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When the PISA league table of international educational standards was released I braced myself for some pretty hysterical responses and I wasn’t disappointed. Once again Australia, who believes it should be competing at the top of the league, noticed its position decline. There was all sorts of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Often the first reaction when shit hits the fan is to look for a culprit. Never a good example when a government does this as they set the bar for the rest of the community. Surely the best reaction is to pause and look more closely? Only after a reasoned assessment of the facts and getting input from interested parties should a relevant action plan (with measurable milestones) be put in place. Least that’s what we do in the business world…and after all isn’t it for this very business world that we want top of the table students?

I’ve been pondering how China (in all its extended form e.g. Hong Kong, Taipei) and Estonia have managed to climb to the top of the educational league. One thought that popped into my head was the internet speed of the top performing countries. This theory held good for Singapore, clearly, with their legendary speed but came crashing down when Estonia only managed a poor 44th place on the global table of fixed broadband speed. Australia came in at a miserly 64th in terms of Mbps. Maybe it has to do with diet or age when children first start to be educated? I even refreshed myself with Outliers the great read by Malcolm Gladwell. Still none the wiser, I put the blog aside for a while!

Then I got to thinking. Does it really matter where we are on the PISA list if it doesn’t deliver what we really need as a society and nation – a happy and contented community. The WASP view of life, while still an undercurrent running through society (especially the owners of capital), has much less of a sway in terms of public policy and establishment of societal norms nowadays. The rise of the happiness and well-being movement is testament to this shift. I put this down to the greater affluence of the middle classes, which in the Western world, has expanded immeasurably. And guess what – we are none the happier for all that extra stuff we get to buy! There are some things that some people get to realise as they get older and wealthier and that is they get wiser as well. It’s a wisdom borne of experience. Invariably that experience teaches us that wealth is not correlated to happiness and even if it was it wouldn’t be dose dependent.


Next step on what had now become a quest, was researching global happiness tables. Surprise surprise! There appears to be no direct correlation whatsoever between being a happy nation and the level of educational attainment. The first point of commonality is Finland topping out the happiness league, with an educational system ranked 7th. The Scandinavians dominate the happiness table with Denmark, Norway and Iceland claiming the next top slots. Sweden, perhaps mourning the demise of Abba, come in at a creditable 7th. In the educational stakes most of them are lower than us. Where might Australia be languishing then in the happiness stakes given our parlous educational system (16th place)? Actually on happiness we score a pretty robust 11th out of 156. If we were to aspire to be another country, I bet that a public poll would opt for the likes of those Nordic countries rather than China, Estonia, South Korea or Poland.

Silhouettes of People Holding Flag of Switzerland

No-one could accuse the Nordic bloc as being industrially backward either. But let’s consider the really big league in world commerce. Surely their economies rely on a smart source of labour and that’s why they are faring so well. Once again, I’m confounded to find Germany, arguably the world’s most advanced economy, ranks at 20 on the PISA table. Japan, similarly industrialised, ranks 15th. Switzerland, land of lush meadows, skiing, banks and great wealth – where I think we all secretly want to live – ranks 28th on the PISA scale. Go figure! It features in 6th place on the happiness scale.

In my opinion Australia would be well advised to spend our time trying to implement policies to get us higher on the happiness league table than the educational one. That’s not to say that we rank lowly in either. What policies should we be implementing to improve this position? Sadly the Government seems to want to place the emphasis on education. While more could be spent, I’m not sure that just getting us better at maths and reading (when it’s boiled down that’s what PISA measures) will actually take us anywhere meaningful. Time and again we are reminded by those who have a clear eye to jobs of the future (who are these soothsayers?) that we need creativity and soft skills. Our hellbent focus on STEM is not likely to deliver without us taking a broader brush to our curriculum. I’ve heard for calls recently to narrow the curriculum when, as a non-educationalist (but an employer who gets these cookie-cut kids when they leave school or uni), I need the problem-solving, creativity, soft skills, diplomacy and high EQ. A narrow curriculum is not capable of delivering these requirements.


So it surprised me immensely when, within a few weeks of the PISA results being published, I learned that the Federal Department for the Arts was being folded into another large Department (Transport). While a precious few might find mathematical problem solving the highlight of their leisure time, they are far outweighed by those who enjoy a cultural experience like a concert, show, art gallery visit or trip to the cinema. It is the arts that distinguish us from being mere fodder for the production of goods. Even industrialists at the beginning of the industrial revolution got that. Case in point; Port Sunlight in  the UK where the enlightened Lever family created a village where they housed all their workers from management to the shop floor. Guess what they put into their village? A library and art gallery. In fact the Lady Lever Art Gallery is an amazing small gallery with one of the best collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings you could hope to see. Yup even the uneducated working class like their art!


Australia’s economy relies quite heavily on tourism. In 2017 tourism contributed $49.7 bn to the GDP. Now I’d hazard a guess not tourists have come solely to visit our science museums! Many though will partake in our cultural offerings. The more culturally interested and literate we become the more likely we are to be happier. Along the way we might find also that our overall IQ increases too. It’s no surprise that those countries featuring high in the happiness scales have lashings of cultural offerings.


So where does this leave us? Let’s not beat ourselves up, go blaming teachers, funding levels, Gonski, lack of Gonski etc. Let’s focus instead on the metrics that are important to us. Hubris too often drives our thinking when we get ranked lower than we think we should. That’s wasted effort. Let’s spend our time and energy making us a happier place. If that means tweaking some aspects on the educational system by teaching more mindfulness etc. then so be it. Let’s leave league table obsession for the other great cultural aspect of Australian Society – sport. At least sport has its own Ministry that’s been left intact. Would it have been any other way?