Home » Almoni, Community Life, David Werdiger

Face-off: the Schools Debate

July 23, 2009 – 11:54 am17 Comments

Earlier this week, we published an article by Almoni calling for the abandonment of the private school system. David Werdiger has written a strident reply. We present the two views, side-by-side:

[column width=47% padding=6%]Almoni‘s view:

It is time to reconsider the rationale for not only Jewish schools, but all forms of private schooling in Australia which exist to support particular religious or ethnic boundaries as a guard against ‘assimilation’ or intermarriage.   This includes mainstream Protestant, Catholic, Islamic, and fundamentalist Christian schools.

The policy of providing subsidies for the development of ethnic and faith based schools effectively  acts to water down the principles of Australian multiculturalism, and to decrease the level of social cohesion.

The long-term effect of cultural and religious separation is a degree of unnecessary ethnic, religious and class-based segregation.  Students and their families have little experience of the ‘other’, for all the well-touted cross-cultural programs that exist in the interests of ‘harmony’. Unfortunately, this reflects an increasing trend in this country to retreat into what is called the ‘private sphere’, and avoid contact with others.

There is nothing better for young people than to mix with a diversity of other young people outside of their own narrow experience.  This principle should apply as much to Jewish young people as it does with Islamic and fundamentalist Christian schools, where it appears secular studies are neglected, and doctrines such as creationism are rife.  At minimum, the shared classroom would help to prevent increasing levels of religious extremism in all communities.

There is also the question of the economic non-viability of so many Jewish schools.

A society that supports fairness and benefits for all needs to support  public education for all through supporting the equitable disbursement of personal cultural capital and tax dollars.

How do we solve the problem?

Back when I went to primary and secondary school, there were plenty of frum girls and boys with kippot at state schools, and this did not appear to be a religious problem.   W hen there were haggim, kids did not attend. Given the fact that so much education can now be online, being away from the classroom is even less of a problem.

To make the proposal work I have three core suggestions.

  • First, that for those who require gender separate education, at least post-primary school, that there be more  separate boys and girls high schools.
  • Second, that the state fund  separate high-quality ethno-religious educational streams in state schools.  The one problem for the Jewish community, however, is that such a religious stream  needs to be made responsive to different religious and cultural streams, but for the moment, call that a ‘political detail’.
  • Third, that a charter of religious rights and responsibilities  for state education be established for the state system as there are bound to be some difficult situations. This charter could use  the Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities as a reference point.

For those who argue that their religious beliefs or desire for a private secular education requires entirely separate schools, I argue that they should then pay for those schools without state assistance or tax breaks. Of they can home school (which already happens and is a highly undesirable option).

Once people see they can get a high-quality ‘ethnic-religious ‘ education that preserves their identify and connections in the state system (at a cheaper price), I suspect that many will abandon the private system.

Kids don’t have to swap their hummus or ham sandwiches, but they should learn to know each other as people and friends for life, rather than as separate stereotypes.[/column]

[column width=”47%” padding=”0%”]David Werdiger‘s view:

As he makes very clear, Almoni’s comments about the private school system are about far more than the Jewish community. His comments are about the nature of multiculturalism in Australia. This issue has been touched on in several posts on this blog, and his perspective tackles it head-on.

He suggests that secular studies are ‘neglected’ at Islamic and fundamentalist Christian schools. Further, that some of these schools teach awful doctrines like ‘creationism’! The Education Department has standards that all schools must abide relating to literacy and numeracy, and particularly the VCE (for those who complete it). It is the function of the Education Department to set standards for all schools, public and private. As long as those standards are met, then schools should be free to teach whatever is appropriate for their market. It should not be the function of government to decide whether schools should or shouldn’t exist (or be funded).

Almoni takes a socialist, almost communist position: that people in Australia with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds should be forced to integrate and ultimately become part of the pervasive Australian culture (whatever that means).

It is quite timely that in a recent opinion piece in The Age, Lindy Edwards discusses different approaches to multiculturalism around the world. While some conjecture on what should be, she draws her inferences based on historical attempts at integration of immigrants into Australia. The attempted policy of assimilation, similar to what Almoni espouses, was shown to be a dismal failure. Governments cannot dictate or define culture. These things must be allowed to evolve in their own space and time.

