Worlds of Education

The private advantage that isn’t: School costs and student achievement in Australia

published 7 August 2017 updated 7 August 2017

By Chris Bonnor

Whenever Australian educators go overseas they are often asked how we provide and fund schools in the antipodes. It's hard to explain because it is complicated and at odds with practice elsewhere. It is a story about the failure of policy, supported by mounting evidence that our large private sector is a grand experiment that failed.

Australia has long had private schools, mainly Catholic and high-fee protestant schools. We began publicly funding them half a century ago, but allowed them to retain their private status, a rather unique Australian approach. In the earlier years the funding was not sufficient to run the schools, so they still needed to charge admission fees to bring them up to the standard of public schools.

Fast forward 50 years and the system is now turned upside-down. We now have close to fully-funded private schools which are still charging fees, something which has taken their total per-student resourcing to levels above the public sector [Bonnor and Shepherd 2017 P13] . Their fees are arguably icing on the publicly-funded cake.

But fees have another function which has distorted Australia's schools. They act as an enrolment discriminator ensuring that the fee-charging (private) schools enrol the more advantaged in every community. In effect, Australia created a socio-educational apartheid system of schools. [Bonnor and Shepherd 2017 P19-20]

Meanwhile considerable attention was being drawn to the results coming out of private schools which were noticeably better. This was hardly surprising: the socio-educational background of families, communities and schools is a very big determinant of results coming out of Australia's schools [source]. The schools on top of the league tables are those which enrol the most advantaged students. It was also hardly surprising that parents would seek to enrol their children in such schools. [Bonnor and Shepherd 2017 P16]

All this was accompanied by the language of choice and competition and the trappings of a marketplace of schools as something which was promised would improve school quality and student achievement. To support school choice the Australian government established a website which would help parents compare schools.

It almost certainly contributed to the flight to advantage - but there was an interesting upside. To create fairness in such comparisons the website includes, for each school, an index of socio-educational advantage. Anyone could now compare apples with apples among schools, but taking each school as socio-educational advantage created by its enrolment - into account when comparing school results.

The data behind this My School website has enabled researchers, including Bernie Shepherd and myself, to place a range of school myths under the microscope. We can now compare schools at many levels, including by sector and location, looking at features such as enrolment composition, funding, resourcing and how these are changing over time

Privatisation: Myth vs. reality

The most significant myth to be busted was the claimed private school advantage in measurable student results. When schools enrolling similar students are compared there isn't any such advantage. Such a finding is hardly new: the OECD established this many years ago and most recently has pointed to an advantage for public schools

But demonstrating this in Australia using school-by-school data which is available to everyone has proven to be a game changer. We showed the results of comparisons not only for national testing results but also for the final year of school in New South Wales, the biggest state. It is now very rare for commentators or schools to make any claims about better private school results.

We were also able to examine some myths which surround school funding. Given that students are achieving much the same results in the public and private sector how much money was going into schools to produce these similar results. The answer is: very different amounts. One of the features of Australian schools is the big total spend - with the money coming from both governments and parents  on advantaged students attending private schools.

For schools above the mean socio-educational index the annual overspend can be anything from $A1500 to $A14000 per student [Bonnor and Shepherd 2017 P32]. The total overspend from all sources is around five billion Australian dollars each year. The public cost of private schools is now so high that it has challenged another myth: that funding private schools represents a saving to the public purse and this is without counting costs created, for example, by diseconomies of scale arising from duplication of publicly-funded schools.

Issues surrounding the public funding of private schools are not unique to Australia, but the message from the Australian experience is quite simple: don't go there. The expensive public funding of competition and choice hasn't delivered on its various promises. Australian egalitarianism, if it is real, is far less reflected in our schools: the social differences which were once evident within schools are now more evident between them. Our advantaged and our disadvantaged students share the school experience but they increasingly don't share schools. All this is played out against a background of a decline in our overall measurable student achievement nd we wonder why?

Chris Bonnor AM is a former Australian principal, education writer, speaker and advocate. He has served as President of the NSW Secondary Principals Council and is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. His website is www.edmediawatch.com.au

Note: In most cases the sources cited in this document refer (with page numbers) to Bonnor, C. & Shepherd, B. 2016," Losing the game “ State of our schools in 2017, Centre for Policy Development, Sydney. http://cpd.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/The-State-of-Australias-Schools.pdf

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.