Why are there so few secular private schools?

Surely having LESS complicated hurdles to pass over would help secular private schools and surely encouraging the private sector would help secular private schools, too?

– commenter Shem Bennett, 21 February.

One curious feature of Australian school education is that it has a very large private sector, but few non-government schools are secular. The Independent Schools Association says that 84% of independent schools have a religious affiliation, but this overstates the size of the entirely secular non-government system open to parents wanting a ‘mainstream’ private education.

About half the schools in the no religious affiliation group are Steiner or Montessori schools. Take out ‘special schools, international schools, Indigenous schools’ – descriptions of the content of the ‘other’ category – and it looks like government schools have the general secular market almost to themselves. My analysis of census figures shows that only just over 10% of children whose parents say they are atheists, agnostics or have no religion are attending non-government schools, less than a third of the general rate of private school attendance.

My CIS colleague Jennifer Buckingham, whose paper on the rise of religious schools is forthcoming, reports that in Sweden the number of private schools has increased more than ten-fold since vouchers were introduced in 1992, but only 13% of them have a religious affliation. So why so few secular private schools here?

Shem is right that there are regulatory barriers to entry in schools, but these are hardly insurmountable to people determined to establish a school. Jennifer thinks that the strongest theory is that only religious organisations have the financial and human capital resources to establish schools. I think this is part of the story, but two other related factors are important.

The first is that people who believe strongly in particular values have the motive to establish schools, to protect or indoctrinate young minds. This is why we have seen rapid growth in Islamic and ‘fundamentalist’ Christian schools. The second is that religously motivated parents have a reason to send their kids to new, no-reputation schools. This helps get schools through the difficult first few years when they have no track record in a reputation-based industry.

Another factor may be that many of the mainstream protestant and non-denominational schools have such light religious influence that they may as well be secular. In this way, ‘religious’ schools can cater to the non-religious market (though the low % of non-believing parents sending their kids to private schools suggests a potential market for the purely secular).

Sweden is not a very religious country, but two important factors there help explain their different pattern of private education. They permit for-profit schools, creating an incentive for secular companies to offer school education. They also have a full – and presumably generously funded – voucher scheme, so they are not competing on price with government secular schools.

I’d like to see more secular private schools. Allowing for-profit schools would probably help, but given I doubt school education will ever be highly profitable it will still need entrepreneurs committed to particular visions of school education.

34 Responses to “Why are there so few secular private schools?

  • 1
    Shem Bennett
    February 22nd, 2010 19:03

    If I am ever wealthy that is one of my goals.

  • 2
    Cathy
    February 22nd, 2010 21:18

    Many of the maths teachers that I know are able to substantially increase their incomes through tutoring, so there certainly is a market there for for-profit educational services. Of course, it is almost totally unregulated, and much of it is done cash-in-hand, so it would be quite hard to measure the actual size of this market.

  • 3
    Alan Anderson
    February 22nd, 2010 21:53

    I think the prohibition on for-profit schools is 90% of the answer. I don’t know why you doubt schools could be highly profitable. On the evidence, people are prepared to pay some pretty extraordinary amounts for this service. I see little reason to imagine that the profit motive can’t out-compete the charitable motive in this area, in much the same way as it has in health insurance, where demutualisation has reshaped the industry. I guess there is the ‘values’ argument, but I think you could sell a secular but disciplinarian school.

  • 4
    Robert Wiblin
    February 22nd, 2010 22:14

    I was one of those who would have gone to a private school, if not for my and my parents desire for me to avoid religious indoctrination. Fortunately my local public school happened to be one of the best in the state, or my might have swallowed my anti-theism.

    I’m surprised that the stats show the non-religious avoid religious schools so much. I thought I was an exception.

  • 5
    Shem Bennett
    February 23rd, 2010 00:23

    Robert, I think it could be the fact that the only secular people to identify as atheist or agnostic are usually quite forward about those beliefs.

