Two seminal reports on the state of education advantage and disadvantage in so called 'rich nations' were released in 2002 by the international agencies OECD (2002a) and UNICEF (2002). These complex reports are brought to the attention of those at the very centre of the education debate, the general public, through the public media. What the public is told by the media, and perhaps more importantly, what they are not told, about the reports and their findings is then crucial. This paper analyses how the print media interpreted these reports according to a critical reading of the reports themselves. This is then compared and contrasted to what the reports actually have to say about social justice and educational equity, advantage and disadvantage.
Two seminal reports on the state of education in so called 'rich nations' were released in 2002 by the international agencies OECD (2002a) and UNICEF (2002). Such reports are probably rarely, if ever, read by those affected by their analysis and recommendations. In this case this audience is young people and their families, teachers and their schools, members of the education academy, education department bureaucrats, policy makers and members of parliament around the developed world. Apart from the last group it can be confidently suggested that very few of those at the very centre of the provision of education for young people, teachers and school administrators and school governing bodies will ever even open the reports.
And what about the policy makers and bureaucrats, those people best placed to actually do something and most able to respond to the contents of the reports in a systemic and financial sense? It can also be suggested with a degree of certainty that apart from the Executive Summary that these reports provide (or perhaps the media release that accompanies them) these bureaucrats too will not open the reports. They will be dutifully filed away for further reference.
If indeed these reports are brought to the attention of the general public, including teachers and schools - those at the very centre of the education debate - then it is only through the public media. What the public is told by the media, and perhaps more importantly, what they are not told, about the reports and their findings is then crucial.
This paper seeks to show how the print media interpreted these reports and to analyse these media responses according to a critical reading of the reports themselves. This is then compared and contrasted to what the reports actually have to say about educational equity and social justice.
The media articles were sourced after an exhaustive search on Lexis Nexis of all Australian print sources for references to the OECD or UNICEF reports.
These findings will be briefly mediated by reference to recent relevant reports of the Dusseldorp Skills Forum (Abelson 2002; Dusseldorp Skills Forum 2002b, 2002a; Marsh & Macdonald 2002). Reference will be made to the benchmark report How Young People are Faring (Dusseldorp Skills Forum 2002a) as well as similar research conducted in the United States (Berliner & Biddle 1998a, 1998b; Public Agenda 1997).
key instrument for disseminating the indicators to a range of users, from governments seeking to learn policy lessons, academics requiring data for further analysis, to the general public (my emphasis) wanting to monitor how its nation's schools are progressing in producing world-class students. It does so by providing a rich, comparable and up-to-date array of indicators that reflect a consensus among professionals on how to measure the current state of education internationally (OECD 2002a, p.3).
The OECD report is a massive glance at over 380 pages, hundreds of charts, graphs and tables and a glossary of over 10 pages. Its size, complexity and content would deter from in depth reading even the most dedicated educator let alone the general public.
According to the publicity on the OECD website, the 2002 edition of Education at a Glance- OECD Indicators provides a rich, comparable and up-to-date array of indicators that make "this publication a valuable resource for anyone interested in analysing education systems across countries" (OECD 2002b my emphasis).
The focus of the 2002 edition of Education at a Glance is on the quality of learning outcomes and the policy levers that shape these outcomes. This includes a comparative picture of student performance in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy as well as of students' civic engagement and attitudes. The picture is not limited to national performance levels, but also examines questions of equity in learning outcomes and opportunities as well as the broader private and social returns that accrue to investments in education. This information details student learning conditions, including the learning climate in the classroom and the use of information technology in education as well as on teacher working conditions provide a better understanding of key determinants of educational success (OECD 2002b my emphasis).
The UNICEF report from the Innocenti Research Centre considers the effectiveness of public education systems across the rich nations of the industrialised world. It presents an overview of several well-respected cross-national surveys into educational performance in an effort to present a 'big picture' of the extent of educational disadvantage in OECD member countries. Although enrolment rates in lower secondary schooling throughout the OECD are almost 100%, children in their early teens nevertheless differ greatly in what they successfully manage to learn while at school. With the importance of knowledge and of human capital in the global economy, the differences between high and low achievers become ever more critical if a part of each generation is not to be excluded from the benefits of economic progress. While only 35 pages in length, the proliferation of charts, scatter grams and graphs could deter most lay readers (UNICEF 2002).
