The private education dilemma

As an Australian parent in 2012, the public versus private school debate is hard to avoid.  In a society where private schooling is becoming the norm, yet literacy and numeracy skills are stagnating, how does one objectively analyse the costs and benefits of school choice?

First, let me say that school choice is just one factor determining vocational, personal and emotional skills during adolescence.  Genetics, parenting, the home environment, peer groups, sports and other club activities, amongst many factors, all contribute to shaping young minds.

Additionally, the composition of students at the school plays a strong role in determining academic outcomes.  Many private schools for example, offer academic scholarships.  If those students had instead attended the local public school, any difference in average academic results may be greatly reduced.

How then does one separate the impact of school choice from these other factors?

Without the opportunity to conduct controlled studies, for example, by studying twins who attend different schools while holding all else constant, the best analysis of the measurable benefits of private schooling would be a statistical test of various measures of ‘success’, controlling for external factors such as parental intelligence and education, household income and location, and child’s intelligence prior to arrival at the school.

Unfortunately, in this debate one of the most overlooked considerations is what measure of ‘success’ would potentially make private schools ‘better’ than public schools. Is it simply a matter of final grades and tertiary entrance scores, or do parents (and children) value a broader measure of success? Does a public school with more diverse student cultural backgrounds give a better social experience, or does a private school offer more valuable professional connections?

The results of any statistical study will necessarily be narrowly defined to reflect the impact of school choice on a single measure (such as academic test scores), ignoring social benefits and opportunities for extracurricular achievement.

So what do economists and social scientists have to say?

Serious studies isolating school effects from external effects are rare, quite possibly due to lack of reasonable data and the expense and time associated with collecting data for this purpose alone.  One pioneering study showed that after controlling for demographic factors public schools were in fact better at increasing grades in mathematics during primary school years than private schools.

A follow up study tracked student achievement through from kindergarten to eighth grade has this to say:

It is worth noting how little variation school type really accounts for in students’ growth in achievement.

On the fringe of the issue, economists have examined the ‘house price premium’ in catchment areas of better performing schools.  A process which clearly reinforces the school performance divide through selection bias even between public schools themselves, furthering clouding the issue for researchers and parents alike.

Social scientists have also examined which factors lead to the choice of private schooling and, not surprisingly, found a bias towards private schooling by parents who attended private schools.

What astounds me is that any slim evidence on the subject shows that academic benefits of private schools are, at best, very marginal.  While at the same time the costs of private schools are extremely high and increasing rapidly.  Irrationality to one side, one must suspect that parents perceive benefits from private schooling far beyond any academic advantage offered.

Is it that parents believe their children will be less likely to get ‘caught up in the wrong crowd’? Is that really worth the cost?

In the end it appears that choosing private schooling may well be a signal of your socio-economic status, could potentially provide important future professional connections for your child, but is unlikely to yield significant academic benefits and carries a high risk of wasting your money.

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  1. Going by parents choice of topics to brag about at a Melbourne dinner, I’d say status seeking is large factor.

    • Much the same here in Canberra. It’s a real pissing competition between parents (among other things) to see if they can outdo each other over which private school their little darlings go to. We’ve met kids who parents have clearly wasted alot of money on their education, but hey, bragging rights you know.

      • arescarti42MEMBER

        It is particularly evident considering that the quality of ACT public schools is on the whole, pretty excellent.

        • Totally agree. My kids go to a public school in Canberra, all be it one of the better ones, and overall, we’re very happy.

    • Different China Fanboy

      +1 really good article. Should be debated here at both state and federal level.

      • +1 to CFBs ‘good article’ comment. As for it being debated at both State and Federal level, the horse has bolted.

        The education complex has taken control and is in the process of actively encouraging the implementation of a range of ‘initiatives’ directly opposed to those undertaken by the Finnish. More and more examinations at earlier ages, the concentration of teaching staff on teaching to NAPLAN and various state tests (with an eye to bonuses for good results as mooted?), kindergarten and pre-school requirements for more aggressive academic content, childcare centres being required to have teaching staff for two and three year olds – all under the guise of advancement of Australian education and subsequent economic gain (as Gillard recently termed it). It is a hoax, perpetrated at great cost economically to the taxpayer and more importantly emotionally and psychologically to the children.

        From BusinessInsider, key points on the Finnish system:

        • +1 million on the article

          Equity should be the aim of any education system.

          Recent governments, especially Howard’s, emphasis on “choice” is a total furphy. It leads to poorer educational outcomes for the society at large.

          Ultimately increasingly divergent Year 12 results for Private schools (and well to do public schools) leads to little more than the re-constitution and justification of class privilege.

        • The CRUCIAL factor among those 26 factors for Finland:

          “Teachers are selected from the top 10% of graduates”

          The biggest problem with the current system in our part of the world, is that it is mostly the BOTTOM 10% that goes into teaching.

          I suggest that a unionized monopoly is the single worst factor, and entrenched lack of incentive and scrutiny and performance based advancement of TEACHERS.

          John Howard’s approach was merely the only way to get around the entrenchment of a system that guarantees under-performance, in the public school system. It is not for lack of attempts over decades, to address the real problems in the public school system – these are now simply too entrenched.

          I ask those militant unionised teachers in the public system, “if your system is so GOOD, why are you so SCARED of COMPETITION”?

          • I suggest that a unionized monopoly is the single worst factor, and entrenched lack of incentive and scrutiny and performance based advancement of TEACHERS.

            Finland’s teachers are apparently almost entirely unionised. You’ll need to look elsewhere for union-bashing opportunities.

          • If you want those top 10% to look at teaching, you will need to adjust the pay (upwards) in line with your expectation.

            There is a reason for the low entry marks, low demand due to the low pay and status of teachers.

          • Finland’s teachers union obviously isn’t like the ones in most other countries. It helps to have the best people going into teaching. I suggest unionisation is not the essential factor attracting them.

