Why are private schools getting so many kids into uni?

Today’s Age report showing that private schools dominate entry to Melbourne and Monash universities set off another round of excuse-making from the defenders of public education.

Richard Teese, a leftist education academic at Melbourne University, told The Age that:

Students in public schools came from much wider social backgrounds and the economic cost of further study was a major disincentive.

‘Wider’ here is presumably a euphemism for ‘lower’, which is true on average, but the Cardak and Ryan research showed that for a given ENTER score high and lower SES groups proceed to university at the same rate. It seems it is the marks, not the money.

This requires further rationalisations to explain why students at private schools get better marks:

independent schools were better resourced and more focused on university education

They generally are more focused on university education, and on average spend more per student – $11,208 per student in government schools and $13,049 in independent schools. But money alone can’t explain it – the Catholic schools spend significantly less per student, $8,817 but still, as The Age article notes, send a disproportionate number on to university.

Another Melbourne University academic, Richard James, said that

the middle class had lost confidence in government schools and moved its children to private schools, largely due to funding cuts and closures under the Kennett government. (emphasis added)


Yet an examination of private school market shares in Victoria and nationally suggests that most of the change in Victoria parallels national trends. In 1992 26% of Victorian students were in private schools, increasing to 35% by 2005, a gain of 9 percentage points. Nationally, in 1992 25.1% were in private schools, increasing to 32.9% in 2005, a gain of 7.9 percentage points. This looks like the Victorian changes were largely due to national trends, such as growing affluence and federal policies favouring parental choice.

The problem with the worldview presented in comments in The Age article is that it avoids the issue of structural and organisational problems in the government school sector, shifting blame on to funding issues or the composition of the student body. Particularly the latter factor is likely to explain some of the difference, but not all of it. And given that it is much easier to change how schools are run than it is to change the pool of students from which they draw, management should be the big issue.

45 thoughts on “Why are private schools getting so many kids into uni?

  1. There are a host of explanations for these trends. People seeking to invest more intensively in the education of their children often have good educations themselves and there are externalities from being among highly motivated students with academically ambitious parents.

    Trackback here.

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  2. Given that “top jobs” in business and politics in Australia do not require university education, could it be that the same people who are enthusiatic about judaeo-christian delusions in secondary education are also enthusiastic about the myths of “higher” education ?
    Can people walk on water or breed without intercourse on faith alone without using science?

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  3. Andrew – do you have the figures for the parent’s education level for state school vs private school students? I’m guessing that a much greater proportion of the parents of private school kids had a university education.

    If that’s so, it could be a major factor in what the state school kids see as a possible future for themselves. The child of a lawyer will naturally think of maybe working towards becoming a lawyer. What’s the likely horizon or ambition of a child who’s parent is a shop assistant or receptionist?

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  4. Many private schools can boast impressive alumni and a history of high achievers, and thus there is a bigger incentive on the schools’ part to ‘protect’ that legacy of pride (entrance exams and rejection of under-achieving students) Teachers, parents, and students themselves reinforce this in a multitude of ways.

    School uniforms are one such example. Private schools (in contrast to many public schools) tend to project a more ‘professional’ image through the wearing of blazers/ties etc, and it cannot be disregarded that this contributes to an overall imperative of ‘quality’ that manifests itself in better marks. Business employes this method as well.

    As for ‘structural problems’ Andrew, it goes without saying that the undue dominance of teacher unions in influencing curriculums to further their political agenda, results in uninspired, unchallenged students who end up shortchanged in the longrun (passing students who do not meet minimum standards) It flies in the face of common sense and needs to be fixed.

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  5. Russell – The educational background of parents does follow the pattern you suggest. I’m sure aspiration does play a big part in it, and to some extent the private school results are a function of selection – even among the poorer parents, those who want their kids to go to uni are more likely to make the effort to send their kids to private schools. But we also know that aspiration falls away in the later school years, probably as kids realise that their academic results aren’t strong enough. That has something to do with the schools.