The OECD report was released in late October 2002, while the UNICEF report was made available late November 2002. Both were available for free download from the web. Both were reported on widely in the mainstream newspapers in Australia and in the English speaking world. (This is not to imply that it was not reported in non-an glophonic papers - just that this researcher is confined to that language!)
Apart from the Australian House of Representatives report Boys: Getting it Right (2002), the OECD and UNICEF reports received the most Australian print media coverage of any other educational report in 2002.
Bridging the Gap (Feeney, Feeney & et.al 2002a), another report into educational disadvantage in Australia, emphasised real and deep problems in Australian society, in particular with our education system and schools in the way that we deal with the socially disadvantaged. It highlighted that "...there was mounting evidence that some parts of the Australian community were being left behind. The challenge was to ensure that those not doing so well did not fall further behind ...[resulting in]... a permanent underclass of disadvantage in a chronically divided society" (Feeney, Feeney & et.al 2002b, p.7).
Bridging the Gap however was largely ignored by the media attracting only one article and a letter. Its stated aim was to address the
... key issues of concern across the country about those Australians who continue to experience disadvantage in a variety of ways. It reaffirms the role of education as a major contributor to the transformation of Australian society, and as a passport to employment and fuller participation in that society (Feeney, Feeney & et.al 2002a, p.5).
This perception that education can transform "the personal and social fortunes of people who are disadvantaged" (Feeney, Feeney & et.al 2002b, p.7) is based on the assumption that schools can make a difference and compensate these children at risk for their alleged deficits. Knight (2002, p.102 ) suggests that so long as education reform is based on such a deficit model of social justice, the nature of the real problem is obscured and unrealised. Social advantage, the structural reproduction of society is maintained and even enhanced by a curriculum that is increasingly irrelevant to 'at risk' children.
[I]t is inappropriate to expect a democratic free press to be anything but highly critical of the society in which it lives. That is one of its functions. But it is not inappropriate to ask for balance. And we do not think we have that. ... It would be ironic, as well as tragic, if the imbalance in the reporting that exists were to lead to the abandonment of our public schools and a dramatic rise in private school rates of attendance. We are sure this would result in greater privilege for a few and less of a chance for success in life for the many. And when those circumstances occur, the press is always captured by the power of the few, and no longer can claim to be totally free (Berliner & Biddle 1998a, p.15).
U.S. research found that the media often presents a too simplistic and incomplete a view of the educational problems and issues that they are reporting. This research also suggests that editorial policies are biased against public schools; biased against school change; and in particular, biased against the schools that serve the poor; displaying a lack of understanding of the complexity of school life and a lack of understanding of statistics and social science research, without which reporters cannot properly interpret the huge amount of data the educational system produces (Berliner & Biddle 1998a, p.3).
As Thompson (2002, p.98) points out "When debates about equity are media-ted, some bizarre rhetoric results." US research suggests that educators generally have a low opinion of how the media covers school issues, most believing negative coverage has hurt public confidence and few educators believe education reporters understand the issues (Public Agenda 1997). Berliner and Biddle's research further found that news reporting about public education was not neutral, while reporting about education was simple and incomplete, rather than complex or thoughtful; editorial policy was biased negatively and overly critical of public schools (1998a; 1998b).
The Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) Adelaide Declaration of 1999 confirmed that "schooling should be socially just so that ... all students have access to the high quality education necessary to enable completion of school education to Year 12 or its vocational equivalent ..." (MCEETYA 1999).
The importance of 12 years of learning has been widely recognised by Australian governments. The Finn Report (Finn 1991) the Adelaide Declaration (MCEETYA 1999), The Kirby Report (2000) the Eldridge Report, Footprints to the Future (2001) and the recent Stepping Forward statement of State, Territory and Commonwealth education ministers (MCEETYA 2002) all testify to the belief in this policy goal.
This analysis rejects a deficit model of social justice and is informed by a perspective that characterises social justice as a contested discourse between redistributive, retributive or recognitive social justice (Gale 2000). These distinctions are predicated on the persistent and predictable structural inequalities that continue to advantage and disadvantage social groups and that this inequality is neither the result of individual attributes of the student, nor of cultural or other deprivation but the very nature of the socio-political system.