            Sweden’s teachers union came to support “school choice” in recent years.

    • It would be good to see more discussion about education in the MSM.
      With the high mortgage levels and rises in living costs I wonder how families will manage to fund private school education in a few years time, and if there is pressure, how will that affect school funding?
      I think the option of having private and public is great, but there is room for improvement like there always is. No system is perfect.

      As a product of the Finnish education system I am proud of their achievements even though in my teens I used to criticise the Finnish system for providing a boring uniform tube from which students emerge. Now as an adult I look at it more positively and value the fact that kids can have a long childhood until the age of 7, short school days during the firs few years, excellent choice of languages to study and quite a reasonable availability for choice of subjects during high school and senior high.
      Most kids study English from grade 3, then Swedish, German/French/Russian/Italian etc from high school on and the language education continues throughout their schooling in a logical, continuous way. There are very few private schools (international schools and Steiner schools mainly) but there are some selective entry public schools which emphasize sports, science or music for example. All schools are co-ed and no schools have school uniforms. There are no start of year fees apart from school equipment (bags, pens etc). Daily warm lunch free of charge (those high taxes…) is provided throughout school. This is considered very important because it makes sure children from poor families / ones with social problems get at least one proper meal per day during the week.

      Sometimes I do wonder what makes it worth paying 20k per year for school, even if the premises are great and the social circles nice.

      • Finland and the Nordic countries all have a nice advantage of a near monoculture with strong ethics of hard work and personal and social responsibility.

        Systems of this nature that nearly enforce “equality”, will be destroyed by the incursion of increasing numbers of people belonging to failed cultures – even if this is a new local underclass resulting from years of perverse incentives. These take a lot longer to take effect in the Nordic countries. I recall the NZ government in the early 1970’s introducing a unique new “entitlement” style solo mothers benefit, after a Commission of Inquiry had determined, from the SWEDISH example, that “there is no evidence that this acts as a perverse incentive”. Just 3 years later, 1% of the entire NZ population, was young first-time solo mothers – and climbing.

        • From the quoted article above
          “Yet Sahlberg doesn’t think that questions of size or homogeneity should give Americans reason to dismiss the Finnish example. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country — as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn’t lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.”

          • I very much doubt that that disproves my argument. “Born in another country” is only half the story when we are talking about racial and cultural homogeneity. Finland does not have “African-Finns” as 10% plus of its population, or approximately double that of “Hispanics”. Nor have they had waves of Italian and Irish immigration, most of whom, again, are Roman Catholics. Nor do they have Mormons or Episcopalians or Southern Baptists. Or a significant proportion of Jews. None of this is intended as a criticism of any of those groups – merely to illustrate what is the difference between Finland’s racial and cultural homogeneity, and the USA.

            Of course the higher the homogeneity, the greater the “equality”. Japan scores well on this too. I suggest that most of those in Finland “not born in Finland” are Swedes, followed probably by Norwegians, Danes, and Germans.

            But there is also such a thing as P.C. “all must have prizes” assessing of students, and “quotas” for disadvantaged identities.

        • Phil Best, further detail from the same article above in case you did not have time to read it before you posted:
          “Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Teachers College, has addressed the effects of size and homogeneity on a nation’s education performance by comparing Finland with another Nordic country: Norway. Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country’s school system than the nation’s size or ethnic makeup.

          Indeed, Finland’s population of 5.4 million can be compared to many an American state — after all, most American education is managed at the state level. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, there were 18 states in the U.S. in 2010 with an identical or significantly smaller percentage of foreign-born residents than Finland.”

          Private education is no doubt a great option to have and potentially provides an excellent learning environment. Whether it is good value and to which extent the children that have had access to it actually make the most of it is another question, but that’s for families to decide.
          More than just comparing which system is better, I’m personally curious about this model of education in an event of an economic downturn.

          • I certainly never said the USA had a model system. It is far from a model system, with the same lack of choice, and compulsory funding via taxes regardless of where parents send their children and pay fees.

      • I received a private school education (at high school). In my opinion, it is a far too sheltered environment, most of the students are spoilt brats and come out of school with a lack of life skills. Also, I am not generally convinced by the “professional associations” argument. Most professions are a lot more egalitarian now, the odd profession like law might retain some pompous old school connection attributes, but in my view I was often embarrassed to admit I went to a private school and I feel that it was almost a stigma, a professional DISADVANTAGE.
        Of course these are broad generalisations, and some private schools will achieve very good things for certain students

    • This is the key point IMHO:

      “For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country.”

      This is pretty much the complete opposite of how teaching is treated in the Anglosphere, where the mantra “those who can’t do, teach” is seen as insightful wisdom, not the grave insult it really is.

      • Exactly, sorry I posted a comment above to this effect before I noticed yours.

        C S Lewis actually wrote something on this way back in the 1940’s – you can tinker with everything else all you like, the thing that matters most is the quality of the teachers.

  2. Talking about another issue when looking at public v private schooling. As a 21 year old male, if I were to ever have a daughter I would never in a million years send her to a private all girls school.

    Looking at friends and from experience girls 99% of the time that come out of a private school are, how do I put it, more “out there” than a girl who went to a semi private or public school.

    I always think this should be a consideration when looking at sending a girl to a private school, as the school usually tends to define what person is like in their teen/young adult years.

    **Don’t delete me >< just an observation and opinion here**

    • My wife and I are in a big debate about this. Luckily we got time as she doesnt think they need to go to private school until year 7. I from the US and went to public school and turned out fine and she went private school in Perth. I tell everyone on here like I tell her. It doesnt matter what school a kid goes too as it comes down to one thing that is lacking in todays society in the US and Australia. PARENTING. Parents need to raise their kids not the teachers. Parents need to stay on top of their kids to do their homework not the teachers. Parents need to discipline their kids when they act up in school. Not take up for the kid and give the teacher a hard time. All I ever see on the news in Australia and the US is how the parents are upset with the teacher. When I went to school it was never the teachers fault and bloody well behaved or my parents whipped my A$$. Like I said a kids success in private or public schools comes down to parents doing the parenting.

