School choice: no great love for the private path, but parents follow the money

Parents don’t care which school is public or private, they just want the one with the best resources and facilities for their child. Flickr/Alpha, CC BY-SA

If private schools offer little academic value over public schools, why do 35% of Australian parents continue to choose to pay the hefty fees rather than sending their child to the local state school?

Parents have a high regard for public schools

School choice is a dilemma for a minority of parents. My research with parents in Melbourne suggests that the preference for public schooling is strong even amongst those who end up sending their children to a private school.

In fact the most highly regarded form of education, as reported by parents, is the local public primary school. Parents making the decision on where to send their children to secondary school spoke glowingly of the quality of teaching and the cultural and social diversity in public primary schools.

For some, at the secondary level, it is simply a question of resources and facilities. The super-funding of private schooling by successive federal governments has resulted in visible disparities, and this drives demand.

Some of the parents I studied were contemplating private schools with twice the level of resources per student, and more than ten times the spending on capital works (including five times more capital funding from government) than the nearest public secondary school. This extra funding is reflected in sporting and music programs and state-of-the-art science facilities.

The cut-throat competitiveness, archaic trappings and social selectivity of private schools are held against them by many parents, who under a different funding regime would go public. In fact, school sector was not considered to be an important consideration in choosing a school in my study.

For the 666 parents surveyed, the most important consideration was the quality of the teachers (“very important” for 82.7%), followed by a caring environment (75.4%), a good reputation (72.9%) and well-behaved students (71.4%). This suggests that most parents make decisions about where to send their children to school based on perceptions about the quality of the learning environment.

It is difficult for parents to gain an appreciation of quality of learning environment, and it is unlikely that many will be swayed by the “value for money” findings of recent research.

In my study, just one in five parents consulted the MySchool website and little store was placed on the information provided there. Word-of-mouth, and in particular the views of extended family members, counted most.

The most obvious signs of quality, for parents, are classroom harmony, student eagerness, extra-curricular activities and orderliness. The blazer, with no pedagogical value, has come to symbolise qualities of academic excellence through its association with the most traditional private schools.

Pre-war prestige

Such schools are able to exemplify harmonious learning environments through extreme levels of social and academic selection. The “best” schools in the system, judged on examination results, recruit four out of five students from the top socioeconomic status group. Only around 1% come from the bottom group.

A small group of high-fee private schools and academically selective public schools operate under the kind of conditions prevalent in the pre-war years, prior to the mass expansion of secondary schooling and the retention of students with broader life-experiences, cultural baggage and outlooks.

It is the very narrowness of these schools’ focus and audience, as well as their historical influence over curriculum and assessment, that makes them appear as beacons of excellence.

The dominance within the school system of high-fee private schools, virtually all established prior to the Second World War, has produced a halo effect over the private school sector as a whole. Newer and low-fee private schools, with no academic distinction, benefit from this halo and proliferate within an exceptionally favourable funding environment.

The pressure to assure good examination results has contributed to this drift, particularly in the context of a conservative assessment system that favours the most traditional academic disciplines and forms of evaluation.

The fact is that in other countries, including the US, where it is more difficult for private schools to receive public funding, the private sector has not expanded beyond a small group of wealthy clients.

In Britain, private schooling has even declined over the past five years.

The Australian school system needs to look not to private schools that are only able to function by social exclusion, but to a wider view of learning - in socially and culturally mixed settings.

If equally resourced, the public sector would certainly draw in a greater proportion of students. However, it seems to be going the other way, with more and more public schools replicating the segregative strategies of private schools by selecting which students can attend.