Both the OECD and UNICEF acknowledge that education is about equality of opportunity and equal access to resources - about redistributing society's wealth more equitably for the benefit of all but in particular for those in society that are the poor and disadvantaged.
The OECD report states that "schools must ... provide appropriate and equitable opportunities for a diverse student body" (2002a, p.10) and that schools are about "delivering equal opportunities in a way that can distribute outcomes more equitably" (2002a, p.99). Further that "expenditure on education is an investment that can help to foster economic growth, enhance productivity, contribute to personal and social development, and reduce social inequality" (2002a, p.162). Public education, the OECD report says
...is one area where all governments intervene to fund or direct provision of services. As there is no guarantee that markets will provide equal access to educational opportunities, government funding of educational services ensures that education is not beyond the reach of some members of society (2002a, p.175).We therefore have a public education system because
[a] well-educated population is critical for a country's economic and social development, present and future. Societies, therefore, have an intrinsic interest in ensuring broad access to a wide variety of educational opportunities for children and adults (OECD 2002a, p.215).The UNICEF report states that
All OECD countries remain committed to the principle of equality of opportunity, and to the goal of allowing each child to reach his or her full educational potential (2002, p.3).and that
Progress towards greater equality of opportunity is one of the defining ideals of modern societies, and a common strand in their historical experience of which they may justly be proud. Extending the benefits of quality early childhood care and education to all children represents an important opportunity to carry that ideal forward (2002, p.28).
What the media articles reported on is as significant as what they chose to not tell their readers. Eight of the 11 articles mentioned government and private spending changes as a key feature of the OECD report. Only one article (Jackson 2002) indicated that the OECD report was critical of Australia's performance. Only one article actually quoted from the report's discussion of the role of education in social terms (Hawthorne 2002). Three articles highlighted Australia's literacy achievements while two focused entirely on the tertiary sector's funding issues. Only one article (Cook 2002) commented on the OECD's in-depth analysis of pedagogy and the classroom - Section D The Learning Environment (2002a, pp.271-350). While General Consensus School is Cool gives the impression from its selective quoting of OECD figures to show that Australian students are happy and engaged with their education, the statistics (OECD 2002a, p.330) in the report actually paint a very different picture of boredom and alienation from school. In Australia 60% of 15 year olds stated that "I often feel bored at school" compared to the OECD average of 48% while 34% of the same students did not want to go to school compared with the OECD average of 29%. Only 11% of these same students felt that the homework they are given was interesting and 24% said that teachers made useful comments on their homework (OECD 2002a, p.328). The public and educators alike should be concerned that some two-thirds of Australian students do not regularly use their school library and that 11% reported that they never used the library. Moreover the article implies that over one-third of students used the school library in Australia is a positive outcome (OECD 2002a, p.329). These statistics could also be viewed as an indictment of pedagogy and schooling.
What does the OECD report tell Australian educators about our schools and students that can better inform teachers' and schools' practice regarding issues of social justice and equity?
There is evidence from a corpus of international and Australian research in education and social justice (Apple 1996; Apple & Beane 1999; Bourdieu & Passeron 1990; Bowles & Gintis 1977; Connell 1982, 1993; Giroux, H. 1999; Giroux, H. A. 1983, 1992; Goodlad 1984; Kanpol 1999; Pearl & Knight 1999; Shor 1996; Teese & Polesel 2003; Thomson 2002; Willis 1977) that demonstrate that the actual role of schooling is in effect to continue these same inequalities. This deficit model of insufficiency of resources, both physical (for example, we need more computers as reported by Australian school principals (OECD 2002a, p.327)) and socio-cultural (that is students come to school without the necessary incentives to learn or the social capital to succeed) does little to account for the effect of social reproduction on the education of our children (Zyngier 2003).
The OECD report comes to a very similar conclusion.
Although ... poor performance in school does not automatically follow from a disadvantaged socio-economic background, this still appears to be one of the most powerful factors influencing performance on ... reading literacy scale. This represents a significant challenge for public policy, which strives to provide learning opportunities for all students irrespective of their home backgrounds. National research evidence from various countries has generally been discouraging. Schools have appeared to make little difference. Either because privileged families are better able to reinforce and enhance the effect of schools, or because schools are better able to nurture and develop young people from privileged backgrounds, it has often been apparent that schools reproduce existing patterns of privilege rather than delivering equal opportunities in a way that can distribute outcomes more equitably (OECD 2002a, p.99 my emphasis).
