mean actually instilling them with knowledge and a love of learning. Any successful education system––one that equips our youth with the skills necessary to secure well-paid jobs, understand the world around them and fully contribute to society­­––needs teachers who want to, and can, teach well and pupils who want to learn. Absent these conditions, no amount of money will make a speck of difference.

It is fashionable to talk about ‘releasing potential’ and ‘equal opportunity’ in education. ‘Opportunity’ and ‘potential’ are essentially abstract, passive concepts. On the other hand, the desire to learn is an active prerequisite for learning. Societies (which, here, really means families) that admire, celebrate and reward the commitment of the individual student are more likely to achieve their goals than those that look away from the motivation of the individual and focus instead on sociological characteristics of the group.

When ‘opportunity’ and ‘potential’ are made the primary terms of the education debate, when these two hares are set running, no amount of money will chase them down.

Money, as I’ve said, is a deceptive yardstick, as the following statistics bear out:

  • Average world government expenditure on education in 2012 (using the most recent World Bank analysis) was 4.4% of GDP
  • Australia spent 4.9%
  • By comparison, Japan spent 3.8%, South Korea 4.6% and Singapore 3.1%.

Those who claim Australian schools are being starved of money will often argue that GDP-based comparisons are misleading. They prefer to measure government spending on education as a percentage of total public spending. They point out, for instance, that Singapore allocates a much larger share of its budget to education than does Australia: 14% versus 7% (the share of the Federal Budget; in NSW, education accounts for 9% of the State Budget).

But this is hardly a useful comparison. Between nations there are vast differences in the cost structures and responsibilities of government due to geographical and historical––as opposed to cultural––factors. The much higher cost of delivering any kind of government service or function in Australia, compared to tiny Singapore, hints at why ‘percentage of expenditure’ is not a sound basis for comparison. (Even within our federation, the administrative cost per student of delivering education in the Northern Territory is more than four times greater than in NSW. Does that make the Territory four times more committed?)

In fact, there has been little change in the proportion of money allocated to education in Australian budgets since the mid-1980s (going further back, it was higher during the Whitlam years). If the proportion had fallen it might partly explain falling classroom standards, but the proportion has hardly changed.

The OECD’s PISA* test results do not go back that far, but since 2000, when testing began, Australia (i.e. among the 15-year-old students tested) has fallen from 6th to 25th place for mathematics, from 8th to 14th place for science and from 4th to 16th place for reading. By contrast, South Korea, a country that was on a par with Australia in 2000, has improved its ranking on all measures. Now look back and see the percentage of GDP that South Korea allocates to education.**

Inevitably, the PISA testing regime has its critics; the release of results every three years spawns a commentary that is sharply divided between hand-wringers and dissenters. Like it or not, however, there is strong anecdotal evidence that educational policymakers around the world are paying more attention to PISA results than ever before.

One dissenting analysis I read recently argued that since ethnic-Chinese students taught in Australia perform as well, if not better, than the average student in Singapore, the Australian education system must be at least as good. Ignoring for the moment its reliance on a flawed statistical comparison, this observation merely reinforces my argument that a cultural emphasis on learning (very apparent among Chinese Australians but far less apparent among some other ethnic groups) is crucial to achieving superior outcomes.

By outcomes, yes, I mean test scores. I know that some commentators deny the usefulness of standardized testing for measuring educational outcomes. They prefer labels such as ‘qualitative education’ or ‘fostering creativity’ or ‘promoting equity’. They are welcome to any descriptor they like, so long as they show how it can be measured, what is being measured and the value in terms of equipping students for the world of work. I find it telling that the ‘anti-testers’ generally opt out of any discussion that revolves around ‘old’ educational concepts like proficiency and knowledge.

Personally, I know of no short cuts to learning (i.e. acquiring knowledge). It requires time, application, concentration, guidance and a means of testing what has, or has not, been understood along the way. Unless schools foster a learning environment and an appreciation for knowledge that is guided by this truism, in my view, they cannot claim to be performing their basic educative function.

