Are the higher costs of private school justified? The evidence says ‘no’

It can be tough deciding where to send kids to school.

It can be tough deciding where to send kids to school. Photo: Getty

Deciding whether to send your kids to private or public school can be stressful and confusing.

The debate on whether private schools are worth the investment compared to public schools (also known as government schools) is complex and fraught.

Private school fees can be one of the biggest expenses families pay term-by-term. And some schools are getting very expensive.

Parents can pay anywhere from the 10,000s to the 40,000s of dollars each year, per student.

The cost of private school education in Sydney, per student for 13 years, is estimated to be $357,931, which is 19 per cent (or $57,698) above the national average of $300,233, according to Futurity Investment Group research.

Perception and reality

Many parents are happy to pay the high price to send their children to private schools because they perceive they offer a level of prestige and academic excellence unmatched by public schools.

Parents may believe that by attending private school, their kids will have access to a particular social network or that the school will provide a more personalised learning experience.

Additionally, they may think private schools have more resources and extracurricular activities, giving students a more well-rounded education.

So is this the case? Do students from private schools outperform those in the public system?

Dr Sally Larsen, lecturer and researcher at the School of Education at the University of New England, said when weighing up private versus public that it’s important to remember all schools follow the same curriculum.

“All teachers are trained using the same standards. And they’re all accredited using the same accreditation system, regardless of which sector they’re in,” Dr Larsen said.

Dr Larsen said that it’s not so much the school that dictates whether a student succeeds academically; rather, it’s their support networks outside of the school environment.

“Once you account for family background or socio-economic status, there’s no differences in academic outcomes between school sectors, at least up until middle high school,” she said.

No significant difference

Experts said that according to OECD data, there is no significant difference in students’ academic achievement in private schools versus public schools, once socio-economic status is considered.

Dr Larsen said although students in private schools are statistically more likely to finish high school, this is because public schools cater to a broader distribution of abilities in students.

“It’s the types of students that are in the different school sectors that give this appearance that more students in private schools get really high ATARS. But that’s not necessarily related to the influence of the school itself, and it’s more that segregation effect.”

That ‘segregation effect’ is the unequal distribution of resources and educational quality in schools based on race and socio-economic background.

The OECD says this leads to a disparity in educational opportunities and outcomes for students and can “deprive children of opportunities to learn, play and communicate with other children from different social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds.”

Education expert Dr Sue Thomson told TND that one of the main differences between private and public schools is that the former can choose their students, often not admitting those who are the most vulnerable or in need of support.

“They won’t be taking in the kids who are at most risk … they won’t be taking in the ones with severe ADHD problems, for example, which means that all of those sorts of issues become more concentrated in the government schools.”


No significant difference in students’ academic achievement in private schools versus public schools. Photo: Getty

It’s widely reported that public schools are underfunded relative to what they should be.

The Gillard government’s Gonski Report recommended that all schools be funded to the student resource standard (SRS), a calculation based on student’s educational needs.

“Private schools tend to be overfunded, and they are funded by different mechanisms than public schools,” said Dr Larsen.

“Private schools have every right to charge as much as they like in fees from parents.

“But the government is also giving them an amount of money as well. And whether it’s a little bit less than what the public school gets, they still get considerably more money per student than public schools do, and yet provide essentially the same service.”

‘It needs to be fixed’

Dr Thomson said governments needed to give more money to public schools.

“I think there’s a clear opportunity for proper funding of government schools rather than what we’ve got at the moment. It needs to be fixed,” she said.

She said that the latest Productivity Commission report showed that funding for independent (non-government) schools has increased at a faster rate than funding for government schools.

“The proportion of SRS funding shows that most government schools are not funded at 100 per cent, whereas most private schools, certainly all the wealthy ones, will be funded at or above 100 per cent.”

Increased funding for public schools would have several benefits, according to Dr Thomson. It would allow schools to attract more qualified teaching staff, reduce class sizes for disadvantaged students, and provide more resources for struggling students.

She said the lack of resources and support has led to difficulties in attracting and retaining quality teachers, who feel overworked and undervalued in their profession.

Cost of living

The cost of sending a child to school, whether it’s a government or private school, can be expensive.

As cost of living pressures spiral, many families will feel the pinch on household budgets, especially those who are middle-income households and don’t receive government help.

Dr Larsen said that one of the benefits of public school over private is that fees, often termed as “contributions”, are voluntary, and schools can waive them if families suffer from financial hardship.

Despite voluntary contributions, Dr Thomson said that sending kids to government school was still incredibly expensive and that those families were likely impacted to a greater extent than families who sent kids to private school.

School choices really depend on the child, experts say. Photo: Getty

“It’s very expensive at a government school. To start a kid at school, there’s a computer, uniforms, school camps – it’s many thousands of dollars to start off.”

Ultimately, parents should consider their financial situation and their child’s specific needs when deciding which type of school is best for them, said Dr Larsen.

“The biggest decision, apart from will this school fit my child, is can I afford to pay for private education?” she said.

“And so sometimes the answer to that is actually no.”

Topics: Education
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