Melbourne is a vibrant melting pot. Everyone is able to immerse themselves and celebrate the different cultures that happily co-exist here. I know where to get the best bagels, the best yum cha, and the best kebabs. This is achieved by allowing natural geographic movement of people into communities that share a common culture. In some countries, and to a small extent in some places in Australia, barriers have formed around some ethnic enclaves. This is not a good thing, and has been shown to lead to racial tension, which needs to be dealt with in a pro-active way on a case-by-case basis. However, the extreme alternative of government attempting to intervene and create a custom merged culture of their own is equally unviable.

Creating a government education system that tries to be all things to all people will end up being nothing for anyone. Any external force that attempts to push culture in a specific direction (even if that means just stirring the melting pot) will inevitably clash with that culture, and people will simply withdraw or find other options.

Going back to the Jewish community, this issue is one that has come up several times in this blog and its predecessor. Should Jews in Australia quietly blend in with ‘regular’ Aussies (whatever that means), and discard the practices of our grandparents now that we are in the ‘free world’? Or should we remain comfortable celebrating our Judaism in whatever way we please – be it dancing in the street, wearing a kippah and tzitzit, or a long black coat and fur hat on Shabbat?

I suggest that the key to the continuity of any culture is to leave it be and let it evolve in its own time, rather than to suggest radical interventions and shifts, whether internal or external.[/column]


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  • frosh says:

    Regardless of the harmony issues raised here, I think economic issues may very well force large changes in the proportion of Jewish kids attening state schools, over the next decade or so.

    If that happens, that ought to result in an expansion of UJEB’s role.

  • eli says:

    Almoni, I don’t think you go far enough.

    Why should gender based schools as you suggest be exempt. If we are going to flatten out the education system and embrace the melting pot idea, then gender based schooling ..definitely not, oh and lets not forget those schools which have entrance exams, to collect the best and brightest in one spot, they should be told , no more intellectual bias allowed,nope that’s a no no.

    Now busing students from country schools must be included so that students from schools that have poor resources or second rate teaches have an equal opportunity to use the education system. Oh and schools that have specialist programs ie:music, drama I.T …nope sorry . IF you want your children to have any extra’s you will need to pay for them yourselves and send them on Saturday or Sunday for extra classes.

    After all the State cant afford to provide for children with special talents while denying others cultural diversity.

    I know , i am being very harsh and pedantic here, but I love Almoni’s suggestion so much that i feel all sections of our wide and varied community should benefit from this suggestion.

    Surely i jest!

  • Almoni says:


    I wish you could approach this seriously and not with sarcasm. My sense is that you are just shooting from the hip to be provocative.

    I am interested in a serious discussion on my proposal on cultural, social, and economic grounds, in the context that this society is about access and equity, not processes which reinforce social exclusion and isolation in pockets of affluence, poverty, negative cultural isolation or ignorance, ok. If Jewish schools are going broke then something is wrong and money can’t fix it. There is never enough money in private education.

    It thought would be clear from what I wrote that I had put a lot of thought into this piece (in fact, it is edited down from something much longer where I also spoke about economics a bit more).

    Since education such an expensive enterprise, with such massive social impact, we need to consider such important questions as the ones I have posed rationally.

    For reasons of space, in the article I did not mention specialist schools or schools with a strong academic stream. If you mean music schools etc, or specialist schools for disabled kids of course they should object I have no objection to academic high schools though some people do have objections because they can destroy the academic standing of generalist high schools because of an unwarranted ‘flight’ of kids (and parents). It is a highly sensistive issue.

    What I didn’t have time to address either was that high marks in private school are no guarantee of future income or educational outcome–for many people, it is a wasted investment. There is also evidence that the drop out rates for private school kids at univ. are like those of state school kids or worse because they have not had to fend for themselves. But I know that some would dispute this as well.

    Gender based education is fairly well established as important for many kids, though this is disputed by some.

    As for busing kids in the country–you may not realise in fact that many kids already travel enormous distances to get to school, as do many kids in the city (time wise). In fact, I was on a country train today, and I was surprised how many country kids move between towns for high school. So access to resources for these kids is important and in fact, that is why the government is putting a lot of money into rural and regional centres including education.


  • Almoni says:

    Please excuse the spelling, but it has been a long day ‘out there’ in the world of community welfare.

  • The Hasid says:

    Keep fighting the good fight, Almoni!

  • eli says:


    I apologize for my flippancy, it too was a long day. I will endeavor to answer your post with a little more of the seriousness that it deserves,but it wont be tonight.

