Reading about the possible closure of some of our nation’s smaller schools, I’ve been experiencing both sadness for what will be lost – and vicarious exhilaration for the local groups presenting their cases for the retention of their school and their community with such cooperative enthusiasm. Taking the longer view I sense the inevitability of what is likely to happen. I’ve lived long enough to see the closing, one after another, of smaller dairy factories, and maternity homes, and lived close to the Durham Road Hall which in a previous life was the local school to which my children would have been able to walk – in the nineteen hundreds! As technology changes so does our society and what it values most at different points in history.

Initially we all are suspicious and fearful of local change. It’s often hard to take a broader, more national view. Always the new need is to get involved in the planning of the next steps so that at least some of the values that were entrenched in the old can be retained in different ways in the harsher environment of the new present and the yet unknown future. But it’s never just that simple because we can never see far enough into the future.

I’ve come to realise that while some of our nation’s schools are in danger of closure, and their local communities face losing their hearts, none of this tightening of belts will apply to state-funded religious schools. These “Integrated Schools”, which are run by religious bodies but financed by the taxpayer, will continue to enjoy an unfair advantage while the nation’s public schools suffer cutbacks.

Integrated schools are funded by the Ministry of Education, just as public schools are, but enjoy several advantages. They have all their costs paid by the Ministry of Education, but can also charge substantial fees to finance capital projects, such as new facilities. If these improvements bring in more students and require more teaching staff, the Ministry is obliged to pay for them, as well as paying maintenance costs. The school, despite receiving large amounts of the public’s money, can refuse any student whose parents do not hold the right religious opinions. The Education Minister, despite providing all this funding, has no control over the school and no power to close it or to merge it with any other school. Integrated schools in effect are taxpayer-funded private religious schools.

So how did this come about?? The Integrated Schools system was created in 1974 after lobbying by Catholic authorities. Its principle purpose was to provide state support for Catholic schools. I, as a non Christian, supported that Act, or most of it. Some of the Catholic schools were very run down at that time and it seemed right to give all our children a ‘fair go’. The struggle for the 1974 Act was waged in the name of ‘inter-denominationalism.’ I should have realised the significance of that term. The struggle was to be for greater privileges, for those schools attached to churches. It was not for the more equal sharing of educational opportunities for all that idealistic teachers like me had hoped it would be. (It was ironic that at that same time I was applauding the establishment of the first totally non-denominational school in Northern Ireland. We knew how religion was dividing their people and children.)

The system set up by the Integration Act has created a network of wealthy, well-resourced schools that provide a Catholic education for the children of parents who meet the religious requirements and can afford to pay the fees. The Anglican and Presbyterian churches run similar schools. These institutions are indistinguishable from private schools, except the massive state subsidies they enjoy mean they can charge considerably lower fees.

There are also schools run by various Christian Fundamentalist churches and other organisations that have the status of integrated schools. Their purpose is quite obviously indoctrination. Their world-view is sectarian and intolerant. Many do not follow the National Curriculum but use instruction programmes designed to train students in dogma. Most New Zealanders would be surprised to know that there are publicly funded schools that teach, in Science classes, that the World was created in 6 days less than 10,000 years ago.

Since the 1877 Education Act our New Zealand public school system has always been proud of providing a quality education, regardless of income or religious prejudice.

Now under the current review process, public schools will be closed while integrated schools are exempt from scrutiny. Why should this be so? Is it in the real interests of our nation as a whole? The Ministry of Education is aware of this issue and has published a discussion document on the subject to which all those interested should try to respond. Surely the Education Act should be amended to include integrated schools in Network Reviews and to allow the Education Minister to close them or merge them with public schools for the good of the general public as a whole.

So, as I said – nothing’s really simple and each issue we’re faced with needs thinking through as far as possible into the future. So what about kohanga reo and kura kaupapa Maori? I see these as having a vital role to play in the earlier half of twenty first century New Zealand. They need to be nurtured – and reviewed, like all other state assisted, private schools. If they succeed well into the future I’d like to think they will be no longer necessary as stand alone separatist educational establishments. And religious schools? These are institutions that divide rather than unite the young people of our nation and the 1974 Act has allowed the number of these to grown over recent years.

Surely we should revisit this issue as we see the results of the growth of fundamentalist indoctrination of young people around the world. Of course New Zealand is nowhere near there yet. But should we not be continually re-examining and reinforcing the egalitarian aspects of our New Zealand culture we have always been proud of, rather than following a free market agenda about it all? Of course it’s only a free market in one sense! In fact, this has really all been allowed to develop because part of the market in public education was actually cornered in 1974.

Jeanne van Gorkom was a secondary teacher for more than thirty years and twice president of the New Zealand Humanist Society
This article was inspired by publicity material circulated by the NZ Rationalist Society.