    Most secular people identify loosely with one religion or another (on a cultural level at least) even if they don’t live it at all. My boyfriend’s parents both put themselves down as Catholic on the census even though he hasn’t been inside a church for over 10 years (he started to catch alight last I saw him try).

    If you press them about religion they believe that it’s probably a bunch of crap, “but it’d be nice if it were true”. Yet they still call themselves Catholics.

    The only people labelling themselves Atheist or Agnostic, I think, are those that are actively anti-religion. Those that are neutral are more likely to stick themselves with a Christian label.

  • 6
    Tanya
    February 23rd, 2010 03:15

    First comes the organization, then comes the school, no?

    It happens with the meta organization – the state – as it does with the lower level organizations. The morality orientation of religious organizations makes them particularly inclined to the establishment of schools … but the short to mid-term success of those schools is a function of the pool of potential students and the capacity of the organization (cash and managerial ability). Increased funding from government is helpful but only when there is existing organizational capacity that is used to climb over barriers to entry.

    Those of us who are Atheists, Agnostics, or just strong secularists do not form organizations …. or not robust organizations of depth and permanance like those that hold regular Friday, Saturday, and Sunday meetings in real estate paid for by member donations. (And, dare I say it, organizations many female members.)

    There are some interesting U.S. examples of non-religious schools – charter schools and university-led experimental schools – but again, they are built on pre-exisiting organizations.

    I have wondered about the background to Montessouri and Steiner schools …. not that – if I had kids – I would send my kids to one of these beyond about grade four.

  • 7
    Dave Guerin
    February 23rd, 2010 04:05

    NZ doesn’t ban for-profit schools but Academic Colleges Group (www.acgedu.com) is the only one I’m aware of. I think the low market entry is due to:
    – very low cost schools are effectively banned by high regulatory thresholds;
    – medium cost schools must compete with public and integrated schools (in NZ, private schools can integrate and get the same operating funding as public schools – they must meet the same regulations but can maintain their ‘special character’ – mainly this is religious teaching in Catholic schools, but also Steiner etc) that offer very cheap education – integration is not a good option for for-profit schools as it involves a lot of bureaucracy and union conmtracts;
    – high cost schools are a market that can be entered but established private schools have a reputational advantage – ACG has been successful by offering innovative, high quality education without any religious or class overtones.

  • 8
    meika
    February 23rd, 2010 05:38

    I don’t know how the Steiner Schools come to be classed as non-religious (self-report?) but it’s wrong. They are entirely based on anthroposophy claptrap (a Theosophical subset), as stupid as any Christian or Islamic or Jewsih or … theology.
    The crayons are nice though, lovely arts and craft.

  • 9
    Andrew Norton
    February 23rd, 2010 05:42

    Meika – I guess because they are ‘spiritual’ rather than linked to a formal religion. I wasn’t buying it for my purposes in this post, hence singling out them and the Montessori schools (which sound a bit hippy to me) as not what I had in mind when I think of private, secular education.

  • 10
    meika
    February 23rd, 2010 05:52

    Steiner schools are definitely more hippy, new age Germanic romanticism (hippy trippy) talk about stages on childhood based on their anthroposophically described spiritual stages (no reading until they are 8 or something). Montessori are probably where most schools want to go, very academic, Piaget was an influence, focussed on the individual process (hippy individual) but regarded as not too helpful for those kids who might be more sensate and likely to end up as tradies.