      • +1 for parents needing to be parents which means being involved in their kids education (not both working to pay off a mortgage).

        +1 for giving teachers a break, respecting their skills as educators and giving them your support.

        • School “zoning” has the effect anyway, that the public schools in higher socio-economic areas are better than the public schools in lower socio-economic areas. Then the property values in the “good schools” area are boosted still further.

          I know a young couple who worked out that it was cheaper for them to buy a house in a low socio-economic area, and send their 2 kids to private schools outside the area. (It being prohibited to sent them to a better public school outside their area).

          • PhilBest
            Thats why it makes great economic sense to rent if you have children these days.
            We rent in a high socio-economic suburb, our rent is much lower than a mortgage in a middle income suburb, and we get the benefit of a (nearly) free education at great public schools. Simple!

          • Very good point, Matthias, that fits exactly with my understanding on the housing price bubble issue.

  3. There was a study done in the US referenced in the book Freakonomics. Basically came to the conclusion that private schooling had little impact.

  4. Frankly I am not convinced of the ROI of high-school : I learned much much more at the Uni and much much faster.And in Australia, it s crazy but Uni is pretty much cheaper than Highschool or even Childcare

  5. We took our son out of a private school due to lack of humanity and caring. (The parents also seemed a little too smug that their child was at a certain private school). He is now in a public school, where scrutiny and processes are better. The teachers and children all seem more robust and down to earth. Only an isolated opinion of course.

  6. The whole split in public and private education and health system seems like an incredibly inefficient way of allocating resources to me…

    Surely if all resources were pooled together in a decent (public) system there would be much shorter waiting times, better public education and less cost involved for everyone?

    • And the teachers union monopoly…..?

      We are seeing how unionised monopolies among public employees works out, all over the world today. Even Franklin D Roosevelt did not allow the unionisation of public employees in his day – this was allowed later by even more foolish administrations.

      • All over the world? If teacher union monopolies are so all-powerful, how come they are so poorly paid for such an important job?

        I don’t really know how to interpret your reply? Do you mean that pooling resources together will give teacher too much power?

        • My point is that most unionised monopolies end up dis-incentivising “performance” and retaining the WORST people.

          Many education systems already have the problem that they do not attract the best people to teaching. In a competitive, performance based system, you could expect good people to be attracted to teaching by the prospects for advancement based on merit.

          It is ironic that the result of unionised monopolies often is poor pay; or the failure of the industry being monopolised – see Detroit. In the case of public sector monopolies with overly lavish entitlements, what is happening is “default” on public debt.

  7. Very interesting topic. In my experience at uni, the professional courses (engineering, law, health, business etc) had a disproportionate number of private school students compared to public school. Many of our political and business leaders seem to come from well-renowned private schools too. I wager this has more to do with family upbringing and resources than the intrinsic success of the school. However, I think many parents would like to send their children to a school where excellence is expected and often achieved. Whether this excellence is due to schooling or family upbringing is irrelevant – parents just care about the best outcome for their kids and immersing tem in a culture of achievement.

    • Different China Fanboy

      there seems to be a lot of nepotism and cronyism that comes from being at a private school. So you’re not so much paying for a better education — although anecdotely I think you would be getting a better one — but you are getting a leg up and access later in life. In other words it is not what you know but who you know.

      • Having been educated in an old English Public school, I am pretty sure that the connections and the cronyism is more at the family level than the “old school tie”.

        What was also intersting is that the people who got the good jobs in the City or in Lobbying firms were not the ones with good results, but the ones with the family connections.

      • Can’t comment on medicine or law, but I can tell you in engineering your family / school connections count for squat.

      • “there seems to be a lot of nepotism and cronyism that comes from being at a private school”

        This is one of those excuses that people use to convince themselves that they’re not to blame for their life’s failures.

        My parents sent me to a GPS school because they thought that I’d make connections that would be of value to me in later life. After 20 years of professional life I have seen no evidence of me or any other old school friends deriving such value.

        I have had two occasions where I’ve had professional dealings with people from my old school and neither gave me any real benefit.

        On one occasion I had a meeting at a bank and one of the guys across the table was someone I knew from school. There were a lot of people in the meeting and we didn’t get a chance to talk to each other until we were walking out of the room. We said we’d have to catch up for a coffee, but never did and I haven’t spoken to him since.

        The second occasion was when I worked at a company where I remembered the CEO as a prefect from my school when I was a junior. I worked for the company for three years and it was never mentioned. It wasn’t until some years after I had left the company that I bumped into him at a Christmas party that I told him I remembered him from school.

        My kids go to the local public school. They’ll probably go private for high school, but for reasons other than the one that my parents used to justify their decision with me.

  8. Diogenes the CynicMEMBER

    I think there are many reasons for the private option.

    1. The first one is resources, private schools have more of everything. My daughter is in a class of 20 which has two teachers, the local public school around the corner has a class exceeding 30 with only one teacher.

    2. Extension/aid. If your child is not an average student then private schools have again several staff that are there to aid those who are struggling or help extend those who are gifted. I know there are some programmes that try to address this in the public sector but they are bolted on compared to what I am witnessing in the private sector.

    3. Expectations. Q touched on this – excellence is expected in everything. That attitude permeates into the learning atmosphere.

    4. Values. The private school can teach these whilst the public sector is somewhat handicapped. You may or may not care for this but it was a factor for my partner.

    5. Parent body. Generally more of the parents of those in a private school are engaged and interested in their children’s education which leads to better outcomes for everyone. My public teacher friends say this is less common with their classes/schools.

