The most recent Household, Income and Labour Dynamics Australia (HILDA) survey data revealed that twice as many parents of public school students reported their children had been bullied compared to private school parents.
Is it really the case that more bullying occurs in public schools? And should this affect a parent’s choice of school for their child?
Do these results reflect what’s happening?
HILDA tracked a sample of 13,000 households in New South Wales between 2001 and 2012. The data on schools comes from 2012 when participants were asked a range of educational questions.
Households with school-aged children were asked whether or not their child was bullied at school. A higher proportion of parents of children in state schools reported their child was bullied compared with private schools. The differences were greatest for high schools, with 22% of parents at state schools reporting their child was bullied, compared to 15% in Catholic and 11% in other private schools.
So is this information likely to be accurate? There is no reason to suggest the sample is not representative of the NSW population. However, given the question about bullying is based on one question only (with no definition of bullying apparent in the report), it would be useful to draw comparisons with other research.
There is actually very little research comparing bullying rates at private versus state schools. This is probably because schools are unlikely to agree to take part in research that makes direct comparisons between schools on such a sensitive topic.
There is, however, a similar population sample survey conducted by the US government. In this study, parents whose children attended state schools (29%) also reported higher rates of bullying than parents whose children attended private schools (22%). So does this mean an individual child is less likely to be bullied at a private school?
Parents want the best for their child and are attracted to schools that report good data for students on academic, behavioural and social outcomes. But whether your child will have the same experience as children who have gone before depends on whether the results reported are the result of what happens at the school or whether they are inherent to the sample of children who attend the school.
Misinterpretation of statistics
A team of New Zealand researchers conducted some interesting research on individual and school factors affecting students’ academic success at school and later success in tertiary education.
They found the success of a school can be judged by educational programs but not by the demographics of who attends the school. Given general school-leaving results reflect both demography and education programs, they are not a valid measure of a school’s educational quality.
Students’ academic achievement is influenced not only by the educational program a school offers but by what the individual student brings to the school in terms of genetic capability, family support and prior learning.
Almost all state schools are required by law to accept all students in their catchment area. Private schools are not bound by this requirement. Private schools attract a selective population of students whose parents can afford the fees and who are conscientious enough to have enrolled their child many years in advance.
Most private schools also have enrolment applications that exceed their quota, so they can screen for academic ability and behaviour. These schools do not end up with a representative sample of students (and neither do the minority of state schools that have merit entry).
It is therefore a fallacy that we can deduce the relative benefit schools can provide for our child by simply comparing outcome data across schools.
More at-risk minorities in state schools
There is no research to my knowledge that examines the differences in effectiveness of private or state schools in preventing or addressing bullying. However, we do know that private schools start with different populations of students from state schools.
Not surprisingly, the HILDA report shows that family income and the proportion of parents holding university degrees are highest in non-Catholic private schools and lowest in state schools; state schools also have a higher proportion of single parents.
The greater diversity of students at state and private schools results in state schools educating more students at risk of being bullied. Several demographic factors on which state and private schools differ have been found to be relevant to the risk of a child being bullied.
Parents’ educational level has been found to discriminate bullied from non-bullied children. Children whose father is absent (likely to be more often the case in single-parent families) are also at greater risk of victimisation.
This suggests that the differences in victimisation between private and state schools may not be due to a higher level of victimisation across all state school students; rather they may reflect a higher proportion of a minority of children who are frequently victimised.
The 2015 Productivity Commission report also provides evidence that a much higher proportion of at-risk students attend state rather than private schools.
In 2013, 84% of Indigenous students and 76% of students with a disability attended state schools. Nationally in 2013, the proportion of students with a disability was significantly higher in state schools (6.2%) than in private schools (3.6%).
Around 10% of children in Australia are bullied on a daily basis. For these frequently bullied children, victimisation tends to be chronic over time. It can continue even when children change schools, which includes crossing from primary to middle or secondary school contexts.
In a study at the Parenting and Family Support Centre, where making a fresh start at a new school was part of an intervention for some of the children, there were at least as many successful transitions for children moving from private to state schools as for children moving from state to private schools. What was more important was the ability of the child to fit in and make friends at the new school.
So is a child less likely to be bullied at a private school?
Although more parents from state schools report their child is bullied than do parents from private schools, this could result from the higher proportion of at-risk students who attend state schools. Therefore we cannot conclude that an individual child will be less likely to be bullied if they attend a private school.
There is bullying at all schools. A number of factors impact a child’s risk of being targeted for bullying. These include school management, the child’s social and emotional skills, support from friends and the parenting they receive.
Children’s friendships at school are an important protective factor against bullying. So whether your child already has good friends or is likely to be able to make good friends at a school is an important factor in choosing a school for your child.
Supportive family relationships help protect children against the emotional consequences of bullying at school, so families should take lifestyle factors such as the financial burden of school fees and long travel times into account when choosing a school.