    Dan – I think that’s right; there are ethos differences between the schools. BTW, I think this is true generally, and not just of the ‘elite’ private schools mentioned in The Age’s article. The private school I went to wasn’t selective and did not particularly emphasise university entry, but did impose plenty of academic, social and sartorial discipline.

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  6. “aspiration falls away in the later school years” – maybe just because, given their social environment, a professional career isn’t something they can realistically imagine for themselves. It’s probably the better educated parents of the private school kids who start to put pressure on their kids to work harder, in the last couple of years of high school – they know it can be done.

    Andrew, given that you admit student composition is a factor, and given that the superior resources of private schools is also likely to be a factor, just how much can be gained by focussing on the management of the state schools?

    An anecdote (sorry): my local state school was recently on the front page of the local paper because rusty gutters were hanging off the roof etc. My niece taught there for 2 years, with absolutely no resources, and a number of difficult children. For the past 5 years she has taught in one of the most expensive private girls schools in Perth. Fantastic resources, better salary, well behaved children – the school brings in inspirational speakers for the teachers, provides excellent free food, sends staff to conferences – and the staff respond with extra effort and real pride in their school. How, without extra resources, are you going to match the private schools ability to attract and motivate the best teachers? How are you ever going to apportion how much of the state schools’ performance is simply due to the social background of the kids. Remember your incendiary post about poor teenage mothers – which school do you think those children will be going to, it’s the state schools which have to take whoever turns up.

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  7. Russell – The superior resources of Catholic schools can’t be a factor in explaining why they outperform government schools, since they have inferior resources. The ACER research tries to control for socio-economic background, though it is some years since I have read it and I can’t recall the list of variables. But the international literature on school emphasises matters like school-level autonomy as being important, so that principals rather than central bureaucracies choose teachers and perform other important management tasks.

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  8. One would expect government spending per student to always be higher than what the private sector spends, and the quality/outcomes to always be lower. Private operators will always achieve more with the same resources because the market enforces a discipline that politics cannot. So it’s interesting that non-Catholic independent schools spend more on average than the government, according to the above figures. Perhaps it’s because they also offer more non-academic facilities? It could be they are achieving more with more money but would still be achieving much more even if they spent the same per student as public schools.

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  9. The way I read the data, donations to government schools are not counted in the averages but they are to non-government schools. So the figures I cited over-state the actual resource gap between independent and government schools and understate the government advantage over Catholic schools. I’m pretty sure that most of the Catholic schools aren’t selective.

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  10. WA Catholic schools are becoming increasingly selective – partly because of booming demand, they can afford to be choosy.

    It’s difficult to generalise for Catholic schools because they range from the elite to the middle to the very ordinary. In Perth because of the limited number of elite Catholic schools (Aquinas, John the XX111) you find that the middle range (Mercedes, Newman etc) actually have a lot of kids from backgrounds similar to those at the elite schools. I suspect where the resources are poor in the Catholic system is at the primary level. At any rate when comparing Catholic to State schools, you’re not just comparing socio-economic measures but also throwing in religion – so there will be cultural factors – how do you account for those?

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  11. Russell – But if you think religion is a plus, then why don’t we enourage yet more parents to send their kids to religious schools?

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  12. I think parental IQs and expectations would have a lot to do with the better performance of private school students. The first can’t (easily) be changed but the latter can. This is perhaps the biggest problem with public schools – the fact they allow many parents to remain apathetic and indifferent to their children’s education. Vouchers combined with greater autonomy for principals should at least lead to greater awareness amongst parents that they have a choice and that the choice matters. Just like the opening of choice in superannuation, electricity, gas and telecommunications, information gradually seeps out into the community and encourages informed and conscious decision-making. That, in turn, should get parents thinking more about what they expect out of their children’s education.