    It is not cheap but certainly I believe it is worth spending the money (if you can afford it) as does my partner who went through the public system as a child and did well (she was one of the 13% who made it to the sandstone see below).

    Here is one hard information nugget for you. At our sandstone university in the West, excluding the international students the percentage of domestic students coming from a private school is 87%! Sadly our system is becoming more class based.

    • Is it really? Somehow I don’t find that hard to believe. As one who was brought up in a private school and then encouraged to go to uni, I can agree that there is a definite drive for private school kids to go to uni. In grade 12, all everyone talks about is what uni they want to get into. It’s expected and if you decide a different course, you’re the odd one out. I don’t have first hand experience of the culture in public schools, however, many of my friends are from public schools and I’d say more than half of them chose different path ways to uni.

      • Wonder what effect the mining boom has had on career choices? Are publicly educated children opting for now high paying trades as a career path rather than go to uni? Also, you have to wonder if there’s parental / peer pressure and expectations for privately educated kids to go to uni.

    • I think you have pretty much nailed the salient points there. Most parents weighing up those factors you describe to derive a ‘utility’ equation, if you like, will clearly choose the sector that provides the highest level of
      utility. It is not unsurprising from that perspective that for most who have been able to afford it (and even for those who have had to struggle to afford it), private schools are the first choice.

    • I’m trying to decide for myself, and the problem with your arguments is that the first 3, and the 5th point, should all show up as better academic outcomes. But they don’t.

      Take your first point – besides being very expensive, what benefit does this actually provide? Academically, none that are able to be statistically determined.

      Better resources are often present in other areas, such as private swimming pools, better sporting facilities, and better libraries. But that is only compared to public schools, not to the community as a whole. The best swimming pools and libraries in my area are local government facilities (Sydney, Lower North Shore). If a parent chooses to only allow their child to use the school’s facilities, then definitely a private school offers a better choice. But that’s pretty limiting.

      I’d rather save the money on tuition and spend it on other activities, including travel to Europe to see history, not just read it.

      Disclaimer: Educated at a private school.

    • “At our sandstone university in the West, excluding the international students the percentage of domestic students coming from a private school is 87%!”

      So all the kids who went to public schools went to a better uni than UWA?

      Just kidding. (Though I actually wouldn’t be surprised if many WA kids choose universities on the east coast just to get out of the place.)

      These days nobody gets a job just because their degree is from one uni rather than another. That died years ago. Parents who think that way have no idea.

      The “sandstones” trade in nebulous prestige factors, but the only exceptional thing about them is their ability to extract higher fees for the exact same product.

  9. I attended a public school, and I think it makes you hungrier as you get older. You get a sense of satisfaction both at University and the professional workplace when you “beat the private schoolboys”.

    I also agree that most parents just send there kids to private schools as a pissing competition to have at dinner parties (number 2 most popular topic behind investment properties..).

    I think a child attending a public school has a much more balanced perspective on life, having seen other children from backgrounds that are questionable, and also children from backgrounds that are wealthy. If the child also has activities outside of school (such as a sports, scouts, etc.) then that also helps to meet people from a vast array of backgrounds. A lot of people I know that went to private schools are now tradespeople who’s parents could have just put them in public schools and saved the $40,000+.

    When it comes time for my children to go to school, it will be down to a handful of factors. If they are clearly gifted, we will consider a private school. If they look like they are going to turn out to be a hairdresser or a sparky, then they can stay in a public school. You make the decision on the ability of the individual child, your own budget, and also what the child wants to do with there life.

    The extra $40,000 you spend on education could be put into extra curricular activities/experiences that add a lot more value to the childs life over the long term.

    Also, in my professional workplace it is easy me to tell who has had a “Private” upbringing, vs. who has had a “Public” upbringing. People that live in the little exclusive world of “Private” schooling do not have the wider perspective in life to be able to make proper business decisions. I work closely with a marketing team occasionally that is dominated with “private” types, and they have no idea how to put together customer offers and marketing together for tradies/truck drivers/factory workers. I’m no marketer, but most of my ideas get implemented because they actually make logical sense in the real world (as opposed to the hairbrain ideas that are thought up by people that have never driven further east then Doncaster or Chadstone…).

    Public schools are:

    – More balanced perspective on life.
    – More happiness/contentment (because it makes you realize how much better off you are over others, as opposed to a pissing contest over which parent has the more expensive BMW 4wd).
    – Extra funds to commit to other life experiences
    – No wasted funds spent on a child that is never going to be Einstien anyway..

    • +1 but also have to add this in.

      In the UK Public = Private how funny that were prepared to say Private School in Australia yet refer to State schools as Public.

      No wonder the Brits can’t understand the ‘new Australian rich’ 🙂

      We used to be so egalitarian. .



  10. Jumping jack flash

    Good points.

    I’ve become disillusioned with all kinds of farmed education in Australia.

    I have seen first hand the dumbing down of education over the past 20 years.

    I am teaching my children as much as I can and giving them as many opportunities as possible before they start school. They are not yet school aged yet attend music and sports classes and are doing very well for their ages.

    Bragging rights?


    Consider when they begin attending school and are subject to the pressure to conform to the lowest common denominator; the empty vessel who makes the loudest noises.

    I think to get in and instill an attitude of learning is fun before they have this negative energy affecting them in our institutionalised learning farms (both public and private) is the only way in this country where tall poppy syndrome is alive and well.

  11. The problem is the huge amount of public money flowing into private education now and the expectation of middle-class welfare to support the private system at the expense of the public system. The Federal government (this is a Labor government remember) is spending more money nowdays on private secondary schools than it is on universities. The problem began in the sixties when Menzies decided to start giving Catholic schools money in an attempt to shore up the DLP vote – prior to that if you wanted to send your kids to a private school you had to pay the entire cost yourself with no subsidies from the government at all. Since then the amount of money to all branches of private education has increased to the point where any attempt to reduce the spending is met with stiff and well organised political opposition from the ‘independent school’ sector.

