Academic Study Shows that Private Primary Schools Perform no Better than Public Schools

A Queensland University study has shown that there is no difference in test results between public, Catholic and Independent primary schools after taking account of student background factors that influence school results. Indeed, Catholic schools perform worse than public schools on some results. The study says that its findings are similar to those of overseas studies.

The study’s conclusion is emphatic:

We find that sending children to Catholic or other independent primary schools has no significant effect on their cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes…
We thus have evidence now from three continents that the returns to attending private schools are no different to those from attending public schools. [p.55]

The study used data from the first four waves of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) survey which provides comprehensive information about children’s cognitive and non-cognitive development and the socio-economic and demographic background of children and their parents. It tracked over 4,000 students between Years three and five. The study is published in the latest issue of the academic journal Labour Economics.

The cognitive development of children was measured by NAPLAN test data for reading, writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation and numeracy for Years 3 and 5 and the results of three other tests. The LSAC survey also includes data on a number of non-cognitive skills such as emotional development, conduct, hyper activity, relations with peers and social skills.

The study estimated the comparative impact of attendance at public, Catholic and Independent primary schools on the cognitive and non-cognitive results by adjusting for a range of background factors such as family income, education, age, gender, Indigeneity, language spoken at home and birth weight.

The raw scores of Catholic and Independent school students on the NAPLAN and other tests were generally higher than those of public school students. However, the differences disappeared after adjusting for the various background factors. The study found no significant differences between school sectors in NAPLAN test results for Year 3 but Catholic school students achieved significantly lower results than public school students on two other tests on the Matrix Reasoning test and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test. Year 5 students from Catholic schools also achieved statistically significantly lower test results than students from public schools in spelling, grammar and numeracy in NAPLAN tests and in the Matrix Reasoning test.

The study also found a small advantage for Independent schools in Year 5 for reading, the Matrix Reasoning and Peabody Picture Vocabulary tests, but the level of statistical significance is low and the magnitudes of the differences were generally modest.

The authors also estimated progress between Year 3 and Year 5. After controlling for the results achieved in Year 3, they found that the NAPLAN test scores for spelling, grammar and numeracy of students in Catholic schools were statistically significantly lower than those in public schools, but were not significantly different for reading and writing. There was no difference in the results of Independent and public schools, with the exception of a slightly higher performance by Independent schools on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary test.

The study also found no statistically significant effects between school sectors on indicators of child behaviour except that students from Catholic schools have less problems interacting with peers than students in public schools.

Trevor Cobbold

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