Nor can schools be said to be performing their proper function if they dilute the amount of time devoted in the curriculum to literacy, numeracy and the sciences by embracing responsibilities that properly belong to parents or other social agents. In Australia, the trend towards making schools child-rearing factories must be reversed.

In Singapore, teachers are drawn from the top 5% of graduates. They are trained at a centralized facility (not practical in Australia) and sent out to teach a national curriculum (definitely practical here). Attracting the best and brightest to teaching is a national goal.

Money, in any market economy, plays a part in shaping career choices, but it is not the sole, or necessarily most important, factor. If teaching is elevated to the front rank of a nation’s identity and societal goals, the prestige and job satisfaction of the profession will be major ‘pull’ factors.

Highly skilled teachers able to foster a desire among their students to strive for excellence and perform to the best of their abilities deserve to be well paid––certainly not less than the average professional footballer or cricketer or pop singer or journalist. But too many teachers in Australia do not fit this description. While such is the case, society at large is unlikely to reassess the profession’s remunerative value vis-à-vis sportspeople or media personalities. If it sounds like I am posing a ‘chicken and egg’ conundrum, I am not. Everything flows, I believe, from striking a cultural change that places a higher value on (i.e. more highly esteems) learning and academic/professional/technical expertise.

Such a society would be better equipped to insist on a fact-based national discourse on issues affecting its citizenry, rather than one mired in rumour, speculation, misinformation, lies, half-baked predictions and abuse. Let others stumble down the road to perdition­­––never Australia.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not place all, or even most, of the blame on teachers for our declining standards of literacy and numeracy. It is a society-wide, culture-wide responsibility. We either care enough as a nation to place education (the quality of outcomes, not the feel-good rhetoric) at the centre of public policy, or we don’t. A flurry of handwringing over PISA rankings followed by three years of silence and inactivity is equally useless. It condemns a large part of another generation to lower-paying jobs or permanent unemployment.

Australian culture seems ever more tolerant of a dysfunctional citizenry that cannot do the simplest sums without an adding machine, cannot communicate without relying on clichés, and lacks even a basic understanding of the science behind the tools of everyday life.

I say these problems are pervasive when the national broadcaster, the ABC, regularly puts to air news items that contain glaring grammatical errors, or defy logic or leave basic questions unanswered. Not every bulletin, by any means, but enough to underscore my point. The ABC is representative of the general decline in communication and reasoning skills. The sort of monosyllabic ramblings once confined to post-game interviews during the football season now fill the mouths of entertainers, politicians, broadcasters and the proverbial man-in-the-street all year round. If one operates within a fifty-word vocabulary and is unable to arrange words in a way that respects what they do in a sentence (i.e. grammatically), one cannot have a clear and meaningful thought. It is as simple as that.

A population that cannot think deserves whatever it gets.


* PISA stands for Programme for International Student Assessment.

** Public spending on education accounts for just part of education expenditure in learning-oriented societies like South Korea, Japan and Singapore. The willingness of families to devote significant extra income to out-of-school coaching for their sons and daughters is another mark of an ‘education culture’. Certainly, these activities can be taken to excess, but an exclusive focus on extremes of behaviour discredits the observer, not the thing being observed. 

Walter Hamilton formerly reported for the ABC.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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2 Responses to WALTER HAMILTON. Education as a way of life

  1. Avatar Andrew McRae says:

    Thanks, Walter.

    I agree with quite a lot you say here, especially your main point about the importance of a culture in which education and learning are valued, but also the need to elevate the teaching profession and the abilities of teachers, the dilution of the curriculum (I speak as an ex-teacher) and validity of testing to measure performance and ability.

