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Buyer beware: are you really purchasing a ‘better’ education?

What are you paying for when you choose a private, non-government school? Private school image from

Australian parents are increasingly choosing to spend more money on their children’s education. A report released last week showed parents who chose private education for their child were paying an average of A$216 in fees per week.

But are these parents getting what they pay for?

Both the National Assessment Program, Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests and the MySchool website have been met with some harsh criticism – particularly in allowing for leagues tables and putting pressure on schools.

But for all its faults, this system of testing and public information on schools can be something of a truth meter when it comes to the real value of paying for education.

A tale of two schools

Take the example of one school on the Mornington Peninsula. The perception by some in the wider community was that the school was lower down the quality scale. One woman told me that the “preps at the school should all be made to repeat. They aren’t ready for school. They come from those sorts of families, you know, Dad’s in jail, that type of thing”.

Later, I looked at the school’s MySchool page. The statistics painted a very different picture. The school community’s Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) ranking was above the national average, with fewer than expected families in the lowest quartile.

There were also fewer in the upper quartile, meaning the community was clustered in the centre of the distribution. The children were also achieving educationally as would be predicted by their families’ level of advantage. In other words, this was middle Australia being portrayed as under-achieving “riff raff” of the lowest order.

Meanwhile take the example of another school I suspect my acquaintance would approve of. Notionally, parents of children with learning disabilities were choosing the school because of its reputation for “good teaching”. In the NAPLAN data, the students enrolling at the school are actually well above the national average on academic achievement. But the rate at which they improved showed at least some cohorts are failing to achieve the expected rate of growth.

In other words, students do not end where their beginning score suggests they should, calling into question both a student body beset by disabilities and any claim to uniformly superior teaching.

Worth the cost?

People are persuaded to pay sometimes hefty private school fees because they believe the teaching will be superior. To test the extent to which parents’ perceptions are correct I spent time looking at comparisons between rates of student growth and the national average (for students with the same starting score) in a randomly selected sample of 40 schools.

I discovered, among other wonders, that the children at my former primary school, where 81% families come from non-English speaking backgrounds and the ICSEA ranking is well below average, have a steeper growth curve in mathematics between years 3 and 5 than do the children at one of Australia’s wealthiest private schools (where most families come from the top income quartile).

Rather than being universally excellent, the achievement at non-government schools is – from a statistical perspective - pretty much what you would expect. Some do better than the national average for some cohorts in some subjects, some do worse, while most students’ growth is close to the national average.

Worryingly however, in some non-government schools students’ growth was considerably below the national average. This was particularly the case for in maths at some independent girls’ schools. At these particular schools students started out above the national average for maths attainment but in a few short years had, in the most extreme cases, fallen back below it.

Buying a ‘good education’

Parents are paying for more than a good education understood in academic terms when they shell out for independent school fees. But I suspect that many take it for granted that their money will also be buying superior teaching.

They might be shocked to learn that on average the schools are turning out what they took in: children who were already well placed educationally but have not become more so. At the same time many government schools in the same locations are achieving above the national average rates of student growth.

It is probably the case that many parents are also attempting to “protect” their children from people they have been persuaded are “riff raff”, that is, middle Australia. And there’s no doubt that paying out hefty school fees buys a better class of old school tie networking opportunities.

I have not however, in all the debate about the Gonski review, heard much mention of the government’s subsidising the children of the well-to-do to receive an average education while maintaining their membership of the well-connected privileged.

Wandering a little beyond what the data shows I did also wonder to what extent Australia’s decline in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings might be explained by the social trends I am discussing here. Australia’s decline has been fuelled most strongly by a dip in performance of students in the top band.

If more of the higher achieving students are being sent to independent schools that do not maintain their academic growth at the level of its potential might this explain why Australia is failing at the top?

Just a thought.

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