The real education revolution…

04 Nov

…took place in the 19th century.

1877 building

North Ryde Public School. It was built in 1877 with additions in 1883 and 1910.

Photo from NSW Department of Education and Training Schoolhouse Museum site.

So far as NSW is concerned, it owes much to Sir Henry Parkes.

Before Henry Parkes had become a person of power and influence in NSW, class, race and religious prejudice had already taken root in the colony. The few established denominational schools reflected these old world values and were supported in general by the colony’s rulers. The attractively egalitarian aspects of life that provided opportunity to Henry Parkes and his ilk had sprung up in the colonies along side of and in conflict with the old attitudes of exclusion. Egalitarian sentiment alone was not going to be sufficient to provide the building blocks for a modern democracy. For that great task more was needed.

I want to argue tonight that a strong, robust, inclusive democracy, what I term a social democracy, needs a particular foundation. That foundation has to be a public education system. Parkes believed this, and he established such a system.

It is worth contemplating the significance of this achievement, particularly now when the leaders of our community, and many members of it seem to have lost a sense of the importance of affording the highest priority to the public system…

One hundred years ago flawed as we were, Australians did create a society characterised by an egalitarian ethos, and an effective attention to the needs of individuals and communities through a strong and well-resourced public sector. For the mass of people, Australia was the best and fairest country in the world.We can thank Henry Parkes for some of that…

The principle is this: for a democratic society to prosper, it must be built on an education system of the highest standard, open to all without fees or religious tests, accessible wherever school age children live. A public system was the right priority for the founders of our nation a hundred years ago. It is the right priority now. 

So I am suspicious when Rupert Murdoch sloganises that we in Australia have a “19th century education system” in the 21st century, and alarmed when Kevin “Education Revolution” Rudd agrees with that sloganising.  To judge from the general tenor of education articles in The Australian one suspects that what Murdoch may really favour is a pre-19th century education system; particularly when one takes account of his other nostrum – that we should be less dependent on government. I think we need to be grateful that we have a 19th century system, because there was a built-in flexibility about what we have inherited that makes it perfectly able to adjust to the demands of the 21st century, as indeed it has been doing.


What we have so far managed to resist is confusing education with training, and we have also managed, by and large, to resist the blandishments of the corporations or other special interest groups seeking a greater “input” into our education system. Long may such resistance continue, because it is vital, as those late 19th and early 20th century pioneers of the true and thus far only Education Revolution in Australia well knew.

And what of those continuous laments about our dropping standards, and in pursuit of even more excellent excellence? Well, just about everyone agrees that the top performer by many measures is Finland. I would urge Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and others to look at Finland. See for example Lessons From Finland: The Way to Education Excellence.

When Finland’s 15-year-olds recently placed No.1 in math and science on the recent Program for International Student Assessment, the news of the coup was received in Helsinki with characteristic reserve. For the Finns, whose schools are considered the best in the world, the scores stood as a redundant confirmation of the success of their policies.

But in the U.S., the frustration was palpable. Despite persistent attempts to bring equity to the wildly uneven quality of our schools, reformers have not been able to produce the intended results. That’s why they’ve begun to look even more closely in this presidential election year at Finland for lessons that can be applied here. What they will find in the end serves as a cautionary tale for strategies that we proudly consider cutting edge.

At the heart of Finland’s stellar reputation is a philosophy completely alien to America. The country of 5.3 million in an area twice the size of Missouri considers education an end in itself – not a means to an end. It’s a deeply rooted value that is reflected in the Ministry of Education and in all 432 municipalities. In sharp contrast, Americans view education as a stepping stone to better-paying jobs or to impress others…

The headlines notwithstanding, misconceptions about Finland’s renown as an educational icon abound. The Finns spend a meager (compared to the U.S.) $5,000 a year per student, operate no gifted programs, have average class sizes close to 30, and don’t begin schooling children until they are 7. Moreover, Finland is not the homogeneous nation of lore. While still not as diverse as the U.S., the number of immigrant students in Helsinki’s comprehensive schools is exploding, with their numbers expected to constitute 23.3 percent of the city’s schools by 2025. At present, about 11 percent are immigrants, compared with just 6 percent in 2002. According to the City of Helsinki Urban Facts, by 2015 there will be schools with more than half of the student body from abroad.

Not surprisingly, in a land where literacy and numeracy are considered virtues, teachers are revered…

One of the major reasons for the job satisfaction that Finnish teachers report is the great freedom they enjoy in their instructional practices. As long as they adhere to the core national curriculum, teachers are granted latitude unheard of in the U.S. The scripted lesson plans that teachers here are increasingly being expected to follow would be rejected out of hand as an insult by teachers in Finland and by their powerful union, which has a growing membership of some 117,500 members.

If none of these facts are enough to raise doubts about the policies the U.S. has in place or on the drawing board, Finland’s testing practices should raise a final red flag. The Finns do not administer national standardized tests during the nine years of basic education

What ultimately emerges from studying Finland is the realization that the reform movement in America is based on a business model fundamentally at odds with the education model used by a country with the world’s finest schools. While it’s always risky to attempt to apply findings from one country to another, particularly when the two are so different, it’s a mistake to turn our backs on Finland’s approach.

