Intermittently, in the papers and on radio, is the discussion about the existence of independent schools. Recently David Gillespie has written a book called Free Schools, encouraging our community to opt for public education; Marrion Maddox has written a book called Taking God to School, questioning the use of public monies to fund religiously based education; and in the Sydney Morning Herald Elizabeth Farrelly called for an end to independent education perse.
As far as I can see, the issues are financial, social and religious.
A common claim is that independent schools ‘suck the marrow’ out of education funding. Consider these figures from Sydney and Armidale. They are publically available on the MySchool website.
A well established girls’ school in the inner west of Sydney receives about $4600 per student from all government sources. A secondary school in the same region in the public sector receives about $10150 per student. A primary school receives about $7600 on average per student. Thus, every student who leaves the independent school to attend a local government school in costs the taxpayer between $3000 and $6500.
Rural schools receive more government funding than city schools. Thus a school like PLC Armidale receives about $7100 per student in government funding, whereas a local public school receives about $14400 per student.
ISCA estimates that if every independent school closed tomorrow, the cost would be $4 billion in recurrent funding plus the cost of building/purchasing numerous facilities to house all of the students.
Parents at Independent Schools are taxpayers. It is reasonable that each taxpayer should be able to have some of their taxes contributing to their own child’s education. Some very rich people select public schools. The system does not ask these people to contribute more to the education of everyone, but only those that select non-government schools. Is this fair?
Elizabeth Farrelly’s response to this on public debate websites is that it would be worth $4 billion to put all students together. This is a social argument.
The basic argument is that it would be best practice for our nation to have all children from all social backgrounds together. Imagine what our country would look like if we did this strictly – and if we didn’t do it strictly, why do it at all? When I was in UK in the public universities system I visited numerous government schools. The best government schools there still have limited catchment areas. House prices around these schools have increased substantially, meaning that a significant inequity in the student populations results. In free societies we are rightly loathe to limit people’s choices in regard to their children. The type of ‘medicine’ we would need to take to bring about Farrelly’s goal would be very hard to swallow and people would constantly undermine it. It would require a centralised system wielding significant powers to make it work.
Further, it assumes that everyone wants the same philosophical or religious base to their education. There are no schools that are neutral in regard to philosophy. If we take away religious bases, we still have secular ideologies. This brings us to religious arguments.
The Finnish education system has some strong positives including the respect paid to teachers. It doesn’t, however, take the holistic approach we take.
If the end goal is to achieve a universally applied singular system, I believe we are in deep trouble. I love the fact that Australia has lots of different schools that have emerged from different religious and philosophical bases. I am a strong supporter of Christian frameworks for education. I believe, at their best, they offer an education that is much broader and deeper than the type of approach taken in Finland. Yet, I respect that my colleagues at Steiner and Jewish schools have different models. I do love, as an aside, the emphasis on dialogue around the Old Testament at some Jewish school. As I engage as a principal with different systems I am enriched.
I am a firm believer in the model of education we are developing at PLC Armidale and PLC Sydney, both its theological/ philosophical basis and its practice, yet I would be troubled if suddenly our model became the only show in town. We need a variety of types of schools all seeking to educate well.
How sad if, in the end, there only was Finland.