  • Almoni says:

    I may as well at this point add in some of the edited out parts of my argument–

    1) Australian multiculturalism, at least as nutted out since the 1970s, has stood by these principles, despite John Howard’s hostility:

    Responsibilities of all
    Respect for each person
    Fairness for each person
    Benefits for all

    (Social justice has dropped off the agenda)

    2. However, the policy of providing subsidies for the development of ethnic and faith based schools in effect acts to water down all of these principles, and to decrease the level of social cohesion in an increasingly complex, fractured, and globalised community which in the face of global warming and other crises, requires a means to come together, rather than separate.

    The long-term effect of cultural and religious separation is a degree of unnecessary ethnic, religious and class-based segregation. Andrew Jakubowitz of UTS has been involved in research that supports this proposition.

    Students and their families have little experience of the ‘other’, for all the well-touted cross-cultural programs that exist in the interests of ‘harmony’. Unfortunately, this reflect an increasing trend in this country to retreat into what is called the ‘private sphere’, and avoid contact with others. Recent outbreaks of street violence, racist behaviour, and increased lack of general civility and decreased willingness to share resources and ideas all reflect the privatisation of many aspects of life in this country

    3) …Additionally, the considerable support provided to private schools, with all the tax breaks offered, has created a divided class-based education system and a private school industry which feeds off parental anxiety—thus the emphasis on cultural values and discipline–in contrast to what supposedly is the case public schools (but both sectors have their share of extremely rotten apples, as we know from problems with drugs alcohol and cases off sexual abuse in Jewish schools and other private schools).

    4) There is one fundamental and inequitable outcome: the wealthy private schools, including Jewish schools, are exam factories for higher education, and the schools exploit all sorts of anxieties and aspirations to ensure attendance. While this may be a satisfactory personal outcome, together with lots of social connections and reinforced group values (whether WASP, Catholic or Jewish) is it a good, long-term social outcome?

    5) The concentration of private social and physical capital in institutions devoted towards deliberate educational and social apartheid was particularly supported by the Howard government.

    Unfortunately, Labour is electorally too shy to take on the issue in any way except tinkering at the edges. While private schools claim that they have many poorer families sending children, this is still a cover for the overwhelmingly affluent nature of the older, private schools, including Jewish schools.

    6) It’s a great concern that the idea that tax dollars should go to poorer communities is seen as a ‘threat’ to the cultural or educational rights of an affluent Jewish community and an unwieldy private school system.

  • jewinthefat says:


    While I think the ideal society would be about equality and accessiblity, the reality is that we live in a individualist society, where the “haves” have, and the “havenots” do not.

    The truth is, everyone is NOT equal, and therefore, while the RIGHT to an education has been drummed into us all, it is a flawed policy that does not apply to a capitalist society like Australia. Free education for all, free health care for all, free housing for all – where does it stop? Unless you want to pay for it in raised taxes (which the majority does not), it is nothing more than pipe dream.

    while it is commendable to suggest such an egalitarian society should exist, and though I agree that the key to societal change is in amdending education of our youth, the crux of the matter is that this concept is symptomatic of the Australianism, the Tall Poppy Syndrome.

    The Tall Poppy Syndrome means that no matter how successful your are, should you ever slip up, you will be brought crashing down to earth. Likewise, should you be an abject failure, or at the very least less of a success, you are well within your rights to admonish the succesful ad hominem i.e. schools, businessmen, celebrities, etc.

    I agree with David Werdiger:

    “Creating a government education system that tries to be all things to all people will end up being nothing for anyone.”

  • Almoni says:

    The responses to my article are a bit disappointing.

    First, I’m surprised, if David Werdiger meant it, that ‘creationism’ should be taught in schools.

    Second, I have great concerns that David and others seem to have abandoned the idea of a common civic culture, and that having Jewish or other ethnic school time as PART of this, but not as separately funded schools, has not been taken seriously by them. Nor has the point that such engagement in a public school might enrich the school been addressed by them.

    Of course, not all schools can be all things to all people, and certainly, all schools are different. But when tax dollars are scarcer, they should be directed at people and communities in need, rather than private advantage. At the same time, surveys should again and again that people are prepared to pay more taxes for better public services.

    Nor have I called for the bad old days of assimilationism, but I am calling for the pernicious divide in private/state education split to be ended through a better use of public funds.

    Education like public health, is something that should be about public good, not private interests. But I thought that I have represented a compromise that both supports multiculturalism but also a common culture.

  • Almoni,

    1. Re creationism, if that is consistent with the theology of a particular (private) school, then they have every right to teach it as an alternative to evolution.

    2. It’s reasonable for all Australians to share common values, but a common civic culture takes it one step further, and diminishes the pre-existing cultures, especially in a country that has such a high proportion of immigrants.

