Are Australia's private schools worth the price tag?
There are private schools everywhere in Australia, so they are a very popular and widely used educational option -- particularly for High School. The Federal government subsidizes them so they are affordable to many.
The article below covers a fair range of the factors that influence judgments of schools but it only hints at the big factor. The single largest factor in educational achievement is without a doubt IQ. It correlates about .7 with educational attainment. Nothing else comes close. And it is student IQ that makes a school.
High IQ goes with a lot of other favourable things so high IQ kids will have fewer behavior problems and the greater ease of teaching them will attract teachers. And that means that private schools usually have many applicants for a teaching position. So they can pick and choose the best. My son's private High School had two keen mathematics teachers of the male persuasion, a great rarity. So in a typical example of the injustice in all life, the best students get the best teachers. How can such a school go wrong?
So the important question is where is a school in the IQ stakes? The lower the average IQ of the students, the lower will be the outcomes that the school produces. Ideally, you should send your kid to the school with the highest average IQ that he can cope with.
But IQ is a generally forbidden topic. In my time long ago schools did IQ tests regularly in order to stream their students -- but there would be a huge outcry if that were done today. I went to a large State school in a regional city and clearly benefited from streaming. There was only a small "academic" stream but I was placed in it. And I got an education that suited my interests and teachers who knew how to teach the subjects concerned. I also had friends with whom I could have wide-ranging conversations.
But because of the lack of IQ testing these days, we have a harder time making choices. In some States, particularly NSW. there are still a number of selective school, where admission to the High school depends on final overall marks in grade school. Only high achievers get in. And because school marks and IQ are correlated, those schools have a student body with substantially higher average IQs than the norm,
And how good are their results? Very good. Some of them even produce higher marks than top private schools. James Ruse Agricultural High School is a legendary example of that. Their very severe selection procedures ensure that most of their students are of Chinese or Indian heritage so they have a double advantage. They get Asian diligence as well as high IQ in their students. So they produce a large number of the top students in the State.
And it is these selective schools that Leftists talk about when they make comparisons with the results from private schools. They pretend that ALL state schools have such high potential. But they do not. I hate the cliche, but I have got to say that they are comparing apples and oranges. A true comparison would be to compare AVERAGE state and private school results. That would show private schooling in a very favourable light.
Private schools do of course have selection criteria but just the ability to pay is the main criterion. And it is a good academic criterion as well as a financial one. That is because, as Charles Murray showed decades ago, income and IQ are strongly correlated. Income is not a bad proxy for IQ. Smart people tend to do better at getting rich than dim people do.
So private schools will almost always have a student body that is smarter than average, though not as smart as a highly selective State school. Which brings us to the question, is there ANYTHING ELSE that private schools do which contributes to pupil achievement? We don't know for certain. To answer that, we would have to find a State selective school where the student IQ was at the same average level as a private school and compare the results. To my knowledge, that comparison has not been done. The horror of talking about IQ probably forbids it.
There is however one result which ALL schools tend to produce: The friends you make at school tend to be the main body of your friends for the rest of your life. And their sisters are the ones you will most likely marry. So attending a private school should be TREMENDOUSLY helpful in that regard. If the kids you went to school with were the progeny of judges and lawyers, for instance, your entry to lucrative employment in the legal profession would undoubtedly be greatly eased. And marrying one of their sisters would get you a wife who was a social asset in your life. Is it any wonder that "The people you associate with" is one of the most common reasons people give for sending their kids to private schools?
Broadly speaking, choosing a school is not a process you can use trial and error to improve on. Most families don’t want to move their kids around a lot of different schools. So how do you get a sense of how good a school is from the outside? University entrance results are one obvious place to start, and high-fee schools tend to sell hard on their high marks.
But if you’re only interested in academic achievement, the results from most of the 30-odd Australian studies since 2000 suggest that private schools are no better at progressing students’ learning than state schools, once you’ve controlled for socioeconomic background. That’s also been the case for Australia’s results in the past three Pisa tests, the OECD’s international comparison test for student learning.
“On average private schools superficially appear to achieve higher student outcomes,” concedes education researcher and public schools advocate Trevor Cobbold. “But public schools enrol the vast majority of disadvantaged students … and this is what largely accounts for differences in school outcomes.”
