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.