What Do Parents Get for a Costly Private School Education?

According to the Australian Scholarship Group, families face a total bill of nearly $500,000 to send their children to Independent private schools and over $200,000 for systemic religious schools compared to about $50,000-70,000 in a public school. This is a huge difference. Year 12 fees in the elite Independent schools are up to around $30,000 a year and more. Just what do parents get for this enormous outlay?

One thing for sure is that they do not get any better school results. Research published recently by Save Our Schools shows that student test results are no better in private schools than in public schools when like schools are compared. The common perception that private schools deliver better results than public schools is a complete myth.

The SOS research compared the average Year 9 NAPLAN reading results in 2013 of students in high, medium and low socio-economic status (SES) public, systemic Catholic and Independent (including non-systemic Catholic) schools in metropolitan regions across Australia using data from the My School website. It is the first comprehensive compilation of NAPLAN results for public and private schools with a similar SES composition in all states and the ACT.

It found that schools with a similar SES composition have very similar results in all metropolitan regions, and in some instances public schools do significantly better.

Medium SES public, Catholic and Independent schools have very similar results in most states and the ACT. For the most part, there are only minor differences that are within the margin of statistical error. Medium SES schools account for 60-70 per cent of schools in all states except the ACT where the proportion is lower.

The exceptions to this finding are mainly in the lower band of the medium SES category. For example, NSW Catholic schools in this band have a higher average score than Independent schools while Queensland public schools have a significantly higher average than Catholic and Independent schools. In Western Australia, public and Catholic schools have significantly higher results than Independent schools. In South Australia, Catholic schools have an advantage over public schools.

There are more significant differences amongst high SES schools. Public schools achieve much higher results than private schools in the two highest high SES bands in NSW, Victoria and Western Australia while the results are similar in Queensland. These are the only states with schools in the highest SES bands in all three sectors.

The differences are very large in NSW, Victoria and Western Australia. Students in public schools are up to a year and a half ahead of their peers in Catholic and Independent schools. In Western Australia, public school students in the highest high SES band are nearly two years ahead of Independent school students and in the second highest SES band they are about a year ahead of Catholic school students and half a year ahead of Independent school students.

Results are very similar between public, Catholic and Independent schools in the bottom band of the high SES category in most states and the ACT. The most notable exceptions here are in South Australia and Tasmania. In South Australia, public school results are higher than for Catholic and Independent schools and in Tasmania Independent schools have higher results than public and Catholic schools.

Little can be made of comparisons of results for low SES schools because there are very few Catholic and Independent schools of this type. It is public schools which largely serve poor communities. Catholic and Independent schools give priority to serving medium and high SES communities.

The overall findings indicate that parents are effectively paying for something else other than academic results by choosing a private school. They may be paying for a religious education, ornate facilities, extra-curricular options, social status or a future employment network. This of course is their prerogative, but they should be under no illusion that this choice will deliver better education outcomes for their children.

It also appears that public schools achieve similar or better results than Independent schools at much less cost. School income data provided at Senate Estimates last month shows that the average income per student in Independent schools is about 45 per cent more than in public schools – $17,941 per student compared to $12,403 per public school student.

Thus, public schools are a good choice on both quality and efficiency grounds. If parents think they are getting better education results by forking out up to half a million dollars for a private school education they need to think again.

Trevor Cobbold

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