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  13. Because money trumps religion these days, and perhaps because faking religious belief to get into a ‘private school’ isn’t the same as actually having it.

    Hasn’t it been shown (you would know this) that having some religious affiliation makes you more likely to perform better on a number of health, mental health etc indicators ? So it wouldn’t be surprising if Catholic students, especially those from the $10,000 per year Catholic schools, were more likely to get into Melbourne University (which BTW was looking fairly shabby when I saw it last week – a campus crowded with mediocre buildings; UWA is a gem by comparision) than State schools?

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  14. Elle MacPherson – state high school, no graduation
    Kylie Minogue – state high school (dropout), no uni
    Nicole Kidman – state high school (dropou), no uni

    Amanda Vanstone – private religous school, Arts/Law degree

    Erm.. I think i’ll stick with the problem kids at ordinary state high schools and skip uni next lifetime..
    I know this is your favourite subject Norton and lads, but this should just about close the proceedings of the seminar.

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  15. It was Thatcher (state grammar school and oxford) who said that intelligence and talent are distributed evenly throughout the socio-economic ladder or words to that effect.
    I know you lot are kinky for her aswell as Vanstone.

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  16. Rajat wrote “Just like the opening of choice in superannuation, electricity, gas and telecommunications, information gradually seeps out into the community and encourages informed and conscious decision-making” which I suppose is true up to a point, but what happens when there is too much choosing to do ?

    Listening to Clive Hamilton and Shelley Gare on RN recently I heard Gare mention the difficulty of too much choice in modern life: mobile phone plans, superannuation, private health schemes, internet providers, organic or not etc etc. Nobody can investigate and understand all this stuff. Commonsense would say people would only pay attention to the most important matters, but is that what happens?

    People have different sources of information and different expertise at dealing with making these decisions. When it comes to school education maybe more kids would be disadvantaged by parents too lazy or incompetent or ill-informed, to responsibly fulfill this new role, than by our present “the government provides” system.

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  17. Russell – This argument I think rests on a false assumption. You don’t need every parent to make an informed choice. So long as a sufficient number of parents are making reasonably informed choices the system will respond to their demands and improve service. So even the kids of those parents who effectively make default choices (where the kids are already, the nearest school, etc) will be better off than now.

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  18. Wouldn’t there have to be some mechanism to do that? My local state school isn’t too good. If local parents who care send their children elsewhere, the ones left there because it’s closest will be a concentration of kids whose parents don’t care.

    I have a crummy local fruit shop but old people who can walk to it keep it going. I have a car and get better fruit in the next suburb.

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  19. Russell – That’s assuming that there will be no dynamic response, when one aim of school choice is to pressure schools to perform or close. Ultimately, we cannot totally shield kids from incompetent parenting, but school choice would on average reduce the current negative effects of the public school system.

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  20. It’s not working with fruit.

    So the motivation for the school is punishment. Well that might work, on the other hand, in the example I cited above of my niece in the elite school, motivation is by reward – we can see that works.

    What rewards will the schools/teachers who attract kids get?

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  21. Russell – Or reward for success. Which do you want, kids to get a better education or bad schools to survive? The public school lobby, alas, has always put staff and institutional interests ahead of students’ interests.

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  22. I’m genuinely interested – I’d like to see my local school a better school. But with your suggestion I see failing schools deteriorating quite a lot before they were closed. Would you let the school and the kids still in it spiral all the way down to closure – not very good for those kids. And there would always be this churning with parents moving kids around so that there would always be some schools at the bottom, with the teachers trying to get out of them amd move to the schools where teachers get rewards.

    I don’t have a solution to “bad schools”, but I would try attracting better candidates to teaching by paying them more, improving their professional development and performance appraisal, keeping schools in good repair and well resourced, having school reports that give an easily comprehensible grade that shows where the child is in comparison to other kids in the state, removing the really problem kids to other institutions, and by constantly reminding parents that they’re primarily responsible for their children’s behaviour.

