The papers are full of the dire news about our slipping rankings in the PISA Report and politicians’ partisan responses. While there’s no question that looking at a graph showing a downward trend is rarely a lot of fun, I do wonder if a deep breath and a more considered look might lead to different conclusions.
The first thing you’d do upon taking that deep breath is to remove ridiculous political statements from the mix. There’s no indication that the level of spending or even its direction has made a demonstrable difference one way or another. Neither side of politics has anything to point to that looks like a plan to change the way our education system works – the plans are all about funding and consistently confuse capital and recurrent spending. Money is always important; but more or less money (a) does not indicate a sensible plan on how to spend it and (b) is a ridiculous discussion in the context of PISA unless you want to also look at per capita spending on education in the countries we compare ourselves to. Finland, the darling of Western nations PISA results, does not spend very much on education.
The next thing we deep breathers may want to do is to actually consider how we want our education system to work; what do we want our graduates to look like? When you do some research on PISA it’s quickly apparent that unless you are the number one position in the table your local press is going to be full of complaints. Japan for example currently sits in the top few positions but, finding itself pushed down by China and South Korea, is considering bringing back Saturday schooling which it ended over ten years ago. Do we want to compare ourselves to education systems which have amazing results at the expense of enjoyment, creativity or a childhood? Because make no mistake we’re going to continue to slip when compared in absolute terms to hard-driving nations which see guaranteed educational results as the way out of their relative poverty, unless we adopt similar methods. And that’s the question: Do we want our kids at school 12 hours a day, six days a week? Whatever our collective answer is to that question, it’s a discussion we need to have.
Our deep breath might now be coming close to bursting, but as we turn red in the face we might consider another factor: Studies have shown that there isn’t one magic model that works. The model a country uses must fit in with its culture; although there is one secret-ingredient factor that makes all the difference. So Finland has small class sizes, China huge ones. South Korea spends enormous amounts on education, Finland not so much. The correlation between models and absolute outcomes is weak unless you look at the dependable approach of cramming the kids in a high-pressure relentless environment. And even then you don’t always get what you want: Japan and Korea have extremely high literacy rates, but their relentless approach means people don’t read for pleasure which leads to lower outcomes later in life.
No the dependable factor, and one which countries like Australia struggle with, is that a culture of valuing education makes all the difference. A country that consistently views education as crucial and makes policy decisions based on that core belief will see positive results. Because other factors flow from that core belief – parents valuing education over sporting prowess, better quality graduate teachers who are appreciated in the community, equitable access to education. And, maybe, a sensible discussion about what a well-educated Australian should be like at the end of their 12 years of formal schooling and a rhetoric-free plan to achieve that end.