The role of socialisation in education governance: the case of the OECD country reviews

Sotiria Grek

As already widely debated by academics and policy actors alike, the OECD has instigated a new era in education governance, primarily through its construction of a commensurable transnational education space.[1]

Given the vast policy implications for systems worldwide, the predominant idea is that it is OECD’s technical capacity to decontextualize and compare that became the primary force behind its success. Nevertheless, there are other aspects to OECD’s policy work that have been systematically ignored; for example, an examination of the OECD’s ‘Reviews of National Policies for Education’ shows that the latter are not simply a ‘side-show’, executed in parallel to the main PISA ‘protagonist’; rather, they have become indispensable tools in establishing the dominance of international statistical comparisons and in shaping the education policy debate. The OECD has become a key knowledge producer, mediator and teacher not only because of PISA, but also through a great amount of local, national and face-to-face work. It is precisely OECD’s ability to work directly with member states that has allowed it to secure the brand of the unequivocal education policy player.

In order to pre-empt critique, I do not claim that numbers are not important, or that their spectacle through PISA’s naming and shaming is not an indispensable part of OECD’s success. Instead, it is suggested that the spectacle has a temporal dimension; it surprises and shocks. Thus, spectacles quickly come and go (think of the embargoed results for example, and the media attention PISA receives). Nonetheless, what follows the announcement of the results requires steadfast, diligent and zealous face-to-face policy work in order to carry the numbers deeper into the national imaginary and entrench them into the system. The OECD sustains and builds its policy work through the continuous crafting of its relationship with key education actors in other international organisations and within national contexts.

However, what do we know about these national education policy reviews? They proceed in several stages: initially there is preparation and completion of a background report by the country undergoing review, followed by a two-week mission by an external team of reviewers. For example, the Swedish OECD country review of 2015 was not the first one in the country; another one had preceded it in 2011. However, in light of the negative PISA 2012 results, as well as the general downward spiral of Swedish education performance, it quickly led the Ministry of Education and Research (MoER) to commission the OECD for yet another report of the country’s education system. For some of the actors involved in the Review, the commissioning of the review was not a surprise; they described the influence of the OECD in shaping the public and policy debate in Sweden as having started much earlier – in effect, as soon as the first negative PISA results were published.

Although they do not themselves use the term socialisation, all interviewees in their interpretation of the influence of PISA in Sweden, offered a similar story of staggered events that followed one another; of the involvement of an ever wider set of actors; of the importance of the OECD experts in offering suggestions; and of the central role of the establishment of the Swedish School Commission as a forum of meeting, debate and learning for all the actors involved. Indeed, the title of report of the Commission, ‘Samling för Skolan’[2](Gustafsson et al. 2017), denotes precisely the notion of ‘congregation’ or ‘gathering’ – the meeting and consensus of different actors around the core of the commission’s study, which were the OECD numbers themselves. Numbers and data are central in the interviewees’ narratives, but so are the meetings, the debates, and the continuous coming together of actors in socialising and learning events.

Therefore, rather than simply offering what has been seen as fast policy solutions, the OECD painstakingly enters national sites and works with local actors to create conditions of belonging; that is, it creates conditions fruitful for socialization and policy translation. There could not have been a better example than the set-up of the Swedish School Commission with a remit to study the OECD report in detail and offer recommendations for reform. National actors are equally central in supporting and sustaining these processes. Indeed, some of the interviewees, even when critical of the OECD work, were ready to acknowledge that the OECD sparked a debate that would not have happened otherwise. However, it is important to also note that the debate was not as wide-ranging and diverse as it appears: the PISA data and the OECD review of 2015 have always been at the centre of all analysis. In fact, progressively since the mid-2000s the OECD became an undisputed expert organization and indeed, as couple of interviewees suggested, a ‘production force’. Close and sustained work with the Ministry, in combination with touching a nerve with the Swedish public (with quotes by Schleicher, such as ‘Swedish schools having lost their soul[3]) were key ingredients of this success.

What is perhaps more interesting in policy analysis terms, is the progressive layering and imbrication of a number of OECD events and experts who have been coming back and forth to Sweden for the last decade. The meetings and exchanges go far beyond the limits of a small circle of elite policy makers and experts. The Swedish country review of 2015 sparked a debate that included not only policy makers, but also academics, teachers and the media. In the case of the OECD and Sweden then, ironically perhaps, ‘governing at a distance’ (Cooper 1998[4]) appears to require a strange sense of proximity: arguably, these conditions of actors’ socialization and policy translation are necessary for the kind of paradigmatic policy shift we witness in Sweden today.



[1]For a full analysis and presentation of the findings and discussion, please read the published article at Grek, S. (2017) Socialisation, learning and the OECD’s Reviews of National Policies for Education: the case of Sweden, Critical Studies in Education, vol58, issue 3, 295-310




Upcoming book: Beyond PISA – International and comparative education

In February 2017 we release the first book from the project. It is an edited volume in Swedish. The book is titled Beyond PISA. International and comparative education (eds. Joakim Landahl and Christian Lundahl).

International large-scale assessments, like PISA, help to rank countries’ school systems, as well as to point out who is considered to have succeeded or failed. But it is important not to stop there, without looking further and beyond these measurements.

The book Beyond PISA goes beyond the question of how countries’ school systems can be ranked. Instead of seeking answers to the question of how national systems of education can be developed through international comparisons, the book uses international outlooks to provide perspective and broadening horizons.