This important conclusion went without mention by the media articles, demonstrating an ignorance of the role of poverty as the basis of many of the difficulties in our schools.
The UNICEF report begins with the statement that "[s]chools can serve to reduce or challenge existing social inequality" (2002, p.1).
It provides two very different pictures of disadvantage - the first 'league table' shows the average rank of OECD countries on the basis of student performance scoring below a fixed international benchmark in five measures of absolute educational disadvantage (literacy, numeracy and science). This table demonstrates absolute underachievement, the relative effectiveness of education systems across the OECD. According to the report it 'reflects the relative success or failure of each country in preparing its young people for life and work in the 21st century' (2002, p.5).
The second 'league table' ranks countries by the extent of the difference in achievement between the students at the bottom and at the middle of each country's achievement range across the same five measures. This table compares relative educational disadvantage comparing OECD countries on the basis of 'how far behind are the weakest students being allowed to fall'.
Four of the six media articles emphasised the UNICEF report's finding that educational disadvantage 'starts at home'; three of the six highlighted Australia's 'top-ranking' in education achievement. However four qualified that status acknowledging the discrepancy between high and low achievers. Two articles wrote extensively about the changes to government funding ratios that put Australia at the low end of OECD countries' expenditure on public education. Two articles also highlighted the recommendation of the UNICEF report for early intervention and increased pre-school funding as the solution for on-going educational disadvantage.
It is the OECD report's second league table of relative disadvantage or underachievement that has escaped any considered comment. The Australian national, state and territory governments all claim to be seriously concerned about education as a means of furthering equality of opportunity and social cohesion. Therefore it should be Australia's performance in relation to the degree of inequality of educational outcomes which is the most important indicator of Australia's schools' and educational systems' success or failure (UNICEF 2002, p.8). No article mentions that Australia actually dropped 10 places from fifth to fifteenth (out of 24) on this measure.
Thompson writes in reference to what she calls taking note of the process of media-tion that
[t]he media is an important media-tor of images, impressions and meanings. The search for the angle, the quotable quote, the strong narrative with few subplots and a central conflictual situation plays out in paradoxical ways. Multi layered analysis is not the stuff of the popular press or television. (Thomson 2002, p.97)
Or as Bourdieu puts it "...the reality of the social world is in fact partly determined by the struggles between the agents over the representation of their positions in the social world, and consequently of that world" (1984, p.253).
All of the articles appeared in eastern state newspapers. The average length of the articles indicates that the issue was treated relatively seriously, with a feature article appearing about both reports.
From just the headlines it is obvious that there is dive rgence of interpretation among the journalists. In the publication of these reports we have, as Thomson suggests, a case of that struggle occurring within and through the media, being played out for the interpretation of the report that the media wishes to convey to its readership. It is a contested arena and therefore provides a possibility of 'space' (de Certeau 1988) for action and reaction.
Those in schools, particularly teachers, parents and students in areas of social and economic disadvantage, have little or no control over how the media portrays the debate over social justice and educational (dis) advantage. All that can be done in this case is to critically read the media and have ready "the answers, batteries of figures and ... logic which is the only defence against the autonomous interpretations of journalists and editors" (Thomson 2002, p.97).
There is no simple relationship between the level of educational disadvantage in a country and educational spending per pupil, pupil teacher ratios, or degree of income inequality (UNICEF 2002, p.2). Overall, this data shows that many countries do very much better than Australia in containing educational disadvantage (UNICEF 2002, p.3). The OECD reports that:
students from a lower socio-economic background attending schools in which the average socio-economic background is high tend to perform much better than when they are enrolled in a school with a below-average socio-economic intake - and the reverse is true for more advantaged students in less advantaged schools. (2002a, p.88)None of the media articles mentions UNICEF's education principle of equality of opportunity, and the goal of allowing each child to reach his or her full educational potential.
Significant levels of educational disadvantage continue to exist in Australia, and the gap between children of the same age is the equivalent of many years schooling (UNICEF 2002, p.3) but this too is ignored by the media.
