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Time to follow the Fins! Bridging the gap between schools and universities

By James Deehan - posted Wednesday, 3 June 2015

In our Australian context, much has been said about the need to improve educational outcomes. Higher standards, classroom equity, increased funding and even Direct Instruction have all entered this discussion. An overlooked problem is the cultural disconnection between key stakeholders in the Australian Education system. More specifically, the relationships between schools, universities and educational departments must be strengthened. A unified educational approach, ranging from schools to the political domain, is one of the key reasons why Finland was able to improve educational outcomes drastically over a 30-year period.

An analysis of the Finnish education system is a productive model to consider in Australia. It is easy to believe that higher rates of pay will translate to improved performance in any domain, education included. Even Barack Obama fell into this trap fell on the 15th of August 2011:

And in most countries that are doing well educationally, their teachers are revered. They get paid on par with doctors and engineers, because there is an understanding that this is a critical profession for the future of the nation.


It appears that education cannot be improved with financial investment alone. In Australia, a Bachelor's Degree is required in order to teach at the primary and secondary levels. Finland has a much more competitive market for teachers as Master's Degrees are mandatory, and only 5% of applicants are admitted. Yet, Australian teachers at all levels are paid significantly more than their Finnish counterparts. According to OECD data, after factoring in experience and teaching level, an Australian teacher would earn an average of 5,395 USD more than a Finnish teacher at a similar career stage. Finnish teachers (20 years) take more than twice as long as Australian teachers to reach their maximum salary (9 years). Simply put a more qualified and successful Finnish teaching workforce are earning less than their Australian counterparts.

I fully acknowledge the plethora of factors that dilute the comparison of Finland and Australia. Diversity, equality, relative geographical isolation, political scrutiny and media attacks are all issues that primary and secondary schools must cope with in Australia. Nonetheless, I believe there is a cultural divide between universities and schools in Australia that does not exist in Finland. Through the virtue of their masters' education, Finnish teachers are able to contribute directly to educational knowledge in ways that are seldom afforded to Australian teachers. Australian teacher education may be effected by individuals' passive learning experiences in high school. As a lecturer in primary science education, I thrive when open communication both with and between students expands my knowledge base.

The school and university systems are like two parents embroiled in a bitter divorce. Both have the best interests of the children at heart but share a tense relationship. Pre-service teachers receive conflicting messages from schools and universities. It is not uncommon for a pre-service teacher to experience cognitive dissonance as the tertiary messages of declining standards, new approaches and advancement are met with scepticism from those on the front lines of education. "You only need one degree to teach' and ''Ps get degrees" enter one ear, with "Raise standards!" and "Improve the system!" entering the other. Neither schools nor universities are truly at fault for this breakdown.

Tall Poppy syndrome and our national battler mentality may contribute to the cultural divide in some small way, but an overemphasis on these factors is dismissive, if not patronising. The ridicule of teachers in the media often leaves the schools shouldering the entire blame for perceived educational failings. Admittedly, universities also receive a share of the bad press. The schools and teachers do not yet have the educational power and influence that they need and deserve. Schools have almost no input into the tertiary education of their future colleagues.

In a staffroom, I once heard a principal and head teacher having a heated discussion about whether they could 'risk' having a 4th year intern. My naive reaction was one of disbelief; surely, the opportunity to have an additional, almost qualified teacher on staff could only be beneficial. The whole situation hinted at the lack of control afforded to schools. They had almost no influence on who would enter their school. In Finland, deep links between schools and universities already exist, as training schools are now the norm. The contrast is overwhelming when Australian schools are marginalised and Finland is reaching a point where even students are beginning to be given control over the educational process.

The needs and agency of schools are entering the educational conversation at both State and Federal levels. In a report submitted to the Education World Forum in January 2014, NSW Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli presented long-term plans both to entrust more decision-making powers to schools and to facilitate school-community partnerships. This could potentially represent a major educational shift for a state where a quarter of all civil servants (99, 000) are employed in the education sector. Prior to the last Federal election, the Coalition presented a similar policy of increasing the control wielded by principals in determining how schools should be run to benefit students. Admittedly, these statements are still largely philosophical, as we do not yet have enough information to determine what, if any effects, such stances may have on the education system. Nonetheless, at face value, these statements are indeed promising. Watch this space.


There is no simple way of improving relationships between schools and universities. While there are few formal structures in place to foster meaningful communication, there are avenues to foster fruitful partnerships. I will briefly discuss some of these below:

Imbedded practical teaching experiences – A return to an apprenticeship / mentoring model of practical teaching experience allows pre-service teachers to gain both practical and theoretical teaching knowledge. As a first-year pre-service teacher, I did not set foot into a classroom until I was seven months into my degree. Nearly seven years later, I am able to hold discussions with first year pre-service teachers about their practice just three weeks into their course. It is a credit to both the schools and universities that weekly practical teaching experience is now available within my institution.

Practical teaching experiences through tertiary subjects – Research suggests that in classroom teaching experiences for specific content areas are vital to consolidating the learning that occurs across a semester at university. In-subject practical experiences also allow for students to seek feedback and advice from experienced teachers. There is the potential for two-way learning as in-service teachers can observe alternate teaching to inform their own practice. Currently, there appear to be few pathways for the integration of in-subject practical teaching experiences. Such experiences are left to the discretion of individuals within schools and universities and are therefore sporadic in nature.

Professional development through universities – Professional development through universities allow for a meaningful links to be established between universities and schools. Not only can university-based professional development improve teaching practice but it can also build ongoing partnerships and allow teachers to have some input into the delivery of tertiary education. There are many excellent university-based professional development programs emerging in Australia and abroad.

A heightened focus on action research for pre-service teachers – Providing students with relevant opportunities to engage in action research allows them to become active contributors within their universities. This helps to alleviate some of the issues with passive learning that may be prominent within universities. Action research is appears to be receiving increased coverage within teaching course structures.

When the elements of successful education systems, such as Finland, are discussed for potential replication, strong relationships between schools and universities remain overlooked. Analysts and policy makers often treat schools and universities as separate entities, yet they both exist to serve that same fundamental purpose of improving the human condition through education. In Australia, perhaps unwittingly, steps are being taken to strengthen the links between schools and universities. It is my hope, that such relationships become a concerted focus of educational improvement.

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About the Author

James Deehan is a doctoral candidate and primary science lecturer at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst.

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