    It is an unfortunate state of affairs where you have both state and federal governments tipping more and more money into the private system arguing “that’s where people want to send their kids” while we have state schools that are literally falling apart (witness some recent articles in the Herald Sun about how bad public school facilities are in Victoria). People don’t want to send kids to public schools because governments at every level are making them deliberately unattractive for aspirational parents – much like trying to run down the public health system in an attempt to force people to take out private health insurance. Overall the problem is that the sheer expense of these enormous subsidies won’t be affordable for Aussie taxpayers in the long run and in the meantime the run-down public facilities become a second-rate ‘safety net’ system for those that can’t afford private schooling.

    • + + 1 You could argue that the Australian pre-tertiary education system now has more distortions / lack of logic / misallocation of funds than the USA health system.

      The big issue coming in Australia as the % going to private (but very government subsidised) education is the push for a voucher scheme. It is almost as big an issue as the ‘no (private school) kid will be worse off’ decision of JWH in 2002. The unholy alliance of the Catholic school system and other private school providers (including non main stream religious groups) to resist rational income based gov. support is appalling.

      A sad point (picked up by some other commenters) is the inability of parents to assess the potential of their own children who may do much better in a trade / vocational based system. I am sure many of these kids would have made better use of the money their parents had wasted in the private sector.

      • Itag, private/religious schools are a very vocal and well organised political lobby group now and both sides of politics are terrified of upsetting them. Prior to the sixties there was NO government funding of ANY private/religious schools and the system worked fine. The problem is that with extra funding the system has exploded to the point where more than a third of secondary students go to private/religious schools and its now at a ridiculous point where taxpayers are funding rifle ranges and swimming pools at the top end of the market while government schools literally rot into the ground.

      • I was talking about revenue only from Federal sources. The States are actually supposed to be running the schools so I don’t consider their money to be a ‘contribution’. The other thing to consider is that additional revenue from fees or grants, church funds, trusts and parent additional contributions (which I hear are classed as ‘voluntary’ but in reality are not) are all quite substantial and help out private schools a lot where public schools don’t have access to those sources of revenue.

        • From a recent Quadrant Magazine article:

          “…..the current socioeconomic status (SES) model of funding non-government schools is based on need and, as a result, better-resourced non-government schools only receive 13.7 per cent of the recurrent cost of educating a student in a government school (what is know as the Average Government School Recurrent Costs or AGSRC). Whereas government school students receive approximately $12,369 per student in state and federal funding, the figure for non-government school students is $6,607. In addition to paying taxes for a system they do not use, non-government school parents also pay school fees, and their children’s schools, unlike government schools, receive little, if any, government contribution towards infrastructure and capital costs…..”

          • “In addition to paying taxes for a system they do not use […]”

            As soon as I read something like this I know immediately the writer is just pushing using whatever the cause-du-jour of the article is to push an ideological barrow, and that I can safely ignore the rest.

          • Who is being ideological now?

            The Quadrant article simply points out realities that most people do not realise. The government and the taxpayer, is in fact getting a very good deal out of the parents who send their children to a private school, but to hear the criticism of this from the Left, it sounds as though low income taxpayers are having their wealth transferred directly to the rich parents. This is the opposite of the truth, and needs to be pointed out.

            Increasing the subsidy has actually led to an increased transfer of wealth from rich to poor. Julia Gillard is smarter than most leftists, and understands this.

            The unions are not interested in this truth, they are the real ideologues in all this.

    • I think governments have a legitimately difficult balancing act here, certainly not made easy by the rent-seeking of particular religious denominations who still exert a not inconsiderable amount of influence in what is notionally a secular society.

      So for decades now government have been party to a private/public divide because clearly it is cheaper for them for a student to go private than front up at a public school. In theory, they could have been spending the difference on improving the quality of public schools, but once that gap in quality is bridged then why would parents bother going private ?

      Remove subsidies to private school students, and how many enrolments does that tip back into the public system? Potentially quite a lot – certainly more than the government could afford, politically or economically.

      • +1.

        “…..Remove subsidies to private school students, and how many enrolments does that tip back into the public system? Potentially quite a lot – certainly more than the government could afford, politically or economically.”

        The main reason the Gillard Govt doesn’t tinker too much.

  12. Having taught at a university, and knowing people who teach at university, I’ve noticed this: private school kids do slightly better at the HSC, and worse at university. In particular, they drop out of first year at a higher rate.

    The likeliest explanation is that private high schools primarily sell their product on the basis of HSC scores, so they spoon-feed the students to that specific end. When they go on to university they find it harder to cope with the tertiary “work things out for yourself” approach.

    Most parents have no idea what their child actually needs from their education; they believe that a high HSC score is the most important thing. However, as I keep telling my friends who are parents, apart from the fact that you can you get into just about any uni course you want by alternative means, your HSC score only matters for about 6 months. After you’ve had a job for a while, nobody will care. (And even in that first six months, it matters less than you think.)

    • Yes less independant learning at private schools thus a higher dropout (failure)rate.

      Some other comments based on these comments:

      Hard working Government school teachers are the norm, environmental and resources resulting in a far greater challenge. This is before accounting for class size and the ‘challenging’ clientle.

      I have read that the greatest predicter of goint to uni was that one or both parents went to uni, 2nd was that the parents were born overseas.

      A lot of money could be saved by governments if HSC (ATAR) scores were allocated based on the students post code. I have been assured that the real results differ only marginally from the Post code method.

    • Excellent comments, especially that last paragraph.

      The spoon-feeding is also a concern for the selective schools in Sydney now, with a focus on “coaching”.