With an international perspective, the specific features of the Swedish educational tradition and changes over time are made visible, as well as international trends, tendencies and differences. The book provides an alternative to the cemented debate on school performance and highlights aspects of education that international assessments tend to neglect.

The book consists of twelve different chapters by ten Swedish and international scholars.


Bortom pisa

For information in Swedish see the publisher Natur och Kultur, here.

The pre-history of PISA

In a newly published paper, Swedish Education Exhibitions and Aesthetic Governing at World´s Fairs in the Late Nineteenth Century, Christian Lundahl discuss what can be considered an important aspect of the pre-history of international large scale assessments such as PISA – the comparative logic of school exhibits.

The purpose of the paper is to shed light on the relations between Swedish education and the international scene when it comes to policy and practice formation. The field of study is the international World´s Fairs of 1862–1904. Looking at what Sweden displayed, and understanding how visitors perceived it, the paper raises questions concerning how exhibitions like these worked as mediators of educational ideals. The focus is on the dissemination of aesthetic ideals, and the paper shows that the World’s Fairs were platforms for an aesthetic normativity that had governing effects locally as well as globally.

For full-text see: Nordic Journal of Educational History 3:2 (2016)

The Beauty in PISA

Today we often use Google when we want to learn something new, for example about education. The function of Google is similar to that of World’s fairs in the late 19th century. It provides a relatively comprehensive overview of things that might interest you.

One way of getting inspired from other countries education systems in the late 19th C was to take the train to Paris or Vienna, or even take the boat to USA and visit one of the large World’s fair’s education exhibits. There it was possible to meet an excessive collection of teaching materials, and even teaching methods. The things displayed at the World’s fairs were not really representative, but carefully selected (Lundahl & Lawn 2014). If we on the other hand turn to Google and ask what present education look like we get so many answers that it is almost impossible to sort among them. One way of overviewing them is by searching a topic with Google images. Pictures can often pinpoint dominant discourses (Fairclough 1992). One interesting question then, is what does the PISA test, or rather the discourse about it, look like.

Using Google images and the search terms “Pisa test” we retrieve a collage of pictures looking like this (March 20, 2015):


Pic 1. Google images: Pisa test

In this picture we see charts and tables illustrating comparisons on differences in outcome. We see that the people constructing these charts often want to illustrate that some outcomes are better then others – there is a slope in most of them. If we scroll among the Google images about PISA we see some variations where also the international foci becomes more prevailing (Pic 2), but we see very few examples of content, i.e. questions asked in these tests or information about test taking processes.


Pic 2. Google images: Pisa test

In a new Phd-theses Margareta Serder (2015) for example suggests, in an analysis based on PISA documents, that low performers appear as threats to the future society, due to the risk that they would become ineffective citizens. Meanwhile, other studies assert that standardized comparison is a practice that, when frequently repeated, contributes to lower results and an increasing disillusion of low achievers. Serder proposes that PISA, rather than to be seen as a knowledge measurement, should be regarded as a knowledge actor. In other words, PISA produces another reality than it measures – while measuring. Sweden is a good example of that. When Sweden started to drop in the PISA rankings 2006, Swedish politicians proclaimed an educational crisis, even if the scores still were quite decent. This paved the way for several reforms aiming at increased testing and control, which at least haven’t solved the problem with dropping PISA-results. Today PISA is synonymous to crises in Swedish educational discourse, which becomes evident when we search Google images for ‘Sverige’ (Sweden) and ‘PISA’ (Pic 3).


Pic 3. Google images: Sverige (Sweden) and PISA

Compared to the international images of PISA this collage illustrates that PISA in Sweden is used to illustrate a negative trend when it comes to school quality – a downfall. Why Sweden fails in PISA and what to do about it is an interesting question, but based on these images we can also raise questions of another kind: what knowledge travels, where does it go and through what media. What shapes does knowledge about education have and when does it change its shapes and for what reason? Images like the ones in Pic 1 – 3 are the perfect “quick language” (Lundahl 2008). They transfer fast, and allows for translations without a spoken word. They can be correctly understood or misunderstood, it doesn’t really matter – they can become meaningful in new ways from the perspective of the spectators. If we consider PISA as a knowledge actor it produces images and idols through which it becomes an ontological reality that reach into space and time in a similar way as the old World’s fairs did. Clearly PISA fosters winners and loser. There is only room for a few top-performing countries. Also in the old World’s fairs competition was a major reason to participate. The spectators however met all of the variation and could with their own eyes and hands try to assess the quality of the exhibition. PISA is not really open to laymen assessment in that way. We see the differences in numbers, ranking and charts but what does it mean? What do the children really know or not? Visualised with the help of Google images one kind of PISA discourse is revealed, and regardless of its meaning, as purely a representation there is a kind of beauty in PISA.



Fairclough, N. (1992). Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lundahl, C. (2008): Inter/national assessments as national curriculum: the case of Sweden. Martin Lawn (ed): An Atlantic Crossing? The work of the International Examination Inquiry, its researchers, methods and influence. Oxford: Symposium Books, 157-180.

Lundahl, C. & Lawn, M. (2014): The Swedish Schoolhouse: a Case study in Transnational influences in Education at the 1870s World’s fairs. Peadagica Historica

Serder, M. (2015). Möten med PISA: Kunskapsmätning som samspel mellan elever och provuppgifter i och om naturvetenskap. Diss. Studies in Educational Sciences, no 75. Högskolan i Malmö.