We Can Be Finland? Maybe Not. The Issue of Education Funding and Ideology

I have, in my time as an educator, had many conversations about education and the vexed and contested area of funding.  In Australia, it’s been a vexed and contested issue since the 1950s and 1960s, when the Menzies Government made the decision to fund non-government schools. Since that time, there’s been many teachers who have continued to argue that the support offered by governments Federal and State need to be stripped away entirely.  What works to fuel this argument is the relative decline in the resources and facilities inside many government schools while the larger independent schools acquire expensive private property around them when still receiving government money.  These opponents fall into the following camps:

1. All Private Schools Are The Same

Whenever independent schools are discussed, the examples cited to support an abolishing or phasing out of funding (which are the same thing, long term) are the big, high fee independent schools. The ones with rugby fields, their own swimming complexes and the like. The problem is for this argument, however, is that not all independent schools are the same.  The differences between the Kings and Knoxes of this world with places like Qibla and Lakes Christian College is considerable, in terms of facilities, resources and the ability to provide education. Whilst schools like Kings and Knox has outstanding assets to build upon, such as their buildings, reputation and old boys’ networks, the newer, outer suburban independents don’t have such luxuries.  The outer suburban schools tend to never be discussed in such conversations.  This could possibly be that, over the years, inner suburban voices are the ones most aired and heard in education debates and they are the ones who live near big, traditional, heritage independents. 

2. Independent Schools Foster Religious Division and are Discriminatory

This argument is geared mostly around the differences between a secular education facility and a facility based around a religion.  Opponents of faith based schools will often cite anecdotal situations of situations where students and/or teachers have acted in a way deemed contrary to the religious ethos of a school in order to then justify the ending of government funding for all faith based schools.  One of the most contentious battles in that area is centred around attitudes expressed towards homosexuality in both students and teachers, which continues to be a crucial part of our continuing discourse as education systems.  On that issue, for example, I would personally be surprised if gay students felt comfortable in coming out in any school, independent or government, in the outer suburbs of Sydney.  The difficulty of the approach to say that all non government schools are the same in terms of such issues is that all non government schools are being tarred with the anecdotes of a few situations being applied to all.  This is not to downplay the problems faced with a clash of secular beliefs attitudes and those held by faith based schools, but it’s not necessarily as cut and dried as all independent schools being discriminatory. 

Another plank in this argument is that the formulation of faith based schools emphasises religious differences in the community, working against a harmonious society.  The difficulty with this argument is that it downplays and disregards the desire for families to have their children being educated in a school that has a faith based philosophy for education – in that Australia does have a considerable link to a variety of faiths, as with those who observe the Muslim faith, having education linked to that faith is very important to their community.  One of the criticisms of John Howard’s time as Prime Minister was the changing of funding arrangements which allowed smaller, community faith based schools to pop up in the outer suburbs. This allowed, aside from Christian schools to grow, for a proliferation of Islamic schools to be formed, which can be seen to contain a touch of irony when one looks, for example, at a Government not known for its welcoming attitude to refugees from Islamic nations.  There are many Islamic schools who do actively work towards create a harmonious society. I remember vividly the positive attitude being fostered towards the concept of “Australia” as when I visited Qibla College in Minto in order to film a multi-faith documentary. 

In addition, this argument by its philosophical basis excludes independent schools such as Montessori and Steiner schools, which are based on educational philosophies and Reddam House, which is not run by any church organisation.  It also excludes schools like Amity College, which is a secular school with connections with the Turkish community, rather than being an Islamic school, which is the perception people in that community may have, due to the number of Muslim students in the school.   This is not to argue, however, that Reddam House, for example, should necessarily receive government funding.  Just the flaw in the religious division argument. 

3. We Can Be Finland!

One of the more recent arguments against funding independent schools is that they don’t fund them in Finland.  And Finland get good results, so therefore, we can not fund non-government schools and be like Finland.  This argument leaves out that Finland’s success as a school system is not so much related to funding but more about attitudes and educational philosophy. Australian schools, whether they be government or non government, are far removed from Finland in their approach to administration and education.  The Finnish attitude towards standardised testing for example, is vastly different from ours – their assessment schedules aren’t jam packed with high stakes, across the board tests, which is a major bugbear for educators here.   The attitude of teachers towards innovation, too, is considerably different to the many conservative approaches that we see in classrooms.  What Finland did wasn’t just about funding state schools. Theirs was a philosophical change as a system.  When in NSW we see young teachers having to wait up to 10 years for the certainty a permanent position in a government school and teachers with permanent positions being hamstrung by a difficult, unwieldy transfer system, it’s difficult to see how we could become Finland in terms of the connection being built between teachers, students and the system around them.