    3. While your argument is really for bigger government, the way you want to apply this to the education system is just unworkable and impractical. It’s reasonable to say that one health system should be good enough for everyone (and we have a very good one here in Australia), but you cannot extend this argument to education.

  • Almoni says:

    1. I must draw the line at creationism, which is not science, being paid for my state funding. If people want to do it with their own time and money, and it is a matter of their belief system, it is another matter. As you probably know, there are plenty of religious peop0le who accept evolution and religion and science can co-exist in this regard so it is not an either /or case.

    2. About a common civic culture. Perhaps I need to be a bit tighter–core set of common civil values, as you argue for, which do not neccesarily undermine personal or community cultural autonomy.

    I was thinking in particular of the recommendations of the Civics Expert Group


    Whereas the People …, the Report of the Civics Expert Group (1994) noted that Civics and Citizenship Education at the ‘basic level’ would involve formal knowledge of systems and institutions. However, to be ‘effective’ it would also need to encompass:

    * the basic liberal democratic values that sustain our system of government and enrich its operation;
    * not just formal knowledge of the system of government but appreciation of how it works in practice and how the operations of government affect citizens;
    * the role of non-government organisations as well as government agencies in public affairs;
    * the rich diversity of Australian society, the ways in which the different sections of the society are able to live together, and the principles that enable them to do so with tolerance and acceptance;
    * what it means to act as a citizen – the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the opportunities for exercising them.

    3. As for the big government idea. Yes the devil is in the detail, but given the proliferation of federal and state bureacracies which already govern education, I don’t see much of a difference in the system. It’s not a matter of ‘one government’. That is too much of an oversimplification of how schools work. By way of analogy, the move to have a unitary health system reflects the current bureaucratic and administrative mess.

    Given that state schools already have school councils with a degree of autonomy in governance matters, there is a system of checks and balances in place. Principals also have autonomy. We know that it is possible to have high quality state schools when the resources are provided to them.

    It is breaking the culture of middle class fear about public education that is one of the most difficult issues, given the money behind the private school system (as evidenced int he subtle, and not – so-subtle messages in private school advertising).

    David, you still haven’t provided, however, an objection to providing ethnic and religious streams in conjunction with state education, which is the one innovation which I thought might generate the most interest or objection.

  • Almoni,

    1. Don’t know why you’re so hung up on teaching creationism. Not everyone accepts the theories (and there are many) that resolve the conflict between evolution and creationism. Why is teaching creationism any worse than teaching any particular religion (even one that you think it too wacky)?

    2. Would be great if all schools taught that stuff. Are there moves within the Education Dept to make it mandatory?

    3. This part is the crux of the matter. In the US, they have the Charter School concept, which is probably a hybrid between govt and private schools, and that are ethno-specific. I’d love to see something like this in Australia.

    I’m told that Gardenvale Primary is around 50% Jewish – wouldn’t it be great if the govt funded a module of Jewish education (perhaps provided by one of the Jewish schools) – more than the 30 mins or so a week you can get at UJEB or Lamdeni but less than the 1-2 hours a day at Scopus.

    The problem is then (a) what do the non-Jewish kids do during that time? (b) how about trying to service all other religious groups that might be represented at the same school?

    Here is where your model breaks down. Trying to bring students together in a melting pot and teach everyone a bit of everything won’t work, because they will all end up with nothing.

    On the other hand, a model where a govt school in a Jewish area could offer a serious stream of Jewish ed to students (and ditto for other religious groups), and something else for the kids who don’t want it, could actually be a far better use of funds.

    Personally, I feel that the Jewish school system is a huge investment for not enough return (measuring return in terms of quality of Jewish education). What characterises a Jewish school is often the intangibles – the atmosphere and values that are taught by osmosis – more than the curriculum itself. You will never get that at a govt school, and I dare say you might not get it at some Jewish schools either.

  • Almoni says:

    David Werdiger

    1) Creationism. I am not going to get into a debate about creationism. It might well in fact be something that Galus Australia wants to take up. I would be surprised if anyone in the Jewish community took it seriously at all as a form of science rather than religious belief

    2) Charter schools or ethnic streams.

    Perhaps you have missed the point of my article. I am not in favour of faith based schools, but what I do support–and Gardenvale is a good example, of such schools offering that could ethno-religious education. Whether or not it is 2 or 3 hours a day I see as a ‘timetabling issue–not a great answer, but something that can be worked out. ). In the old days, we called it heder, but of course it would be much more than that. As for those who don’t take it, again, a ‘timetabling issue’. Hard to work out at the moment, but education is a creative area.