  • 11
    Rajat Sood
    February 23rd, 2010 06:28

    I would like to think that the reason there are not more secular private schools is just the ban on for-profit schools, or that school establishment is driven by those with a strong vision of education, as Andrew suggests. But I think there is something more to it than that. I went to a private Christian school in Melbourne (not Catholic). I am agnostic (and have said so on the census) and I don’t have children. But if I did and if I were interested in private schooling, I suspect I would choose a ‘religious’ school over a secular school. Partly, this is due to Andrew’s point that most mainstream private ‘religious’ schools are pretty low key on religion. I certainly never got the fire and brimstone treatment at Carey Grammar in the late 70’s-80s and it would only be less so now. Another important factor is that these schools have been around for 50-100 years plus, so they have well-located campusus and long track records. But one reason I wouldn’t ignore is values and this goes beyond Alan’s point about discipline. In my view, Christian theology – as I was taught it at my school coming from a non-Christian home – is basically sound. It’s about taking responsibility for your actions, treating others as you would like them to treat you and not condemning others for their mistakes (forgiveness?). The Bible is full of great stories that you don’t need to believe literally to learn something about humanity. What values would be inculcated at a private secular school? Maybe broadly the same ones. But the risk is that fads could take over, like Gaia-type environmentalism or a general social democrat-ism. As far as I’m concerned, there is enough of that around.

  • 12
    Peter Patton
    February 23rd, 2010 07:45

    There are two reasons, and at least one resolution:

    1. The marginal cost/risk of an addition to an existing chain of schools is much less than a brand new stand-alone school. So, one more St.Patrick’s school will cost less and be less risky than a random “All Comers Private Secular School.”

    2. In countries such as Australia, even a whisper of the words “profit,” “private enterprise,” and “school” in the same sentence instantly conjures images of “Multiplication Sponsored By McDonald’s.”

    The Swedish experience shows that both 1 and 2 can be successfully overcome.

    In Sweden, the largest provider of private secular schools is a chain called Kunskapsskolan. All of the 30 Kunskapsskolan schools in Sweden are built according to the same architectural model, and have a unique education/pedagogical model, also rolled out across the 30 schools.

    These private secular Kunskapsskolan schools intersect with the government vouchers model in a way different from Andrew’s preferred model:

    The state will provide all/any Swedish child with a voucher amounting to the per-pupil average cost allocated to kids in state schools. But two conditions:

    (i) The private school is not allowed to charge the voucher holder any additional fees.

    (ii) The voucher-receiving private school must be open to all-comers.

    I can see the first condition being compatible with Australia. I can also imagine a local model, where we were more relaxed about the selection prerogative of the school.

    In the UK, Kunskapsskolan, has been awarded a government contract to take over 3 state high schools as a trial of this model in the UK.

  • 13
    Peter Patton
    February 23rd, 2010 07:49

    A very, very successful model of a private secular school that is an addition to a chain of schools – started in South Africa – is Sydney’s Reddam House, located in Woollahra and North Bondi.

  • 14
    M
    February 23rd, 2010 07:57

    Andrew I think you’ve hit most of the key reasons.

    Mostly it requires a certain scale to get started both financial and initial enrollments. Religiously affiliated schools have a pool of potential enrollments through links to local churches.

    Many of the so called religious schools are incredibly nominal. The big name grammar schools in the inner suburbs are not religious, they are mostly traditional.

    Now the question is why are the religious still starting their own schools. Is it to indoctrinate their own children? Surely that can be achieved at home. My impression is that it is a reaction to the left-wing secularism of the teaching profession. There are a lot of aggressive atheist who push their world view within the schooling system. At a public school it is not acceptable to push a religious world view, but does seem to be acceptable to push a secular humanist view.

  • 15
    Bruce
    February 23rd, 2010 11:50

    Yes Peter, I also noticed Reddam House, which was only opened in 2001. I’d much prefer my children to get a secular education, and so will seriously consider this after public primary school.
    .
    Interestingly, in their curriculum they offer Hebrew and Jewish Studies (along with Biblical Studies), so I am guessing that it is popular with secular Jews who might be less inclined to put up with a Christian education than even atheists from a Christian background.
    .
    Being an atheist who was raised Catholic, a Catholic school would be my last choice. Now if I could only convince my wife that standing on principle is worth paying about twice as much in school fees…

  • 16
    Baz (the ordinary Aussie)
    February 23rd, 2010 11:55

    Andrew,

    Put your money where your mouth is and start your own secular private school.

