And in the end there will only be Finland.

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.

The freedom to fail

The quote on the arm of Australian Open winner Stan Wawrinka was written by the absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett. It reads:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Much wiser minds than mine have analysed its wit, resonance and dissonance.

I have been thinking more mundanely about its relevance to teachers and parents as new students commence their journeys at school. Teachers have, in the main, planned assiduously to enable these new students to succeed. In the majority of cases schools have a broad range of programs ready, and parents are very supportive at home.

Yet there is a sense in which all of us could trick ourselves into believing that if everything is put in just the right order, the result will be perfect. The child will learn according to the plan and will emerge confident and accomplished.

Like Goldilocks’ porridge they will be ‘just right’.

The critical ingredient that this recipe does not include is the will of the child.

I am sure that I am not the only principal who is working hard to establish… a tone in their school… a sense of openness towards the idea … a community agreement… that the child must be allowed to fail in order to really enable them to succeed.

They must be permitted to take risks. They must be allowed to solve problems for themselves. They must be allowed to be disappointed.

When we allow these skills to be developed, we show that we trust our children. We believe that they have the capacity to grow, to move from dependence to interdependence.

This is definitely not an excuse for the lazy teacher or the school that doesn’t manage its learning processes well. We need committed teachers and plenty of opportunities to be inspired.

Yet the act of sending a child to school is a conscious act of trust. The parent who decides the primary way to manage their child’s relationship with the school is to watch and intervene constantly is not allowing their child to feel that they can stand back up again when they fail. At some point in their life, they are going to fail. And they will need to know how to stand back up again.

A fellow principal from Hong Kong showed me once the apartment from which a parent in her school watched through a telescope the events of her child’s class. The phone rang often to inform the principal of what was happening in the classroom.

This is not to say that parents should not contact their child’s school. Like many, I constantly encourage parents to form good relationships with staff and each other. Effective communication really really matters. Yet if the primary sort of communication revolves around the management of the day to day milieu that the child should be responsible for, it might be time for a rethink.

Just this week in the media there have been stories of gold medal winning Australians who are struggling to cope with the change from being in the spotlight and cheered at every point to being someone ordinary, their fifteen minutes of fame supposedly over. Fame or a renowned success does not equip a person for life.

It is definitely the case that children need to be encouraged and recognised. They also require benign neglect. They need to be OK with life’s boring bits.

Most parents and teachers that I know want to build resilient young people who will take a deep breath when life has a bump. They might feel low, shed a few tears, even say they ‘don’t want to go to school’ but they have the capacity to grow stronger through the circumstance. As one very wise parent told me this week – the best skill a child can develop is the skill to push up off the bottom.

So Mr Wawrinka, as you held the trophy high this January, you passed on a good message to us all. C.S. Lewis wrote something similar some sixty years ago:

No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes are in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up.

Or, perhaps, to not allow the child to fall over in the first place…