New school enrolment data show a reversal of the steady drift of students from public to private schools over the past 40 years. Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last week show that the share of public school enrolments increased from 60.05% of all enrolments in 2015 to 60.09% in 2016. This is the first time the public school share has increased since the 1970s.
The Catholic share fell from 20.59% in 2012 to 20.25% in 2016 while the share of Independent schools increased from 14.27% to 14.44%.
The increase in the government school share follows a period of decline from 1977 to 2014, where the share fell from 79% in 1977 to 65% in 2014. The annual declines over this period averaged 0.4 percentage points each year.
The figures show different trends in primary and secondary school enrolments. Public primary schools increased their share of enrolments from 68.87% in 2012 to 69.87% in 2016. The Catholic share fell from 19.38% to 18.61%. The Independent school share also fell in the last couple of years from 11.82% in 2014 to 11.52% in 2016.
The public school share of secondary enrolments has continue to fall, although the size of the decrease has been smaller in recent years. The public share fell from 59.96% in 2012 to 59.14% in 2016. However, the year-on-year fall decreased from 0.36 of a percentage point in 2010-11 to 0.04 of a percentage point in 2015-16.
The Catholic school share of secondary school enrolments fell for the second year in a row after increasing for decades. It fell from 22.62% in 2014 to 22.47% in 2016. The Independent school share continued to increase; it increased from 17.78% in 2012 to 18.40% in 2016.
While it is important not to read too much into small changes, the new figures do suggest a significant change in trend in school enrolments. Families seem to be more inclined to enrol their children in public schools than for many decades.
One reason is increasing awareness in the community that there is little academic advantage in attending private schools. Public schools achieve similar results to private schools for a given socio-economic background of parents. Research findings consistently show that students from a given socio-economic background achieve similar results in public and private schools. Increasing awareness of these findings may be affecting decisions about whether to enrol in private schools.
More parents are finding that they can save on private school fees, have more money to spend on extra-curricular activities or holidays with their children and still achieve similar or better results than in a private school.
The stream of revelations in recent years about the sexual abuse of children in Catholic schools may also be having an impact. Some families, particularly non-Catholic, may be deciding to enrol in public or Independent schools rather than in Catholic schools because of revulsion about the lack of provision for the safety of children in the past and uncertainty about the effectiveness of current safety procedures.
Another factor behind the trend may be the significant slowdown in average weekly earnings growth in the past few years. Some families may be finding it harder to pay fees at private schools. Wages growth has been at historically low levels over the past three years – increasing at about 2.0-2.5% a year compared to 3.5-4.0% in the decade before.
On the other hand, private school fees have continued to soar. For example, Catholic schools in Sydney raised fees by 9% in 2015 and 2016, with even larger increases in 2017. Independent school fees continue to rise at 3-5% a year, despite low inflation and low wages growth. The increases even prompted the Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, recently to warn that schools need to justify fee increases as the economy slows and wage growth and consumer prices flatten.
The combination of the slowdown in wages growth and continuing fee increases in private schools has probably more affected the ability of Catholic school families than those in Independent schools who tend to attract higher socio-economic status families. When families are feeling the pinch, their first option is likely to be reduce expenditure on primary schooling before reducing expenditure on secondary school.