The Grattan Institute’s yet-to-be released study of five years of Naplan results contrasted students’ progress between Naplan tests rather than the raw scores, because it says that is the best measure of what value a school is adding. Comparing like with like schools by socioeconomic background across sectors, it found there is no significant learning advantage conferred by private schools.
Researcher Peter Goss says, “it’s a pretty clear finding that the differences in progress between the three sectors are just not there, on Naplan. So if parents are choosing their sector based on Naplan results, then they kind of miss the point.”
The academic excellence of high-fee schools might owe more to a virtuous circle or feedback loop, rather than anything particularly unique to the school’s teaching and learning. Those schools are also in a position to lure bright students with scholarships. It’s like the (probably apocryphal) comment a senior figure at Harvard University in the US reportedly made to a private audience of overseas educators, in explaining the secret to the university’s global prestige. “It’s simple. We choose the best people, we don’t fuck them up, and we take all the credit.”
Naplan is a narrow benchmark, and data available for research comparing school outcomes is very limited. There is, for example, some research to suggest that public school kids do better at university than private school kids with the same Atar. The researchers say this may reflect the ability of some private schools to maximise tertiary entrance scores for their students, who revert to “underlying ability” once they’ve left.
But none of it can answer the question for an individual child: is your child going to do better at one school or another?
The old school tie
Don’t look to the dismal science for help. Whatever it is, paying high fees for private school is not an economically rational decision, says Sean Leaver, a behavioural economist specialising in education choices. He compares it to a luxury consumption decision, like buying a top-end BMW over a good cheap Toyota. Both will get you there.
“As an investment? Clearly no,” he says. “There’s no real benefit from attending a private school compared to a public school once you take into account that private schools skim the best kids and screen the worst kids out.”
“The big question for me, with my parent hat on,” says the Grattan Institute’s Peter Goss, “is what is the school going to contribute to helping my children grow up healthy, happy, having choices in life and being prepared and set up to succeed in those choices? … I just don’t think we gather that data. So … everything else is a bit of a proxy.”
So why are so many families – more than 50% of students in Sydney and Melbourne attend non-government schools – choosing to pay for private schools? In a measure of the sensitivity around the issue, Guardian Australia found it difficult to find parents willing to speak publicly about why they chose private schooling for their children. It might be a mark of status within private school communities, but in the public arena, very few want to articulate the reasons.
Many talk in private about the stress of paying high fees, but don’t want to go on the record about their private financial decisions. Likewise, most private school principals approached by Guardian Australia declined the invitation to talk about what private schools offer in exchange for their fees.
“I talk to people a lot about this,” says Philip Heath, the principal of Barker College in Sydney’s north-west. “A lot of kids come here at year 10 having been in very good government schools before they come here. So it’s a discretionary spend; so what’s driving that decision?”
Barker is a co-ed independent Anglican day and boarding school that was founded in 1890. Year 12 costs $32,000. Including its Indigenous school, Darkinjung Barker, near Wyong, it has about 2,200 students.
“I reckon there are probably four key things,” Heath says. “[The first is] broadly cultural and spiritual allegiances … that’s ethics and values; where their families are from.
“The second would be they are seeking an individualisation of experience … so teacher connection, discipline, access to opportunities, flexibility of the structure to adapt to that child’s interests or needs.
“Third would be the ability to influence school policy and practice at a local level … and to participate more in decision making.
“The fourth one, that’s not popular to talk about, would be aspirations for academic and social engagement, lifelong friendships … Improperly expressed it would be ‘the old school tie’. Put more generously, you’re building friendships that last a long time.”
Choices driven by anxiety
“If I was paying $40,000 a year, I would want two swimming pools!” jokes the former NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli, who now heads the Gonski Institute for Education at UNSW. “No one should resent a school like Kings for that, people are spending 40k a year to send their kids there.”
Associate Professor Piccoli, who was a leading advocate for needs-based funding while he was minister from 2011 to 2017 is also a supporter of school choice, with his own kids in the Catholic system. But he says the key difference between school sectors is “the ability of the non-government sector to choose who their students are.”