While the media is prepared to shift the 'responsibility' for educational disadvantage and low performance to the home or social background it disregards the conclusion of the UNICEF report that "the disadvantage is likely to perpetuate itself through educational under-achievement and a greater likelihood of economic marginalisation and social exclusion" (2002, p.3). Moreover the report confirms that "the fact remains that a special opportunity for mitigating the effects of social disadvantage may become yet another powerful mechanism by which pre-existing advantage perpetuates itself" (UNICEF 2002, p.28).
In all countries under review, a strong predictor of a child's success or failure at school is the economic and occupational status of the child's parents. While the report confirms what has been previously acknowledged by other reports, that the seeds of disadvantage are sown early, it also states that "it would be a mistake to conclude from this that disadvantage in education simply reflects inequality in society at large and that there is little that schools or governments can do about it" (UNICEF 2002, p.3 my emphasis). The fact that Australia's school systems do less to mitigate inequality than others is highlighted by both the UNICEF and OECD reports yet is ignored by the media.
The OECD report makes it clear that schools have a significant role in the continuation and reproduction of this disadvantage (OECD 2002a, p.99). Similar research in the US by Berliner and Biddle (1998a, p.3) found that
The press seems either too scared, or too controlled, or too uninformed to raise what we consider the most basic issue confronting education ... achieving a fair distribution of opportunities to succeed. This issue, however, is a close relative of issues associated with redistribution of wealth in our society, a topic that the mainstream press too often avoids.
While one article (Cook 2002) referred to students believing school a 'cool' place to be, the OECD data belies that finding (2002a, pp.330-40). Furthermore data collected by the middle years research (MYRAD) in Victoria shows that 75% of year 9 students find the curriculum boring and irrelevant. More extraordinary is the fact that 62% of year 9 teachers think the lessons they teach are boring and irrelevant! The OECD report clearly demonstrates that Australian schools and the education system is failing to deliver positive outcomes to many of our students who do not believe that 'school is cool'. In this regard the findings of How Young People are Faring (2002a) are sobering; 15.4% of teenagers were not either in full-time education or full-time employment in 2002. The national completion rate of Year 12 in schools is 67% or just 61% for males which are far below the Finn (1991) targets established over a decade ago for training and education.
The relationship between school performance and home background varies considerably from country to country. Yet the media articles seem to conclude that little can be done in schools to ameliorate disadvantage (UNICEF 2002, p.3). While some of the reporting was fair and reasoned there was an overall reluctance to link relative wealth and poverty to achievement; an evident lack of historical understanding of the international tests and a widespread misunderstanding about the difference between ranks and scores and the difference in interpretations that accompany each of these ways of presenting the same data. This could be a result of reporters being content to read only the brief executive summary of the report, and acceptance of the interpretations of the various Departments of Education (Berliner & Biddle 1998a, p.9).
[I]t is easy for a reporter to make mistakes covering education. The beat seems deceptively simple - after all, everyone's been to school. But, in fact, education is a field filled with complicated, sometimes questionable statistics and ferocious ideological wars. Getting the story straight is critical, but far from simple. (Public Agenda 1997)
The report Bridging the Gap (Feeney, Feeney & et. al 2002a) stated that its aim was to address the
... key issues of concern across the country about those Australians who continue to experience disadvantage in a variety of ways. It reaffirms the role of education as a major contributor to the transformation of Australian society, and as a passport to employment and fuller participation in that society. (Feeney, Feeney & et. al 2002a, p.5)
The perception that education can transform "the personal and social fortunes of people who are disadvantaged" (Feeney, Feeney & et. al 2002b, p.7) is based on the assumption that schools can make a difference through compensating these children at risk for their alleged deficits. Knight's (2002) survey of various reform programs with the avowed aim of reducing social inequality in Victorian school education since the 1950s showed that all were informed by a deficit (either social, cultural or intellectual) understanding of social justice.
A socially just pedagogy must be inclusive, engaging and enabling (Gale 2000) and will encourage relationships that enable and engage students in valued and worthwhile activities, linking learning not just to the community but also empowering students to use their own authentic knowledge, values and culture to take control over their own lives.
Studies such as the recent Queensland School Reform Longitudinal Study (QSRLS) (Lingard, B et al. 2001) the Full Service School model developed by Kemmis (Kemmis & Lynch 2002) and Knight's concept of Strong Democracy (Knight 2002) all conclude that there is a viable alternative to the deficit thinking paradigm adopted by these international reports and the governments that act on their advice.