4. Private Schools Are Just There to Entrench Elite Attitudes

The argument that all independent schools teach “elite” students finds its foundation in the time when that was the case, especially with the larger Protestant schools and independent order Catholic schools such as Riverview and St. Joseph’s. The difficulty with the argument is that independent sector has grown in all kinds of shapes and has filled a need in delivering education outcomes to those who fall between the cracks that exist in public education. 

One of these contemporary realities is with special needs support, especially in the outer suburbs.  Sometimes the public system, despite the outstanding efforts within schools in that system to differentiate and cater for a variety of student needs within their schools, can’t cater for every student need.  It is for this reason Aspect run satellite classes in mostly Catholic systemic schools and some government schools for students on the Autism Spectrum. There’s also independent schools that have specialised programs that also help to educate students who require educational support that public schools in certain areas cannot provide, for a variety of reasons of priorities, challenges and issues specific to region and/or individual schools. These programs are expensive, as they require more teachers and aren’t a way for school systems to make money. Therefore, if funding was abolished or phased out by governments, it could well be these less “economically sound” areas that would be the first to be cut back. 

5. In the End, what should be our priority?

Ultimately, the argument around school funding was well fought and argued through the Gonski review, which settled on the idea that recurrent education funding be sector blind and based on need. In that way, the schools that actually need funding increases – which are largely government schools and a few independents – get that support while the large, well resourced, high fee schools don’t.   The beauty of Gonski was that it sought to bring everyone along on a journey towards a consensus about how schools should be funded.  Australia has far too complex an educational landscape for a more simplistic approach than what was suggested with Gonski.  The argument for Gonski and its relationship to impoverished students attending systemic Catholic schools is outlined very well in this Herald piece of August 23, where Maxine McKew made the argument that it would be “an act of monumental national stupidity” to ignore Gonski’s findings.  I would add that any punitive approach to funding, as is suggested in some political circles, does not take into account the impact on kids across the country.  Such discourses probably should – if we are to take everyone with us for a productive reform of our school funding arrangements. Otherwise, if one of our political parties was to take the no-compromise, punitive approach to funding, that party runs the risk of staying outside the issue and not having a material impact on the outcomes of meaningful education reform. 

And then there’s the idea that perhaps education could be improved in all government and non government schools with forgetting about funding, instead focusing on a changing of philosophy and pedagogical approach in schools. However, that’s perhaps far too complex an idea for most politicians to grapple with.  

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2 Comments

  1. HI Mark,
    interesting post and I agree with a number of the flaws that you point out in arguments, which frequently over simplify issues, lump all independent and catholic schools together in the same boat etc.

    I’m don’t advocate or a complete defunding of the private and independent sector, because I just don’t think that’s a realistic goal and I’m not prepared to waste my energy on it. I do have concerns however, with the public funding of non-government schools, and with the government policies that have led to Australia’s education system becoming one of the most segregated in the world.

    I do believe that behind some conservative governments funding for non-government schools at the expense of government schools is a general neoliberal drive for smaller government and privatisation of services. This is an ideological position based on a belief that market forces drive quality, as well as a belief that large government is cumbersome and wasteful. I also believe that part of this is a deliberate abrogation of responsibility for education. If education is no longer the responsibility of government, then they can’t be held accountable for the difficult and complex challenges that occur in the sector. I don’t support those views. I don’t believe that market forces do drive quality and I don’t like seeing that encouraged in education.

    Another part of this debate is perhaps a more general philosophy or mindset. I question whether our highly segregated education system in Australia is actually good for society. Yes, it might be wonderful for parents to send their children to a school that teaches the values they wish to raise their children in, but is creating a society where we are creating little gated communities around religion, philosophy, socio economic status actually good for Australia?

    Kids living in higher SES communities attending public schools will also mainly mix with high SES peers, so the social segregation is not just limited to school choice. But I do wonder what the broader consequences of this are for society.

    I think the broader social goal should be providing a great school for every child, and as you pointed out, the Gonski funding model would have helped us to achieve it.

    Oh, by the way, I do take issue with your statement that in public schools we ‘pigeonhole’ children with special needs. I’m not sure how you came to that conclusion, but I think it is quite unfair and certainly doesn’t reflect my experience or the approach we take to special education in NSW public schools.

    1. Thanks for the comment – the pigeonholing comment in the original post derived from my experiences with the options open to parents with children on the autism spectrum. It was not meant to be a broad comment on all public schools pigeonholing kids with special needs. I know for the most part, teachers do differentiate. Hence why I have now made a major edit, to better reflect my original intent.

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