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  23. But what’s the counterfactual? To allow such schools to keep on performing poorly? At least if principals are made accountable for the deserting students, they can be replaced. And maybe this will give principals the incentive to hire better teachers and do some of the other things you suggest.

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  24. Rajad, I hope we all agree that socioeconomic background factors play a large part in the students’ performance – the school principal of a school in a tough area isn’t responsible for that. Parents in the area who are sufficiently concerned and motivated will try to use their voucher to get their kids to a school in a better area – what’s the principal going to do about that, when he’s left with the worst cases? Under Andrew’s system some kids are going to be left to go to hell in deteriorating schools – until they’re closed.

    Are there still school inspectors? Even in my Catholic school (probably in pre-state aid days) inspectors came around and sat in the back of the classroom. What if poor results from a school could result in thorough visits from examiners – if the teachers are not up to standard, they’re removed/retrained, same for the principal; if more resources and facilities are required, they’re provided.

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  25. I don’t see how the students who remain in these schools are any worse off than they would be otherwise. And they are likely to be better off if the school administration has an incentive and greater resources to do something and if other students deserting shocks their parents into taking action.

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  26. They’re worse off because the better kids have left, and the teachers are demoralised because they’re in a failing school, with no extra help being offered, until they can get out.

    I’m just requiring the government to be responsible for fixing those things in a school that can be fixed if the school is measured to be underperforming.

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  27. Andrew Norton wrote:

    “Which do you want, kids to get a better education or bad schools to survive? The public school lobby, alas, has always put staff and institutional interests ahead of students

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  28. Well, David, whatever you think about what private schools provide, at least you have enjoyed the ability to make a choice. Don’t you think it would be nice if families with fewer resources than yours could also have a choice?

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  29. And if a parent makes a bad choice, or doesn’t bother to make a choice, the child can suffer? Rajat, what about the children in the failing schools? You can’t abandon them to the forces of creative destruction.

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  30. If independent schools are so independent why do they all want in on the government universities?
    I mean these universities are full of all sorts of philosophies that run contrary to judaeo-christianity, so what gives?

    They are conducting attempted class warfare on the poor, the only problem being that money cannot buy one a brain, and some of the best sex is in war-torn cities.

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  31. There is no independent sector in Australia, government money, government curricula leading on to government universities or government accredited universities.

    As for the private aspect, the word private derives from deprived or its Latin equivelant, as in deprived from the public sphere. That is why the English public schools were called such because they led to a public position in politics or the civil service.
    Anyone with enough money can find a school or institiution that will accept them, there is public access through cash. There are no private schools, only members of the public using government regulated currency in order to burn more fossil fuels than state school kids.

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  32. Russell, I still think those kids would end up better off than if schools faced no incentives or imperative to change. This goes back to my original point that under a choice-driven regime, it would be much harder for parents to remain indifferent to their children’s education. It is much harder to ignore school performance if your children’s friends are leaving in droves. Maintaining a dysfunctional status quo breeds complacency in parents and a lack of willingness to take responsibility for their children’s schooling. Note that this need not mean pulling their kids out of a poorly performing school. It may mean speaking to the principal about bad teachers or influencing the governance of the school through the local council.

    I also think that even those kids who are ‘left behind’ will be better off. As Andrew said, you assume that the more autonomous administration of schools and the sharper incentives faced by the administration in a choice-driven regime will not drive any improvements. Even if this doesn’t happen, I’m no educationalist, but if fewer kids of more uniform ability (ie under-achievers) are left behind, this may enable more targetted forms of teaching and assistance to be applied to those kids.

    And ultimately, while it may not be PC to say so, there is the question as to how far you sacrifice the interests of the majority of kids to those of the few. This is a generalisation, but I suspect that the kids with the most indifferent parents are likely to be already beyond the help of any ordinary school teaching environment.

