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The strengths and benefits of Catholic and independent schools

When deciding where to send your kids to school, it’s about more than just the money. AAP

Two recent pieces published on The Conversation (by Barbara Preston and Jennifer Chesters) argue that parents might be wasting their money paying for a non-government school education. They contend that government school students do better at university and, especially when compared to students from independent schools, have similar labour market outcomes.

Defining the value of a school education in terms of tertiary performance and employment outcomes ignores the fact that there are many other less utilitarian reasons why parents might choose a Catholic or independent school.

The faith-based nature of many non-government schools; that most have extensive co-curricula activities such as Saturday sport; and that such schools have a school culture that parents support are also important considerations.

There is also a considerable amount of research suggesting that non-government schools, compared to many government schools, achieve stronger educational outcomes in areas like completion rates, academic results, success at the tertiary level and promoting social cohesion.

The 2013 Melbourne Institute Working Paper Series No. 39/13 investigating the impact of Catholic schooling on wages concluded:

… during the prime time of a career, wage rates for Catholic school graduates progress with labour market experience at a greater rate, on average, than wage rates for public school graduates.

The paper, after 15 to 25 years of labour market experience, put the benefit for Catholic school graduates at:

… around 12% higher growth in real hourly wages compared to wage projections for those who attended government schools.

American education academic Francis Vella reached a similar conclusion in a 1999 paper. He wrote:

We also find that individuals from Catholic schools are more likely to find employment and are paid higher wages in addition to the effects operating through the higher levels of achieved education.

In relation to tertiary studies, the first thing to note is that non-government school students, on average and even after adjusting for socioeconomic status (SES), are more successful at gaining entry as they achieve stronger Year 12 results compared to many government school students.

In a 2010 paper, University of Melbourne researcher Gary Marks concluded that:

… attendance at a Catholic or independent school significantly increased the odds of university participation, net of socio-economic background and prior achievement.

Contrary to the argument that independent school students have a higher drop out rate compared to government school students, Marks also argued in 2007 that:

… students who had attended an independent school were no less likely to complete their course than students who had attended a government school.

While, as cited by Barbara Preston, there are a number of English studies concluding that state school students, compared to non-government school students, achieve stronger tertiary results, the research is not all in agreement. In a 2004 paper, British education academic Alan Smithers argued:

However, the difference is small and is not consistent. In addition, there are differences with university, the schools, the subjects studied and gender.

A 2013 research paper by the Higher Education Funding Council for England concluded that students from independent schools outperform students from government schools in terms of:

  1. completing a degree;
  2. achieving a first or upper second; and
  3. gaining employment; or
  4. undertaking further study.

The research paper stated:

The sector-adjusted averages, like the raw data, show that a greater percentage of students from independent schools can be expected to achieve each of the four outcomes than those from state schools.

One of the criticisms often directed at non-government schools is that they undermine a commitment to the common good and lead to social fragmentation. Once again, the evidence is far from consistent. A second Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) report investigating volunteering as an essential aspect of active citizenship stated:

Students at government schools did less volunteering (in frequency and hours) than students in either Catholic or independent schools.

The LSAY report also cited US research showing that compared to government school students, Catholic school students are more likely to volunteer to perform community service.

Research carried out by the Canadian-based Cardus think-tank also concludes that students from faith-based schools contribute in a positive way to social stability and social cohesion.

Australian research comparing the incidence of racism in Catholic and government schools also concludes that religious schools are beneficial. The report, commissioned by the Foundation for Young Australians in 2009, concluded:

Those students who attend a Catholic school are 1.7 times less likely to report experiences of racism than students attending government schools.

Contrary to the impression that parents choosing Catholic and independent schools are wrong to expect strong outcomes for their children, it’s clear that there is a good deal of research supporting the belief that the impact of such schools is beneficial.

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