    The reasons why you don’t want to do that are the reasons why there are no secular private schools.

    Alternatively, religous people generally care about education, they care about the community, and because they get off their butts, wholla, private schools are typically religous.

    You don’t like that? Then build your own.

  • 17
    Andrew Norton
    February 23rd, 2010 12:10

    Baz – I have a better idea – convert government schools into self-governing entities, which should then form chains for reasons outlined in other comments.

  • 18
    TimP
    February 23rd, 2010 12:13

    I think the biggest reason is for people who don’t want a secular humanist education you have no choice other than private schools, while there is a large number of “free” secular humanist schools available every where in the country. I also suspect though that there would be more secular schools if for-profit schools where allowed.

  • 19
    Bruce
    February 23rd, 2010 12:17

    The Swedish model of prohibiting additional charges beyond the voucher sounds very interesting. I wonder whether it would convince those on the left to support a voucher system.
    .
    I must admit that I have qualms about the self-segregative effects of private education on class boundaries. I grew up in the US where public education is the norm (possibly because there is no public funding of private education). My classmates were from a very wide range of backgrounds, and I do worry about my children growing up in a much more segregated environment. This also results in an adverse selection problem for the public schools, with few positive student role models remaining.
    .
    With a no-added-fee voucher system, you could get many of the benefits of school competition while reducing the self-segregation. Whether or not this is a concern to you (I suspect it is not a top concern for many here), it’s an interesting question to put to public school advocates to see whether they are really trying to promote the interests of the poorer students, or if they are only protecting their entrenched self-interest (as I suspect is often the case with teachers unions).

  • 20
    Bruce
    February 23rd, 2010 12:34

    TimP, what parts of a “secular humanist education” do you object to? I’ve scanned a few things trying to figure out what secular humanism is, and it seems to focus on scientific inquiry, rationalism, creativity, social responsibility, etc.
    Yes, I suppose schools do teach these things, but I don’t they are deliberately drawing on some secular humanist doctrine, it just sounds like mainstream Western ethics. Or is it the very lack of teaching religion that transforms it into some alternate doctrine?

  • 21
    Andrew Norton
    February 23rd, 2010 12:51

    Bruce – Because public schools ‘segregate’ based mainly on location, they are only as diverse as their feeder areas, which can be homogenous on ethnic and class lines, and with religous diversity only within Christianity. Private schools are as ethnically diverse as government schools (though the precise mixes of ethnic groups differs slightly – private schools have more people from countries where the Catholic Church as a strong presence). They are less religiously diverse, but I have never seen any evidence this is a problem. Speaking personally, having been to a school run by an eccentric Christian religion, I had no problem later interacting daily with people from different backgrounds, and I have never heard of anyone who did.

  • 22
    Doug Cameron goes beyond the pale at Catallaxy Files
    February 23rd, 2010 13:09

    […] First the PC employees would have attended the school their parents chose for them. Second, as Andrew Norton tells us One curious feature of Australian school education is that has a very large private […]

  • 23
    Robert Wiblin
    February 23rd, 2010 13:44

    That sounds like a good explanation Shem.

  • 24
    Bruce
    February 23rd, 2010 15:03

    Andrew, I’m specifically talking about class or socio-economic self-segregation. I agree that there is an existing segregation based on location, but I have to believe that this is made much worse by charging many thousands of dollars for school fees.
    .
    I don’t think it is a black-and-white question about whether or not someone has a problem interacting with people from other backgrounds. But if a person does their schooling in an expensive private school, plays sport against other private schools, goes on to university with primarily selective and private school graduates, gets a professional job, they might get to know fewer people from different backgrounds, and are less likely to empathise with them.
    .
    I’m not suggesting any large-scale social engineering like the forced integration programs in the US which bused white students to minority schools and vice versa. But I do think it is worth keeping social affects in mind when making policy. A continuous drive to fee-based private education is likely to worsen the segregation and may have unintended side effects.

