Is private schooling a waste of money?

As an Australian parent in 2019, the public versus private school debate is hard to avoid. With two children aged 9 and 11, and living in a fairly affluent area of Melbourne, I am continually asked “which private school will you send your kids to”?

When I respond that I am considering sending my daughter to the local public schools (my autistic son goes to a special school), I am often greeted with blank stares or comments like “but don’t you want to give your child the best possible education”?

My usual response is to either ignore their comment or retort with something like: “there’s no guarantee that private schooling leads to better outcomes” or “I cannot justify the cost”.

As noted by Dr Cameron Murray way back in 2012, school choice is merely one factor determining vocational, personal and emotional skills during adolescence. Genetics, parenting, the home environment, socioeconomic status, peer groups, sports and other club activities, amongst many other factors, all contribute to shaping young minds.

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.

Moreover, there’s other considerations that must be considered. For example, does a public school with more diverse student backgrounds give a better social experience and equip someone better for real life? Or does a private school offer more valuable professional connections?

Actual studies comparing private and public schooling are rare, but there has been a few.

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.

Economists have also 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.

Whereas social scientists have 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.

The latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, released last week, have added more grist to the mill, revealing that Australian students perform no better academically if they attend a private school over a public school once socio-economic background is taken into account:

“What that means is that socio-economic background has a really high effect on outcomes,” said PISA national program director Sue Thomson. She said an advantaged student would perform the same in an advantaged government, private or independent school, whereas a student from a poor background could be expected to do better in those environments.

NSW Secondary Principals’ Council acting president Craig Petersen said the PISA results highlighted that “in terms of which school it is best to go to, it’s your local school”.

“The differences between sectors is not as great as people might think it is,” he said.

Call it confirmation bias, but the above reports support my belief that private schooling is a waste of money. 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.

If we do ultimately decide to send my daughter to a public school, I’ll sleep comfortable in the knowledge that we won’t be hosing tens-of-thousands of dollars down the drain each year.

Leith van Onselen

Leith van Onselen is Chief Economist at the MB Fund and MB Super. Leith has previously worked at the Australian Treasury, Victorian Treasury and Goldman Sachs.

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