  13. Interesting topic. My own son has commenced education in a Waldorf/Steiner system (starting school at age 7 – like the Finnish!), a system with no examinations and great emphasis on play and artistic endeavour. A move meant a local primary school, not impressed. Home education for three years, thoroughly recommend for those in the position to do plus son loved it. Very good private school here in Perth for high school year, strong emphasis on examinations for academic excellence. He effortlessly made it into all extension/gifted programs despite a very relaxed home schooling environment. He didn’t like the atmosphere, last term 2011 at local government high school – fortunately a good one, nice area etc. Likes it much better, more relaxed. Would probably like to resume home education and have not ruled it out.

    Years ago a longitudinal study was undertaken on ‘gifted’ students in the US from first grade through to age 40. These guys (boys only) were the kids that excelled in all years, valedictorians etc. Most interestingly, around 80% ended up in very ‘middle’ level careers despite all the potential and accolades received. 10% drifted or dropped out and the remaining 10% did extraordinarily well. When interviewed at age 40, were asked how or why they believed they came to the position they were – most said they just wanted to be ‘normal’, have a normal life, not feel pressured or obligated to constantly achieve or excel. Perhaps there is a lesson there for all parents…

    • As one of quite a few children in a particular decade where it was decided that the current educational trend was to promote children through schooling years at will and on a fairly flimsy basis as well (ie. you can read so you can skip the first year of school…), I concur loudly with this last point.
      Ridiculous pursuit, I’m glad they stopped it.

  14. I am going through this dilemma at the moment.

    Personally, I changed from average public to top private in year 10 (in the 1980’s). The teachers at both were good, with maybe more consistency at private school.
    The major differences were:
    – Accelerated learning. I was behind a fair way in some subjects after the move. Year 12 was mostly taught in year 11, so year 12 was effectively a refresher year. Therefore, higher final marks.
    – Discipline. Chalk and cheese…
    – Attitude of students. At public only about 6 students cared about their education. At private more than 50%.

    With my very young daughter, we are looking at either private school ($17,000 pa) or moving to a top public school catchment area. Education wise, either will be good. Similarly, at top public, I am guessing ‘enough’ students should be focused.
    What concerns me the most is discipline. Anecdotally, discipline is non-existent at any public schools. With private, there is more hope.

    Other aspects, like bragging rights, school contacts, etc. are irrelevant to us as parents.
    Fundamentally, we want the best for our child, and hope to nurture a well rounded individual by the end of schooling.

    • +1.

      I know a teacher that has taught a private school and a public school (in Geelong) and went running back to the private school (with a wage cut) so he could continue ‘teaching’ instead of ‘controlling’

      My wife (private educated) has taught a number of years in the senior secondary public sector and enjoys the comraderie of teachers there however Dangerous Minds is in her top ten movie list…

  15. Being a former student of the selective public high school system in NSW I feel this gave the best of both worlds. It produces an environment where a majority of the kids want to learn but with no where near the price tag of a private school (something my parents would have never considered). I think in my final year of high school 140 of 145 got accepted into uni courses.

    I’ve never understood why other states haven’t adopted this system. I might be missing something.

    • I agree CM – Qld didn’t stream when I went through the public system, which was quite frustrating. I would send my kids to a streamed public school over a private school if given the choice. Cheaper, and you can bet most students are there to learn, not just becuase they have to be.

    • It’s because the outcomes aren’t clear.

      Also I loathe the same sex nature of selective high schools. This breeds an obsession with sex.

      Yes, I went to one (Sydney Tech)

    • Think Glen Waverley, Victoria.

      The man in the desk next to me (who is watching me type this) has recently sold up and immigrated from Malaysia with three kids to save himself over $1M – it means starting again and renting in GW but long term its basically a no brainer.

  16. The benefits of private school would have to be utterly massive to justify the upfront cost. If you send your child to public school, and then take the amount you would have otherwise spent on higher fees, more expensive uniforms, excursions etc and put that money in a term deposit, by the time your child has finished Year 12 I’d wager the sum saved would be more than enough to compensate for any perceived ‘loss’ from going to a public school. The savings could be enough to send them to a private university (hell, send them to an overseas university), pay cash for their first (small) apartment, send them on a gap year they’ll never forget, etc.

    The funniest reason I ever heard for sending a child to a private school was child’s mother thought he’d be more likely to try drugs if he went to a public school 🙂

    Disclaimer: I attended one of the lowest-ranking high schools in my state, loved it and still managed to get into a law degree at a sandstone university.

    • That is funny!
      At Uni (in the 80’s), the guys selling drugs were all from private schools. I suppose they had the venture capital and contacts……

  17. Criteria I would like to see.

    Persons of compassion and integrity.

    Contribution to the intellectual and cultural life of their community.

    For some reason these don’t seem to feature as successes of schooling.

  18. By the time my son reaches High-school I hope he will be able to get into an IB program (I went thorough the French Baccalaureate, i m biased toward it).

    but we have to be realistic education is changing fast, I gave an Ipad for Christmas to my 5yo nephew and is already learning at light speed with it (crazy good Apps to learn on it)

  19. I was talking to some Italian colleagues of mine, asking about their schooling and in particular trying to determine why, as a group, they seemed to understand the fundamentals of everything better than others I work with. The major difference? Turns out they have to learn Latin, 3 hours a week for 5 years of high school. They hated it (of course!) but their logic skills are second-to-none.

    • Logic needs to be taught in schools. I was only exposed to a little bit of it in my programming and advanced math classes, but I think everyone should be taught about it.

  20. I send my 3 kids to a low fee private school ($15000 per year for all 3).

    The main reason is that my wife particularly wants the kids taught in a Christian environment.

    We were both also educated in similar low fee independent schools.

    The Autralian government’s subsidy of private schools is in my experience unique internationally.

    It would seem to be finacially advantages for the government as it saves money by doing this, as it costs less for them to have a student at a private school than a public one.

    The problem with those who want this subsidy to stop is that the alternative are public schools that are selected by the income of parents, as housing around public schools considered to be good become more expensive.