Public schools have to take all comers, but through fees, entrance exams, targeted scholarships, interviews, discretion and discipline proceedings, private schools can pick and choose. He believes many parents make a high school decision based on perceptions of student behaviour, or of a school’s level of discipline.
The extensive disclosure and reporting requirements about critical incidents or teacher dismissals for government schools can impact badly on the public sector’s reputation, he says.
“I don’t think the playing field is even,” he says. “If Catholic and independent schools were also subject to freedom of information applications, that would make it a bit more equal. Public schools are much more publicly accountable. Catholic and independent schools don’t have to provide that kind of information, and that gives them in a sense a marketing advantage.
“You only hear about it in independent schools if a parent complains about or it goes to court,” Piccoli says.
Leaver, the economist, says parental choices are typically driven more by anxiety than reason but it could be a rational choice to go private if your local public high school is small and does not offer the range of subjects your child wants.
“[However], in most cases you’re probably better off buying a house in a suburb with a nice public school than actually paying the fees to go to a private school,” he says. “It’s more of a consumption choice. They’re paying for all the extras. The nice facilities, the segregation effects, the screening out of the ‘undesirables’.”
Are private schools really stricter, better at instilling discipline or shaping the good character of children? That is certainly conveyed in the rhetoric and marketing of many private schools. But it might be simply that such schools have easier raw material to work with – and, as Piccoli pointed out in a public brawl with Trinity College in 2014, the fact they can just expel problem kids.
“The idea independent schools might be somehow morally superior – I don’t buy that at all,” says Dr Mark Merry, principal of Yarra Valley Grammar in Victoria, a private co-ed school in Melbourne with fees up to $27,000 a year.
“I think that parents who choose to send their children to our school choose to do so subscribing to the values of the school, so we perhaps don’t have the diversity of viewpoints ... It’s far more – not monocultural – but it’s more homogeneous.”
Independent school advocates argue that the concentration of private resources is not the key point to private schools. What they offer is choice: giving parents options to fit their own values, faith or beliefs, or their kids’ special needs.
“There’s probably more differences within the sectors than there would be between them,” says Carolyn Bladden, the principal of the independent, no-fee Warakirri College in Sydney’s Fairfield and Blacktown, which helps disadvantaged young adults finish high school.
Bladden, who has previously worked at high-fee private schools in Sydney including Knox and Meriden, says sprawling grounds and gleaming facilities aren’t what makes the difference to a child. “The most important thing is the relationship between the teachers and the students, and their engagement. It can happen or not happen within either sector.”
So where are the teachers better? Even those working in the public sector admit underperforming teachers in public schools are harder to get rid of. Accordingly, principal autonomy in hiring and firing is a key factor many parents cite for going private, believing they will get better teaching quality as a result.
Yarra Valley’s Merry says: “A key difference [between sectors] is the autonomy of the head of the school to make decisions pertaining to that school. It comes out in lots and lots of different ways. Certainly it comes out in hiring colleagues. You’re able to really work out who you need, whether the person fits the specific school environment.”
A NSW public school principal who requested anonymity because of the Department of Education’s restrictions on talking to the media, says the process for dismissing an underperforming teacher is so onerous and drawn out that most principals just don’t have the time to do it. The easier option is to wait out the bad teacher, or get them transferred.
“Bureaucracy is the worst thing about public schools – it’s a huge employer, with creaky systems; one size must fit all. It is very hard to get rid of teachers who are not performing well,” the principal says.
But the Grattan Institute’s Goss says, while the freedom to fire the worst teachers may be attractive to parents with a business mindset, it’s importance may be overstated.
“No good international research says you can lift the system by getting rid of the worst teachers,” he says. “Lots of international research says you can lift outcome at scale by providing appropriate support to all teachers.”
The somewhat maddening conclusion from talking to principals and researchers is that schools cannot be judged by sector – it is rationally meaningless to argue private schools are better. There is too much diversity between schools, and the research points to individual school cultures being the most important factor. That comes down to the teaching and learning culture cultivated by the principal.
“Some parents just like the uniforms, talk more about the grounds and the nice jackets than the quality of teaching and learning,” the public school principal says.
“The question I always tell parents to ask is what professional development are the teachers doing? Unless there’s a continuous investment in that happening, go somewhere else.”