    I still argue that a common core for effective citizenship between all groups is necessary in a multicultural, global society. I am not arguing for a bit of everything. I am arguing that kids need to mix with other kids.

    But you have an excellent point here ‘What characterizes a Jewish school is often the intangibles – the atmosphere and values that are taught by osmosis – more than the curriculum itself.’. That is what people send their kids to Jewish schools for, but my question is, is the balance right, not just for Jewish kids, but for kids at other faith based schools, when such schools 1) tend to reinforce educational inequality 2) reinforce social and economic apartheid 3) make for more separated communities 4) do not represent fair distribution of economic and social resources. Atmosphere and values are as much a family responsibility.

  • Almoni,

    There you go again with the communist rhetoric. There will always be some sort of “educational inequality” – different people have different needs, and value different things in a school and an education for their children.

    As explained in my initial post, some degree of separation is useful to help maintain cultures. Complete separation is just as bad as complete integration.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Almoni,

    With regard to creationism, I would have serious concerns if it was being taught in science class. In terms of teaching it in religious classes, well, that ought to be a private school’s prerogative.

    However, I am not aware that creationism is taught in science classes in Jewish schools; although I am aware that this may occur in some radical Christian schools in the USA. Nevertheless, if I am wrong about what goes on in Jewish schools, please let me know, as we would then be interested in running a story on this as you suggested.

  • eli says:

    I have been following the debate here with some interest.

    The funding of the private school system is a policy originally related back to the split within the Victorian labor party branch in 1954. The resultant formation of the DLP, with a catholic dominated membership, gained substantial national support over time and controlled the federal senate up until 1974.

    It was highly influential in pushing its social policy via the Menzies and subsequent Liberal governments. This included the funding of the catholic school system.

    Subsequent governments including Labor govt have done little to reverse the policy albeit tinkered with it at the edges.

    The natural outcome has been the growth of a private schools system within many ethnic and religious communities, supported by a policy that till now has not really been challenged by main stream Australians.

    It would seem to me that had it been a primary concern of a waste of community resources with any political mileage and public support, one of the major parties would have by now placed it on the political agenda.

    In relation to the funding, one component that the writers here have not mentioned is that in spite of the heavy reliance on govt funding and the high fees charged, most of these schools would not survive without the substantial contribution from wealthy individuals within those communities. They are private resources and therefore not community resources to be divided by some unknown authority.

    One of the hallmarks of Jewish communities in the diaspora over the last 1000 years has been the overriding desire to create Jewish institutions of education, no matter what the economic or political conditions have been. It has been that dedication to a Jewish education that has ensured the survival of our culture,faith and continuity.

    In pre war Poland and Germany 1937–1938 there were 226 elementary schools and twelve high schools as well as fourteen vocational schools with either Yiddish or Hebrew as the instructional language (wikipedia). There is little doubt that even without government funding that a Jewish education system would exist.

    The suggestion to eliminate a private system in favour of only an integrated public system,with some simplistic reference to other cultures as part of its curriculum, as compensation, is a left over model of a socialist/communist ideology that at its core desires to nullify and mollify humanity,to create a global citizen.

    Humanities greatest asset is in its diversity.

    Educating each other about our differences is certainly paramount in allowing diverse cultures to integrate and learn to live side by side.

    Melting us all into one great big pot does not solve the problem, it eliminates it along with our individualism.

  • Almoni says:

    I’d like to make a comment about the sympathetic view expressed in a couple of comments to creationism and an apparenent lack of critical approaches to it.

    So I looked on that most trusted of sites, Wikipedia, for how orthodoxy approaches creationism. Apparently, there is a haredi rejection of evolution (to be expected), and Schneerson was also vehemently opposed (I assume we will be informed otherwise). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_views_on_evolution

    However, there are othodox rabbis, and scientists who have no problem with evolution, perhaps taking their cue from Maimonides that the tanakh can’t be taken literally all the time.

    All this leads me to ask then–is creationism (and by implication, intelligent design) being taught in in Melbourne, and what to others make of this? I suppose for some, questioning creationist stories and their fundamental basis for belief is in the same category of heresy as questioningthe divine origin of tanakh, despite the mass of evidence that its textual history is one of many versions serving different religious needs, with a good dose of derived concepts, stories, and mythologies. Without all bricks being perfect, it is all otherwise a house of cards.

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