Pasi Sahlberg first used the term Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) to describe the emergence of the school system phenomena in his Finnish homeland. For Sahlberg, GERM’s principal features reflect its namesake – it has spread a kind of infectious education reform throughout the world.

The spread of GERM has raised questions and debate about the possibility of universal education for all. While the idea of global education is something to reach for, educators also need to understand the positives and negatives that come with it. 


What is the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM)?  

According to Sahlberg, the Global Education Reform Movement can be traced back to the 1980s. Tellingly, the emergence of GERM accompanied the rise of globalisation with its easier movement of both people and ideas.

For Sahlberg and others like him, the spread of standardised education through GERM has meant a reduction in what makes education well-rounded, culturally specific and individually relevant.

As well-meaning nations like the United States, England and Australia caught on to GERM, what started out as theory around results-driven learning, quickly became policy.

Many first world and emerging nations adopted the GERM model with its key components of:

  • Narrowed curriculum to focus on strict subjects, namely literacy and numeracy
  • Growth of test-based, high-stakes accountability
  • Use of corporate-style management practices on teachers and students alike.

Instead of considering individual student progress over the course of a school year holistically, GERM encouraged rigid grading systems. In a GERM influenced system, competition is the aim of the game – rungs of achievement are set and fought for according to year group expectations and performance.

According to Dr Christine Cunningham, Senior Educator at ECU, “GERM is about a way of thinking about schools like competitive entities in an economic market. GERM advocates for test-based accountability where schools mainly focus on literacy and numeracy, rather than the whole curriculum.”

For Sahlberg, the underlying philosophy of GERM has fundamentally affected the way teachers impart and students absorb knowledge – often to the detriment of both parties.


Key concepts of GERM

According to Sahlberg, all education leaders need a solid understanding of the key concepts of GERM. Informed teachers aspiring for leadership can begin to shift pervasive notions of what education should look like, taking into account GERM’s four key concepts.


By encouraging competition between schools, parents become potential consumers and children commodities. Schools in competition with one another are less likely to cooperate, harming overall progress and limiting the sharing of ideas.


To compete with the best, schools have to be autonomous. With autonomy comes a need for accountability in the form of checks and balances, inspections, standardised testing and teacher evaluations. Instead of focusing on learning, the stress to simply survive takes over.


Parents have the freedom to choose the school their child attends, increasing the marketplace feel of the entire education model.


A single national curriculum allows the public to witness education in action, comparing measures of student achievement on a single, national scale.


GERM’s impact in schools

GERM’s influence cannot be underestimated. For Sahlberg, the pervasiveness of GERM-inspired models has dictated the very basis of criteria for good educational performance.

Criteria for reading, mathematical and scientific literacy are more likely to be the main determinants of perceived success or failure. This same pass/fail division applies not only to pupils, but to teachers and the entire school system. Meanwhile, the emphasis on numeracy and literacy happens at the expense of a diminishing focus on social studies, arts, music and physical education. Collaboration and creativity are often confined to subjects that test those skills. Rote learning and repetition are stressed for subjects that affect overall school standing in a competitive landscape.

While the model’s aspiration for global education standards is noble, its inability to account for difference and individuality has been impactful. It influences students by limiting whole-child development, narrowing future choices and hindering the discovery of talent. It impacts teachers too, often casting creativity and collaboration in a negative light.


Global benchmarking in education

The notion of a ‘world-class’ education is ambitious, inspired and worthwhile. Global benchmarking has resulted in a greater focus on student learning over instruction, high expectations for all students, and integration of technology as part of teaching and learning in schools.

However, according to Sahlberg, standardisation draws from an assumption that all students should be educated to the same level. All over the world, teachers are struggling to manage necessary changes beyond often rigid subjects, standards and curriculum.

Those who think outside the strict GERM model encourage teachers to focus on differences in learning styles. Sahlberg recommends establishing checkpoints for individuals to reach in their learning, setting personal stretch targets and monitoring progress over time. Underpinning this approach is an inherent growth mindset; a belief that, at any given time, every student is capable of further progress if they can be engaged and confidently led on their own learning path.


Lead with a growth mindset 

Through the Master of Education at Edith Cowan University, you’ll learn more about GERM and other education policies to develop your own growth mindset. Discover how to become a leader in education reform and hone your own global perspective through the Master of Education.