    However, you seem to have ignored what I consider to be one of the greatest problems facing education in this country – the huge, ever-growing private school sector. The obsession with private – or “choice-driven” – education feeds into the idea of education being viewed as a private good rather than a public investment, in which environment it is hard to see how the values you speak of can prosper in a meaningful sense. It also draws a massive extra and quite superfluous amount of money from both households and government (given present policies), leaving a great swathe of typical suburban schools lacking a diversity of abilities in their classrooms from prep to final year. Suburban government schools end up as repositories for those students of ESL, single-parent, unemployed, lower-income, behaviourally antagonistic, less educated backgrounds; I think you know what I mean. There IS a fundamental INEQUALITY in Australian schools, which your article doesn’t mention.

    This leads into your point about the Chinese students in Australia, which I think is weak. Most of these are from quite well-off families who often locate themselves in suburbs close to private colleges or ersatz private schools in the form of elitist/selective state schools, some of which now have 80% or more Chinese students. Clearly, the determined and well-heeled parents can see the ‘value’ in evading the state system – or at least its ‘typical’ suburban schools – in general. We really need to know how the parents’ cultural emphasis on learning would equip their children in the relatively deprived and perhaps more alien environments of suburban state schools.

    You didn’t mention Finland, either. I’m not sure that comparisons solely with Asian countries are all that helpful. In Finland the teaching profession has been elevated to a position of high esteem, even though relative salaries are not higher, indeed I believe they are lower, than in this country. The transformation of Finnish education was a deliberate policy, one which emphasised equality between schools as well as autonomy in schools and teachers. Today, private schools comprise a rump, mainly of small religious or alternative philosophy-based groups. They receive the same funding as government schools but may not charge fees or refuse admission to any prospective students. “Choice” is simply not an issue or an ideal in Finland. In 2012, when Australia’s spending was 4.9% – the same as Germany’s – Finland’s was 7.2%. In the same year, France 5.5, New Zealand 7.3, Norway 7.4. All the mentioned countries finished above Australia in Maths and Reading; only Finland and NZ in Science.

    Finally, despite my agreement that PISA represents a valid measure of ability and performance, I think it is a mistake to think that the curriculum should be given over to testing, and preparation for national and international testing. Again, the Finns have excelled in PISA in recent years, but do not have a national testing regime of their own, thus avoiding the stress and time-wasting that partners the school “league tables” syndrome that has a negative effect on teaching and learning in the anglophone countries. Sad to say, most educational initiatives and innovations in Australia are mere replications or variations of those tried and already shown to have failed in the UK or the USA.

    I’d conclude by saying that no amount of spending on education is going to allow Australian schools to compete with the conformity, obedience and determination of students in those Asian countries you mention. They will continue to dominate the league tables. But that might represent a mechanistic excellence, lacking in the overall ability to “think” which you lionise, and of which I also lament the passing. Notwithstanding that point, schools in China, Korea and Singapore quite probably lack the inequality of ours. It may not be necessary to increase the proportion of our GDP spending to match the Finns or Norwegians, but it is necessary to remove the inequalities of our system in order to promote the valuing of education and to make our populace more knowledgeable and thoughtful, as well as better performing in international assessment. Another year of hysteria and hand-wringing and we will likely see the pursuit of “austerity” in education; this will be self-defeating, but it will happen.

  2. Avatar Chris says:

    There is a risk of falling for the ‘ecological fallacy’ – assuming that an average measure for a population describes an individual within it.
    Singapore’s student population is almost certainly a lot more homogeneous than Australia’s, and our PISA results are likely to be skewed by the terrible educational outcomes for our most disadvantaged students (whose homes lack the education-supporting ethos that most readers here would take for granted).
    Similarly, the amount Australian governments spend on education matters less than how that funding is distributed. We seem take it for granted that governments over-fund wealthy schools and privileged students, at the expense of those most in need of intensive support. This is done in the name of ‘equality of opportunity’.
    Intensive educational support can counteract adverse home environments (to a degree), but if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll keep getting what we get.

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