    In Brighton&Hove, England a Labour local government introduced a lottery system where all public schools in the local council area were allocated by lottery (with teh only exception to allow siblings to attend the same school).

    Friends I know who live there have their kids sent to schools on the other side of town. It seems to have been very unpopular and the Tory UK government wants to stop this experiment (which has been running for a few years).

    So in conclusion I actually think the Australian system of the government subsidizing private schooling at a lesser rate than public school costs is a good compromise.

  21. Recently had the pleasure of attending a christening. Neither parent is religious in any form . The reason the bairn is anointed in this particular faith??
    To ease the access into a private school!!

    • Very, very common. Alarmingly so, in fact people are quite candid about this tactic.

      What kind of message does this illustrate to the offspring? Discuss.

      If your parents or grandparents went to the same private school you are enrolling your child into, that propels their name up the waiting list at a cracking pace also.

      • It would be interesting to consider how much the various findings are distorted by the fact that a huge majority of “private schools” being funded by the government are Catholic schools, that still mostly tend not to charge the parents.

        This is because they mostly have had their buildings and land for decades already, and because of a high level of unpaid input by volunteers and clergy – and charitable giving by wealthy Catholics. Therefore, many Catholic schools can add the $6000 per pupil they get from the government, to their existing advantages, and give a free education to appropriately christened children.

      • What kind of message does this illustrate to the offspring? Discuss.

        You shouldn’t feel guilty about scamming the scammers ? 🙂

  22. 2 children, both in Victorian govt schools.

    Here’s a run down of the learning milestones:

    1. “Reading recovery program”. Was a one on one catchup program that was very effective.
    2. Piano lessons. (Add on) Why explain to a 5 year old “perseverence will make eventual success very satisfying” when you can let them experience it?
    3. Nipper’s surf life saving program. (Out of school) Sport with an element of luck meaning any of the top 5 can literaly get a “lucky break”. More hidden learning about community spirit and doing your best than “wax on, wax off”
    4. Getting bullied for a year. Sometimes everyone in a position of authority will fail you and you will need to push through it on your own.
    5. Training in a pool for 9 months so that you can go open ocean snorkling with your dad as a 4.5 year old. (out of school) Best bit was when he observed some Japanese tourists “can’t swim, doing the dangerous and stupid stuff and not following a plan” at the same site. I told him they didn’t work for it, someone just took their money and hoped for the best.
    6. Same as item 5, Daughter this time aged 5.5 1st time and 9 on last. Show and tell at school was “ok,…..Has anyone else swam with sharks ,seen a Manta ray or fed a Moray eel?”. Answer the question “when can I scuba dive?” with “there is a Cadet program at 16. To be accepted you need to pass a medical, a bronze medallion fitness test, study and pass a written exam and pass a Scuba physical aptitude test. Poor attitude is grounds for rejection” Both pause and then reply: “Ok, I can do that.”
    7. RACV Recumbant bike challenge (in school). Team building stuff. A glorious antidote to the “being mediocre has less dissapointments” socialist mind numb. 3 days where 12 year olds want to win and go mad screaming support to each other. Not actualy winning didn’t seem to be life threatening.
    8. Kumon maths program (out of school). No flash cards, chanting or computer aided graphics. “Hard work gets results” is a lesson they get for free.
    9. The Toyota quality program. Insight into human nature, trust, reponsibility, planning and problem resolution. Not the tracking sheets but the principles: “I can’t trust someone who trusts someone else”. “we can accept a mistake made for the first time”.
    10. Gymnastics (Out of school, L3). To paraphrase Hitch Hikers guide to the galaxy: Nothing is cooler than being able to throw yourself at the ground and miss.

    Trying to start the debate by analysing academic difference is looking under the wrong rock. There is a huge middle ground where schools of both types have access to the basic tools of achieving academic success. But it’s mission impossible for children with failed life skills. So pick any school where you believe the parents as a group have a similar outlook on study, discipline and personal development. The rest will work itself out provided you are prepared to plug any holes with extracurricular activities and supports.

    So the missed question here is “Are private schools a preselection for parents who care more about parenting?”

    • “I can’t trust someone who trusts someone else”

      Is this some sort of typo ? Because a philosophy like that doesn’t really leave many people in the world you can trust.

      • No typo, I will try to put it in context in a post of reasonable length.

        “Trust” is a shorthand for a range of activity that you can do diligently or bludge and pretend to do. So I am not talking about the “goodwill to all men” Christmas card version of the word.

        It’s how they say it which is likely to be a direct translation from Japanese. Here’s my own stab at the intent:

        “If you are too lazy to check that the people you rely on are doing their jobs properly then failure is certain. We will not give you that chance”

        It is a bit of a morality tale that is the opposite of the Western idea of “Plausible deniability”

        • “If you are too lazy to check that the people you rely on are doing their jobs properly then failure is certain. We will not give you that chance”

          Rrright, but in any complex (well, not even complex, merely non-trivial) endeavour you *have* to trust the people around you have done their jobs properly or the system simply cannot work.

          Cars, for example, cannot be put together by a single person. The guy installing the steering wheel has to trust that the guy who installed the airbag did it correctly, who in turn has to trust that the guy making the sensors that set it off has done his job properly. And that’s not even bringing into the equation the people responsible for creating the raw materials from which those components are fashioned.

          Trusting that the people around you are doing their job properly is probably the single most important aspect of organised work and skill specialisation, which in turn pretty much makes it the foundation of what we would consider human society.

          I can only assume something is lost in translation.

        • (Sadly I had another, longer answer to this but my homework was eaten by the internet dog)

          I can only assume something is being lost in translation, because this seems to be suggesting that if person A is incapable of verifying person B’s work is being done correctly (ie: has all the same knowledge of person B), then person A is “lazy” and their job won’t be done properly.