  • 25
    Cathy
    February 23rd, 2010 15:52

    Bruce, if your are looking for secular schools in Sydney, you could also consider International Grammar. They seem to be big on music and bilingualism.

  • 26
    Tysen Woodlock
    February 23rd, 2010 16:53

    As long as these schools don’t end up looking like the “Camp Quest” ‘secular’ camps (http://www.camp-quest.org/), I welcome their construction. Training a generation of kids to parrot Richard Dawkins is just wrong.

  • 27
    Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » Do private schools lead to less empathy?
    February 23rd, 2010 18:53

    […] – commenter Bruce, 23 February […]

  • 28
    M
    February 24th, 2010 07:44

    TimP I don’t think the problem is with secular humanism as such. Its that in certain contexts it comes across as being very hostile to religious faith. The more aggressive atheist ends of the spectrum like to ridicule religion as being due to any number of intellectual and emotional flaws. I suppose the issue is atheism in the guise of secularism.

    Bruce I think that socio-economic segregation is already pretty prevalent. I had a mate doing articles at a semi-prestigious law firm. There were about 30 of them for the year. Within the first meet and greet it was entirely obvious that only two of them were from government schools originally.

    I mix in circles where it is considered unusual not to have a uni degree (multiple degrees is the norm). I actually have to see the government target of 40% of people with bachelors degrees to remember that most people don’t go to uni and end up with a degree.

  • 29
    jack strocchi
    February 25th, 2010 09:42

    Andrew Norton said:

    in Sweden the number of private schools has increased more than ten-fold since vouchers were introduced in 1992, but only 13% of them have a religious affliation. So why so few secular private schools here?

    I’d like to see more secular private schools.

    Andrew Norton, beware of what you wish for. You may wind up being Melbourne’s “lone classical liberal” if you keep this up.

    Have you considered the possiblity that Christian religious education, with its emphasis on guilt-ridden individual conscience and voluntrary institutional co-operation, provides the best culutral basis for “classical liberalism”? It was (mainly Protestant) Christian countries that more or less developed and embraced Enlightenment freedom. (The Enlightenment was mainly worried by the Inquisition, not religion itself.) And it is Chrisitan US where what remains of “classical liberalism” has its best shot.

    Why there “are so few secular schools” is that Australian parents, when given the choice and resources, wish their children to be brought up within a framework of institutionalised discipline, basic intellectual skills and respect for traditional moral values. That is what they say when any academic bothers to ask them.

    Dredging up the success of Swedish private secular schoools as a counter-example is a liberal talking-points trick as old as the hills. Ultra-Nordic reconstructed Lutheran Swedes and their fellow Scandys are a race apart in so many obvious ways.

    Heckler: “There’s no poverty in Sweden.”
    Milton Friedman: “There’s no poverty among Swedish-Americans, either.”

    And if you are looking for examples of the successful application of “classical liberalism” then Sweden would not be my poster country.

    Not. Rocket. Science.

  • 30
    Andrew Norton
    February 25th, 2010 09:52

    Jack – I agree there is an historical connection between liberalism and protestant Christianity. But I am less convinced that the former depends on the latter. It’s like the argument about the link between protestantism and capitalism; the former was conducive to the latter but other belief systems have proved compatible.

    But as Rajat says above and you say it is quite possible that many parents are quite comfortable with the very watered down, common sense good values taught in mainstream protestant schools, and therefore the potential secular market that might exist if all religous schools were bible bashers is diminished.

  • 31
    Andrew Norton
    February 25th, 2010 09:54

    Especially after my trip there last year I find a lot to like about Sweden, but I agree that it is such a distinct society that caution is needed in drawing lessons from it.

