Australia’s school system is massively focused around rankings. Students are ranked against other students, schools are ranked against other schools and states are ranked other states. These rankings are generally based on academic achievement while much less attention is given to peoples’ individual happiness.

This year, for the first time, PISA conducted an international study of students’ wellbeing. The idea was to get a measure of “students’ satisfaction with life” and unfortunately, ‘Straya didn’t do very well.

Here are some of the most interesting (and uncomfortable) stats:

  • 47% of Australian students said they get “very tense” when they study (compared to the international average, which was 37%).
  • 67% of Australian students agreed with the statement, “Even if I’m well prepared for a test, I feel very anxious” (55% was the international average).
  • 15% of Australian students reported being bullied frequently (9% was the international average.)
  • In Australia, girls are typically more stressed about studying than boys.
  • 21% of Australian students don’t eat breakfast before school.
  • Australian students spend 164 minutes on the Internet outside of school.

A Daily Mail article concluded, “Australian schoolchildren are among the world’s most stressed and bullied.” However, it’s worth noting that Australia also performed better than average in maths, reading and science. The Australian schooling system also had some of the best rates of equity between boys and girls, and the best outcomes for immigrant students.

But the point still stands: Australian high school students are more stressed than most others in the world. Why?

Well, maybe it’s the fault of our ranking system itself. Due to the nature of a ranking system, some people will be at the top and others will be at the bottom. There will be high ranks and low ranks; winners and losers.

Proficiency across a range of subjects isn’t enough, nor is a specific talent in one particular area. Instead, students are meant to rank high across all subjects – this is the philosophy behind the ATAR and NAPLAN tests. And it’s obviously a pretty stressful system for those who find themselves anywhere but the top.

In PISA’s study, 75% of Australian students reported wanting to be one of the best in their class. The reality is that most of them won’t be the best in their classes. But just because they’re not in the top percentile of their schools, their states or their countries doesn’t mean that they’re failures.

Some might say that stress is a normal part of life, or that students should toughen up. To those people, I ask: if you already knew you were going to be successful, would you prefer to be stressed or not?