The Finnish education system offers a model by which to fix Australia’s broken school system, but first we need to ban private schools. By Elizabeth Farrelly.

Why Australia should ban private schools

A Finnish school student shows her name written in Chinese characters.
A Finnish school student shows her name written in Chinese characters.
Credit: Imago / Alamy

Had I one wish for Australia it’d be this: ban private schools. Not because they’re bad as schools but because they are bad for the culture. Increasingly, our winner-takes-all school system is reducing our culture to a rabble of tribalism, competition, cruelty, derision and class-based resentment.

The divisions are stark. Right now in Australia rich kids are shepherded through their school days by squadrons of well-paid nannies, librarians, tutors, coaches and mentors, being shuttled from plush car to air-conditioned ceramics and drama studios, to manicured sports fields. Poor kids must contend with leaking roofs, broken toilets and inadequate wi-fi. Increasingly, to our shame, they arrive at school unfed.

These differences are far more dramatic than half a century ago. Then, Australian equality was roughly on a par with that of Finland. Now, we could hardly be more different. After Finland banned private schools in the 1970s, its wealth and educational excellence soared while its equality levels have remained steady. In Australia, by contrast, inequality has soared. Wealth, too, has grown but sits in ever-fewer hands. Inexorably, our education system reflects and exacerbates this imbalance, further widening the gap.

The Finnish system, often dubbed “the Finnish miracle”, is called peruskoulu, or “basic school”. Embodying a commitment to excellent schooling for all, it has generated an advanced and equitable society based on universal education. Finnish policymaker and educator Professor Pasi Sahlberg was instrumental in implementing peruskoulu, so when he says Australian public education is “in crisis” because of our failure to recognise that “equity and excellence are inseparable”, we should probably listen.

Sahlberg has written much on the nuts and bolts of this miracle, including his award-winning book Finnish Lessons. He contrasts the effects of peruskoulu with those of the global educational reform movement (GERM), which, since the 1980s, has shaped education orthodoxy across the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia.

GERM promotes inter-school competitiveness, standardised learning, a focus on literacy and numeracy, test-based accountability and market choice as a guarantor of excellence. Peruskoulu does almost the opposite. Designed to free a child’s learning potential from their background, it favours inter-school collaboration, personalised learning, trust-based responsibility and a focus on whole-child learning and wellbeing.

Even more disturbing than the wealth-based chasm that results from GERM is our widespread acceptance of this gap as somehow natural – even deserved. It turns parenting into a frantic pedalling exercise, focused on securing their offspring’s place at the apex of this cruel and wasteful system, not to make scholars of them but to see them network with the bankers and hedge fund managers of the future.

Such “choice” creates a system guaranteed to entrench social division. Creaming off the most advantaged kids into schools with palatial facilities, we pour billions of public dollars into further advantaging them, all while underfunding public schools that already struggle for basic amenities.

It’s almost like we want to ensure the one in six Australian children who currently live in poverty will go on to lifelong disadvantage, as if we want our cities to become what one French architect calls “ghettos of rich people”. Parents, trapped on this politically convenient treadmill, are blinded to education’s most important role: culture building.

True, individual betterment matters. Your child – any child – will have a better life if properly educated. Fairness matters, too. Yet both arguments presume the main reason for schooling is to get ahead. In fact, that’s very partial. Education’s paramount role is to build a fertile, resilient and trusting culture, one that can nourish us all. If this sounds utopian, that just shows how far down the pole of ruthless competition we’ve allowed ourselves to slip.

The Finnish trajectory is equally dramatic but directionally opposite. In the 1960s, Finland had an orthodox and rather dull education system. Six or seven years of basic schooling streamed children into either academic grammar schools or “civic” high schools, both public and private. The core belief, writes Sahlberg, was that a child’s potential was principally determined at home.

Yet Finnish education culture was distinguished by two things. One was a deep cultural reverence for teaching, which was seen as a noble profession on par with medicine. Second was Finland’s constitutional protection of education as a basic human right. These characteristics paved the way for the changes that followed. By the 1980s Finnish 10-year-olds were among the best readers in the world, and it went upwards from there.

Starting with a 1963 parliamentary decision, the Finnish government gradually introduced peruskoulu. They banned private schools and invested everything in public school system excellence. They shrank the school day, reduced homework, increased play, extended holidays, paid teachers better, educated them more highly and, above all, trusted them. They ended external ranking exams and formal school inspections and instead encouraged teachers and schools to exercise their professional judgement.

In peruskoulu, nine years of schooling is provided in free, comprehensive schools. Kids are locally assigned, although parents can apply for a particular school out-of-area. Preschooling is generally offered by local government and schooling proper begins when a child turns seven. There is no streaming. The first six years are usually taught by the class teacher, with subject-specialist teachers introduced through the final three years. The school year comprises 190 days, which typically run from 9am to 2pm, with a mandatory 15-minute break every hour. After 2pm, students are generally free. Homework is deliberately minimised and play is valued.

Within a couple of decades, Finland soared from a position of mediocrity in international education rankings to the top. Admittedly, since then it has dropped back a place or two, but it still ranks as one of the happiest, wealthiest, most equal and most educated countries on Earth. Achievement levels within schools vary as greatly as anywhere, for children are not equal. Yet variation between schools is the lowest of any country.

Hence to Sahlberg’s three Finnish paradoxes: teach less, learn more; test less, learn more; and play more, learn more.

Sahlberg writes that adages such as “less is more” and “small is beautiful” are culturally commonplace in Finland. As an educational analogue, he cites revered Finnish architect Alvar Aalto saying “we should work for simple, good, undecorated things … which are in harmony with the human being and organically suited to the little man in the street”. Perhaps it is no surprise that, over their nine years, Finnish students engage in just over 6000 instruction hours, while the number for Australian students is almost twice that – 11,000 hours per student.

Peruskoulu cultivates general arts education, offers support to immigrants and emphasises special education. By the time Finnish kids reach 16, this special education has assisted almost half of them. In other words, special needs are no longer special but rather a form of customised education. As a result, in international tests, Finnish 15-year-olds outperform most of the world. Japan is also at the top, but scores badly in “happiness” measures. Finland excels in both.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of peruskoulu, however, is its reverence for teachers. Finnish teachers teach less than most – about four lessons daily – and therefore have more time for creative planning; lower-secondary teachers in Finland work a 33.3-hour week, compared with their Australian counterparts’ 44.8 hours. School teachers are required to have a subject-based higher degree, and the selection process is hugely competitive, assessing aptitude and personality as well as academic excellence. A 2008 survey revealed teachers were among Finns’ most desirable professions for a spouse.

Having created excellent teachers, the system does not subject either teacher or student to evaluative testing but gives teachers and schools great autonomy to exercise professional judgement and do what they are trained to do: teach. In Australia, on the other hand, 16 years of NAPLAN shows our basic skills are going backwards: one in three Year 3 students is failing expectations, almost 100,000 Year 9 students fall short on numeracy, and most teachers have inadequate resources. Worse, the “best” schools are still in the “best” areas. Surprise.

Sahlberg migrated to Australia in 2018, joining the Gonski Institute before moving to the University of Melbourne. Echoes of Sahlberg can be heard in many Gonski quotes, such as “the underlying talents and abilities of students … are not distributed differently among children from different socioeconomic status, ethnic or language backgrounds, or according to where they live or go to school”.

This commitment to Australia, notwithstanding his stringent critique of our broken school system, suggests we should react not defensively but with elation. For what Sahlberg offers, with a scholarly open hand, is hope. To grasp this hope, for our children’s future, we must first ban private schools.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2024 as "Against private schools".

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