WALTER HAMILTON. Education as a way of life

Dec 8, 2016

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.

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