…took place in the 19th century.
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…