Private school myths
Updated: 24 August 2000 Author: Acsso Maintained By:

Six myths about private schools in Australia

This article was prepared by the Australian Council of State School Organisations (ACSSO) and has been reproduced with permission.

The Centre for Independent Studies, a right-wing think tank, has released an Issues Paper entitled "The Truth About Private Schools in Australia". It is little more than an attack on government schooling. The only common theme appears to be a defence of the policy directions developed by Dr Kemp as Minister for Education, including initiatives such as the Enrolment Benchmark Adjustment, as well as increasing funding for non-government schools more rapidly than for government schools.

Myth 1: Private schools do not drain money from public schools

This really covers two issues. Private schools receive substantial funding from both Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments. Dr Kemp's latest figures show that on average, non-government schools receive over 60% of Average Government School Recurrent Expenditure (AGSRC). Under legislation currently before the Commonwealth Parliament, the highest funding category will in some States receive 95% of AGSRC. This is all money that could be spent, and arguably might be more socially usefully spent, on government schools, which rightly offer a place to all students.

On the Enrolment Benchmark Adjustment (EBA), this money does not go directly to private schools. However, the EBA has deprived government schools of around $60 million from the funding they were entitled to under the Commonwealth per capita funding formula. In this case, Dr Kemp who is draining money from public schools.

Myth 2: Private schools have spent less per students than public schools

The gap in the CIS figures is quite narrow, and the trend is for expenditure in private schools to exceed that for government schools. Generally, these sorts of figures do not take account of the costs of services provided by government agencies to private schools in areas of curriculum, centralised examinations and subsidies to transport students over large distances to the school of their parents' choice. In addition, government schools rightly have the obligation to enrol, and retain, all students, and that students with the greatest and most costly learning needs (students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, students of Indigenous origin, students from rural and remote areas and students with disabilities) are concentrated in government schools, expenditure in government schools ought to be significantly higher.

Government school systems also provide often small rural schools and distance education, often at high per capita costs. Similarly, government school systems need to provide specialised educational facilities for students with behavioural problems. Given the high costs of the general service obligations of government schools, which do not apply to private schools, the figures in fact show that government schools need more funding to enable them to cater for the diverse needs of their students and achieve equity in outcomes.

Myth 3: Private schools are not elitist

The CIS analysis here is fundamentally flawed, since it fails to take account of the distinct types of non-government schools. At least two need to be distinguished. The majority of schools in the independent sector are clearly elitist. Figures from the Australian Centre for Equity in Education show that students from the lowest socio-economic status (SES) families are virtually unrepresented in these schools, yet they enrol 30% of students from the highest SES bracket. The Catholic school shows a similar pattern of increasing enrolment share with increasing SES, although the elitism is not as marked as for the independent schools. Government schools enrol around 80% of students from the lowest SES decile, and around 50% from the highest SES group.

Myth 4: Private schools achieve better results than public schools

The links between academic outcomes and SES, Indigenous origin, rural and remote residence, and disabilities are well known. These groups are over-whelmingly enrolled in government schools and under-represented in private schools, which skews the results. The crucial question for a parent is whether they can buy a better academic outcome for their child. After allowing for parental income, education and attitudes, there is really no advantage for private schooling. Professor Gannicott, a general supporter of the policies pushed by the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) has concluded that "the unfortunate reality is that it is not possible to provide clear-cut conclusions about this key issue", yet this myth has become a fact for the CIS. There is one consistent finding from studies in this area that is rarely mentioned by the advocates of private schooling; students from government schools out-perform their private school peers when they go on to higher education, presumably because the government schools equips them better for the wider Australian society they will encounter after school. Overall, students of similar family background will do every bit as well in a government school as in a private school, and those from government schools on average will do better after leaving school.

Myth 5: Private school students have better post-school outcomes

As noted above, students from government schools appear to do better at higher education than comparable students from private schools. Retention rates are lower in government schools, and unemployment rates are higher for government school students, but since these characteristics are associated with students from low SES backgrounds, of Indigenous origin, from rural and remote areas, and for students with disabilities, the enrolment differences warp the data. There is simply no evidence that students going to government schools are more likely to leave school early, or to be unemployed, than comparable students from private schools. But they do surge ahead in further studies.

Myth 6: Parents choose private schools for many reasons, not just academic outcomes

This myth has at least a grain of truth. Parents often cite better discipline or values as the reasons for choosing a private school. We do not claim that government schools are free from problems, but there is no evidence that behaviours such as bullying or major drug use are less common in private schools. Parents rarely admit to other reasons, such as the desire to buy an educational advantage for their children (unsuccessfully as noted above), or to buy social status. But, that is hardly something that deserves government support.