  • 32
    jack strocchi
    February 25th, 2010 10:51

    Andrew Norton@#30 said:

    Jack – I agree there is an historical connection between liberalism and protestant Christianity. But I am less convinced that the former depends on the latter. It’s like the argument about the link between protestantism and capitalism; the former was conducive to the latter but other belief systems have proved compatible.

    Try to get away from thinking in Platonic absolutes and move towards Bayesian relativities. (I know, pot meet kettle, we all fall into that bad habit sometimes). Think in terms of the co-efficient, rathar than sufficient or necessary, conditions for you ideological wish-list.

    Ask yourself what kind of culture is most likely to sustain classical liberalism, or at least a stripped down version of social democracy: Christian schools with a substantial vestige of traditional values and institutional administration or progressive secular schools dishing out a wishy-washy admixture of post-modern political correctness?

    I would not pin my ideological faith on cultural “belief systems” that have “proved compatible” with liberal Enlightenment instituions. These tend to be East Asian or South Asian, which if anything are even more strictly religious and authoritarian than Protestanism. Shinto, Confucian and Hindu caste cultures are a strange place to for a classical liberal looking to find some ideological love. So good luck with that.

    Andrew Norton said:

    But as Rajat says above and you say it is quite possible that many parents are quite comfortable with the very watered down, common sense good values taught in mainstream protestant schools, and therefore the potential secular market that might exist if all religous schools were bible bashers is diminished.

    Most Australian religious schools are not “Bible Bashers” so this is idle speculation. They are, however, more religious than secular schools. And a growing share of the market. This should tell you something about parents spontaneous preferences, a suject I would have thought dear to the heart of “classical liberal”, even one living in the nihilistic wastelands of Carlton.

    Christian schools mainly teach self-discipline and team-work as well as the occasional homily on sin. Perhaps private secular liberal schools can do this, but why take the risk? True the US has a long tradition of government secular schools. But it also developed private Sunday School to complement this. And since the latter has waned has “classical liberalism” waxed?

    If you want to mimise state interference in civil society then try to get as many males on the upper-Beta patriarchal track, keen on leading households and disdainful of government work. Broadly speaking this means promoting traditional majoirty values, ie Christianity.

    Secular liberalism tends to default to fashionable minority values in accordance with Conquest’s Second Law of politics. And that means relentless growth in nanny welfare statism, as per Sweden.

    They can afford this instittutional indulgence because they are Swedes! High EQ & IQ, naturally co-operative and cognitive. More laid back Aussies should really cleave to the straight and narrow.

  • 33
    Jack Strocchi
    February 25th, 2010 15:00

    Rajat [email protected]

    But one reason I wouldn’t ignore is values and this goes beyond Alan’s point about discipline. In my view, Christian theology – as I was taught it at my school coming from a non-Christian home – is basically sound. It’s about taking responsibility for your actions, treating others as you would like them to treat you and not condemning others for their mistakes (forgiveness?). The Bible is full of great stories that you don’t need to believe literally to learn something about humanity.

    What values would be inculcated at a private secular school? Maybe broadly the same ones. But the risk is that fads could take over, like Gaia-type environmentalism or a general social democrat-ism. As far as I’m concerned, there is enough of that around.

    What eminent good sense, radiating the spirit of a humane civilization. You would never make it as a metro daily op-ed writer.

    The soggy, secular liberal consensus pervades all parts of post-modern culture, its like wading through an ocean of rice pudding. Sometimes one just longs for a window into eternity and a poetry of spirituality.

    Even if Man is not Fallen it probably makes sense to feel that way. It makes us try harder.

  • 34
    Annie Carment
    March 14th, 2010 12:03

    Korowal School in the NSW Blue Mountains is a secular, “human-centred” school. When founded thirty years ago it adopted some features of Steiner education (main lessons etc) but does not operate according to the Steiner philosophy and has become less Steiner-like over the years. Education at Korowal is based on a set of principles and values (see the school website) rather than an overriding philosophy.