          This idea flies completely in the face of the skill specialisation and building-on-the-work-of-others concepts that forms a foundation of what we recognise as human society, which implictly require person A to trust that person B knows what they’re doing.

          • Here’s how my children would understand it.

            Q: “Have you finished your home work?”

            Is replaced with:

            Q: “lets have a look through your draft together.”

            Think through the possible replies to both questions and you will come to understand why the second choice is the better option.

  23. We could afford to send our kids to a private school, just chose not to as the public education system works well as long as you are prepared to take an active interest and participate in expected outcomes.

    There was occasional peer pressure to conform to status conventions, but you gain strategies to deal with such trifling during adolescence.

    We always found the idea of those paying for their kids to go to a private school driving past several public ones that their taxes were already paying for somewhat entertaining.

    Our kids all got the uni courses they wanted. I retired at 55 and my partner will do the same.

    By making the public school choice both the kids and the parents got the outcome they wanted.

  24. Can we all agree that neither public or private are satisfactory?

    It seems the education system is designed to pump out corporate citizens, those that underacheive are given manual labor jobs etc, those that excel end up in front of a computer working for corporates/universities..

    This is the problem, the system does not encourage free thinkers, innovation or independence. Main Stream education like Main stream media, is full of crap. Encourage your kids to value other opinions, question the system, but make them understand that school is only a portion of what they really need to learn.

    • Agreed totally. I was sent to a small independent private high school, and they didn’t encourage critical thinking very much. A lot of it was spoon-fed and it was easy to do well on your final exams if you put some work in. My parents reasons were mostly of a security nature, all of the public schools close by had bad reputations while the private one was known for its strict discipline (making it easy to participate in class and learn).

      The only critical thinking skills I have really come from computer programming, which I taught myself from an early age (started by programming web pages in primary school). To be honest all levels of education primary/secondary/tertiary need to focus more on critical and independent thinking and less on just volumetric transfer of knowledge.

  25. With 3 kids the school fees will be 25k plus 5k in extras each yr, per child? Call me crazy but why these fees are not tax deductible has got me stuffed. Thats 50k gross i need to earn per child just to cover this. My thinking is you send kids to private school for the life long contacts, the motivation kids pick up and the parents enjoyment of mixing in an environment they should enjoy. The other factor is that l think they make most of the public schools in east syd crap so it forces parents into private schools. From my perspective, being early 40’s and needing to fund this is gobsmacking. I would love to know how many parents actually fund this themselves and how much is funded via grand parents. I wonder what my mother would say, being a public schoolboy myself.

    • Call me crazy but why these fees are not tax deductible has got me stuffed.

      Because Yet More Middle-class Welfare is bad, mmmkay ?

  26. I also wrote a letter to Julia gillard about limiting the 5 k baby bonus to only the first 3 kids, as I earn good money and can’t afford anymore, yet other who likely earn one tenth or less of my salary can afford 5? the letter l got back didn’t answer the question surprise surprise. They need to put more emphasis on the user pays system unless I’m moving to Singapore.

  27. nice stuff. It has been a question on my mind for some time too. I was sent to a private school, but wondered if that formed a bias in my views on the subject.


  28. For me the choice of private vs public is all about the principles of the school. (As opposed to the principal 🙂

    We have selected a private school with Christian Ethics because I want my children to grow up celebrating Christmas, Easter, and understanding why we celebrate those festivities. That is our heritage.

    I don’t want them subjected to the rubbish political correctness that is infiltrating state schools where students aren’t allowed to fail, regardless of how poorly they have performed; and everyone is given an achievement award just for showing up because highlighting one person’s skills or effort is bad for the general majority’s self esteem. But when considering our children’s eduction, private vs public wasn’t the question. This is not limited to Public schools but is a lot more prominent in public schools than private ones.

    At the end of the day I believe that the teachers at any school can only work with what they are given. Give your child a loving home environment that supports them doing the best they can and offers a good environment to support learning and your children will succeed regardless of their school.

    I think we focus too much on the wrong thing. Our focus should be on home environment if we want good outcomes at school.

    We made the decision in our family that if both parents had to work in order for our kids to go to a private school then they would go to public schools and one of us would stay at home in order to provide abundantly for their emotional and educational well beings.

  29. “Money can’t solve the problem of inequality because money is not the crucial source of the problem. The problem is in the realm of conscious and unconscious mental development…….. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that encourages human-capital development—books, discussion, reading, questions, conversations about what they want to do in the future—and some children are bathed in a disrupted atmosphere. If you read part of a story to kindergarten children in an affluent neighborhood, about half of them will be able to predict what will happen next in the story. If you read the same fragment to children in poor neighborhoods, only about 10 percent will be able to anticipate the flow of events. The ability to construct templates about the future is vitally important to future success.”

    —David Brooks, The Social Animal (2011), p. 328.

    • When you dont have enough money, you are constantly worried about how to survive in the present rather than getting busy constructing templates of the future success. Money is certainly not a single factor, but it is a significant when one does not have enough.

      Oh by the way, by quoting David Brooks, you totally fail the unwritten rule here at MB that concerns with “making logical arguments.”

      • What do you have against David Brooks? His book “Who Really Cares”? is a unique classic of its type. I don’t know much else about him.

  30. unhealthyskeptic

    We all want the best for our children although there are marked differences for what we mean by best.

    The local public school where we live is fine but there is a great public primary school a little bit further way for which we are not “in area”. Great in my mind means a motivated parent base that actively fund raise and support the school. The school is considered a great place to teach so Teachers want to get there and want to stay there.
    It is our intention to get our kids in there and as over half the children attending are from out of area there is a good chance we will achieve this goal. It might not be fair but if that means renting “in area” for a while we have the means to be able to do so. Not entirely an equitable system and quality education is public good.
    There are some interesting things happening in the US with education and I strongly recommend people look up waiting for superman on you tube to find out more about KIPP