As argued in an earlier post these trends could reflect a move to quality or a move by aspirational parents to give their kids a ‘leg up’.
No doubt this is part of it, but the research on why parents choose private schools gives reason to heavily qualify this kind of analysis. The most obvious point to make about private schools is the vast majority are associated with a religion, and unsurprisingly parents who think religion is important are more likely than those who do not to choose a private school. A 1990s analysis from the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that ‘emphasis on religion’ was one of the few attributes in which private school parents differed significantly from government school parents in the characteristics of the school they regarded as important. Religion was the main reason my parents sent me to a private school (it didn’t end up making me religious, but that’s something for another post).
Another big issue is discipline. In a 2004 ACNielsen/SMH survey ‘better discipline’ was the single-most cited reason (31%) for moving to a private school, with ‘better education’ second on 25%. In the AIFS survey though all parents rated ‘level of discipline’ as important, they differed on their satisfaction with the school on that count, with government-school parents rating their satisfaction as 6.77 on a nine point scale, with Catholic-school parents on 7.84 and independent-school parents on 8.07. Parents were also more satisfied with the ‘control of violence, drugs and alcohol’ at private than government schools.
Because the public-private school debate tends to focus on the extremes – a few dozen top private schools on one side catering to the wealthiest and most ambitious families, and schools catering to the most under-privileged on the other – it tends to miss the more routine school choices made by most parents, who have concerns going well beyond academic excellence and the numbers of students going on to the top universities.
It’s hard to know whether there is much of a ‘trend’ in parents’ underlying preference for private education. Given all the negative publicity surrounding government schools – ironically often added to by the public school lobby which, having chosen politics over markets, must use media publicity for school problems to pressure politicians into giving them more money – it would not be surprising if more parents did want to make the shift. But it is also the case that growing affluence and less policy discrimination against private schools than in the past means that school choice is more affordable than it once was, which would drive up private school enrolments even without any change in opinion on government schools.