The key finding of the QSRLS (Lingard, B et al. 2001, pp.x-xv) should be no surprise to experienced educators, but is not mentioned by the media. As mentioned above the OECD report reinforces the QSRLS findi ng that it may not be the socio-economic status per se that determines the outcome of education, but how that status is mediated at school (through pedagogy) that can make a difference to student outcomes. The higher the level of intellectual demand expected of students by teachers the greater the improved productive performance and hence, improved student outcomes (Lingard, et al. 2001; Schlechty 1997, 2002). The corollary of this is that improved outcomes may have less to do with increased teacher and school resources than the media articles imply. The QSRLS research found that it was that students most 'at-risk' of failure, from socially, culturally and economically disadvantaged conditions who were the least likely to be exposed to the intellectually challenging and relevant material.
These are key issues facing education in general and schools and teachers in particular. The news media in its (mis)reporting of the bad news that these important reports contain for Australian education, ignore the crucial role that education in general and pedagogy in particular, plays in producing and reproducing educational advantage and privilege (Teese & Polesel 2003).
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|1||Children Lagging As Learning Gap Grows||785||The Sunday Age||News P.10||08.12.02||Australia's top ranking qualified, discrepancy between high and low achievers, need for early intervention and pre-school funding, changes to government funding ratios|
|2||We rank fifth in world for education||165||The Advertiser||News; P.26||27.11.02||Australia's top ranking, disadvantage starts at home|
|3||Slower learners lagging: UNICEF||376||The Canberra Times||News; A; P.4||27.11.02||Discrepancy between high and low achievers, migrant education, changes to government funding ratios|
|4||A+ FOR SCHOOLING ; Australia in top five for education||209||The Gold Coast Bulletin||World Briefing; P.12||27.11.02||Australia's top ranking, disadvantage starts at home|
|5||Aussies in top learning league SOURCE: AP||283||The Mercury Hobart||Not stated||27.11.02||Australia's top ranking, disadvantage starts at home|
|6||Gold Star, Dunce Cap For Australia||536||Sydney Morning Herald||News and Features; P.5||26.11.02||Australia's top ranking qualified, discrepancy between high and low achievers, disadvantage starts at home, need for early intervention and pre-school funding|
|Average word length||422|
|1||The only way to discover the truth about education is to look abroad||711||Sydney Morning Herald||Opinion, Pg. 11||12.11.02||Teacher wages, class sizes, spending, literacy|
|2||General consensus: school is cool||551||The Age||Education Pg. 3||06.11.02||Teacher morale, student satisfaction and engagement, discipline and performance, resources, pedagogy|
|3||Education gets top marks. OECD says Australian system among best, highly attractive to overseas students||234||The Canberra Times||A; Pg. 7||03.11.02||Resourcing and public spending, literacy, participation|
|4||Uni study pays off only to a degree||400||Sun Herald Sydney||News; Pg. 35||03.11.02||Tertiary fees, public spending and earning by graduates|
|5||Plaudits for our teachers: OECD||770||Sunday Age||News; Pg. 11||03.11.02||Teacher hours and class sizes. Teacher supportiveness|
|6||Top marks for Aussies||167||Gold Coast Bulletin||02.11.02||Public spending and literacy|
|7||Students short-changed: report||479||Canberra Times||A; pg. 3||31.10.02||Tertiary spending|
|8||OECD gives Australian education a good report||441||AAP Newsfeed||31.10.02||Teacher wages, student teacher ratio, public spending.|
|9||Private funding in education rockets||442||The Age||News; Pg. 8||30.10.02||Public/private spending|
|Average word length||466|
|Author: David Zyngier recently completed the development of the ruMAD? Program http://www.rumad.org.au/ - Kids Making a Difference in the Community - for the Education Foundation of Victoria. He was an Education Consultant and former school principal currently undertaking his PhD in education at Monash University where he lectures in the Faculty of Education. Email: David.Zyngier@education.monash.edu.au
Please cite as: Zyngier, D. (2004). A tale of two reports or how bad news for Australian education is mediated by the media. Issues In Educational Research, 14(2), 194-211. http://www.iier.org.au/iier14/zyngier.html