Oh yes, we really do have a lot to learn from Finland. We seem determined to ape America’s and the UK’s mistakes…


5 responses to “The real education revolution…

  1. Jim Belshaw

    November 4, 2008 at 11:51 am

    Interesting post, Neil. I will pick it up in a companion post later in the week.

  2. Neil

    November 5, 2008 at 7:37 am

    Thanks, Jim, and I saw your post this morning.

    Jim writes there:

    Neil Whitfield had a rather good post pointing to some of the issues in Australia’s current education system. He actually pre-empted something that I had been intending to write on the importance of the establishment of the public education system in the 19th century as one of the five best things that had happened in Australia.

    There was, however, one thing in Neil’s post that I disagreed with quite strongly. Neil wrote:

    What we have so far managed to resist is confusing education with training.

    Neil, I fear that this horse had already bolted to the detriment of us all.

    I know what Jim means, but think he is too pessimistic so far as schools are concerned. One of the reasons certain elements are constantly attacking schooling in Australia is because the move to training in perceived economic or business interests has not taken root in syllabuses as deeply as some want. The humanities have been particularly resistant. In fact part of the objection to such things as critical literacy or even aspects of postmodernism* emanates from their not being the right fodder for a docile population, and I would venture to say that literature teaching is almost inevitably subversive, when it is done properly, because it confronts the student/reader with views of the world that go beyond the stuff with which they enter the educational process.

    On the other hand, it is true that curricula are crowded with all manner of things which may be quite good in themselves but which are often the result of particular whims and fetishes, or may indeed be best left to someone other than schools. Road safety is just a minor example of what I mean…

    It is also true, and that is what struck me about that Finland piece, that we overmeasure and obsess about the stats that result, often at the expense of teaching.

    Jim, most teachers I know are still absolutely dedicated to enabling students to think for themselves.

    That universities have tended to become factories is another matter again…

    * There is far less postmodernism around at ground level in the humanities or History than right-wing critics imagine, or than syllabuses might indicate. In practice teachers have been quite pragmatic on this score and very reluctant to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This inbuilt conservatism has always been part of teaching, in my experience; new ideas tend to accrete and be tacked on to what is known to work. What might be grand theory at the tertiary level gets watered down by the time it reaches 10B at Woop Woop Central School. What has filtered down is that there is more than one reading possible in literature, and more than one story in History. I am all for both propositions, regarding them as eminently sensible.

  3. Jim Belshaw

    November 5, 2008 at 8:32 am

    Interesting, Neil. I am not sure about your comment “because the move to training in perceived economic or business interests has not taken root in syllabuses as deeply as some want.” I don’t think that this actually fits.

    I didn’t comment on your earlier post, but if you look at the arguments of the so-called back to basics movement, I think that you will find that it focuses just on certain core elements – numeracy and literacy. These are simply key building blocks.

    One of the difficulties that I see it in discussions about education lie in lack of clarity about the varying roles of the education system. A second difficulty lies in the way extraneous issues – Australia’s own unique culture wars are an example – affect the debate.

    The difficulty with discussions on individual things such as back to basics is that the discussion focuses on specific issues – symptoms if you like – whereas I am arguing that there is a systemic problem.

    I think that one if not the most important point you made lies in teacher freedom. Each teacher is different, each class is different. The more you constrain what and how a teacher teaches – specifying not only what should be achieved but how it should be done – the less freedom there is for teachers to accommodate their different skills, the differences in their classes.

    I suspect that education is an issue worth a lot of further dialogue between the two of us because we not only have somewhat different attitudes, but also different skills and experiences.

  4. Neil

    November 5, 2008 at 8:39 am

    Note what I added as you were writing. 🙂

    “Back to basics” is a slogan and a misnomer. That is another story, but what is “basic” and how that is best addressed is not as simple as it looks. I wrote a bit about that the other day in my “Literacy, s–teracy” post.

    Inside a classroom, more than most people realise, great theories and bureaucratic statements and politicians’ pronouncements all become strangely other-worldly and often quite irrelevant — so long as they have at least guaranteed that one still has a classroom, a reasonable number of students, and technologically speaking at least one stick of chalk. What actually goes on is on quite another plane to all that is said and done about it somewhere else. Thank God, I say… That’s probably why it works as well as it often does. The teacher-pupil relation in an individual classroom is where quality education really comes into existence, and nowhere else. Though support for that from places like Canberra or Bridge Street does count of course.

  5. Neil

    November 5, 2008 at 8:51 am

    I might add that we have never gone down the road of “scripted lessons” as some have, apparently, in the USA, nor have we taught the same thing everywhere at 9.00 am on Thursday, as allegedly was the case in China — I believe they have outgrown that. We have always had discretion, and in fact adapting what we do to who is in front of us has always been seen as vital. Aside from such things as set texts in the HSC with corresponding exams at the end — which the ACT and Queensland live without — we have not had truly prescriptive syllabuses in my subjects at any time in my entire teaching career. The syllabuses give a framework; the teacher determines the course content, either alone or in consort — more commonly — with other teachers. And may we long continue that way. I think it may even be called “professionalism”.

    The idea of a “scripted lesson” — whether commercially or governmentally packaged — is an abomination.

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