    Russell, you and other defenders of the status quo arrangements seem to maintain an incredible amount of faith in the ability of governments to fix problems at a micro level. It’s as if all the government needs to do is decide to fix a problem and spend the money. I think this is seldom true even for bigger problems, let along on a school-by-school level.

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  33. Rajat, there is no choice..
    Move on to government curricula to escape government curricula.
    Your unwillingness to take on board new information is sychophantic to the point of error.
    About the only time you have not tried to back up what you think Norton’s point of view is, is when you remained silent on the issue of gay marriage.

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  34. Rajat – I’m only defending the status quo in that it sounds better than your alternative. Your suggestion that the no-hopers left behind in the failing schools might then be targetted for attention only raises the question – why can’t they be targetted and helped long before then?

    Because it won’t be just “bad schools” that need attention. What about 2 or 3 bad teachers, or a bad principal, in an otherwise good school ? I think assessment, examiners and appropriate action would be better.

    And given that you have to book years ahead to have a chance of getting into elite schools, where are you going to move your child to? Not long ago the was a really sensational story about the local high school on the front page of our local paper: girls giving boys oral sex, the usual drugs story etc. That may have prompted some parents to want to move their kids, but where to ? I don’t imagine the schools with the better reputations (ie before the local paper get hold of a story about them) have lots of room for more kids.

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  35. Rajat Sood Says:

    Well, David, whatever you think about what private schools provide, at least you have enjoyed the ability to make a choice. Don

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  36. What David said. Look, as even Harry Clarke (no lefty he) points out in the first comment on this thread, there are innumerable mechanisms by which we might be observing correlation, not causality, here and some good a priori reasons to expect this correlation.

    And naturally more people are sending their kids to private schools these days – the government now subsidises it more heavily than they used to. This says nothing about whether the increased subsidisation is either a Good Thing or a Bad Thing – I’m just making the point that its observed effect is going to be to increase the number of kids in private schools.

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  37. Rajat,

    I forced myself to read your Economist article. It doesn’t report that failing schools are closed, on the contrary they are rescued: “The act’s provisions for rescuing lousy schools have also done some good…. Democrats liked the extra money Mr Bush threw in to sweeten the deal” – are you suggesting extra money for failing schools?

    The author proposes that “School funding could also be made dependent on how many parents choose to send their children to a particular school, so that good schools would expand and bad ones would close or be taken over.” But doesn’t explain, as you didn’t, how this could work – where are all the extra places in the better performing schools? how long would it take to provide those places, and what happens in the meantime to the kids stuck in failing schools?

    And it claims that “The toughest obstacle to improving the worst is the strident opposition of the teachers’ unions to meritocracy.” but doesn’t offer any evidence. The article is rubbish.

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  38. Russell, you’ve misrepresented what the Economist said (not that I’m here to defend the Economist – people can read the article for themselves).

    The article gives an example of how failing schools are ‘rescued’ by bringing in new management who have a mandate to restructure. The article goes on to say that the legislation does not go as far as allowing failing schools to close or teachers to be sacked, because the Democrats would block those measures. However, the article does suggest that greater management accountability for school performance, including publication of more data, penalties for under-performing schools, and the threat of management replacement, may have led to students performing better on certain tests.

    As for more money, that was part of the overall package designed to win Democrat support, but the quote you’ve picked up on funding is 6 paragraphs below the quote on how schools are ‘rescued’. So it is grossly misleading to suggest that the package works by unconditionally handing over extra cash to schools that are doing poorly.

    On your last quip, the Economist describes itself as a newspaper, not an academic journal, and people who read it know that it often editorialises in its stories.

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  39. Rajat, I don’t think I misrepresented it at all – it doesn’t matter that the quotes were 6 paragraphs apart, the point is that the package was apparently for rescuing schools, not allowing them to fail which was what you were advocating, and that the package involved more money, presumably some of which is spent to help those schools. Isn’t that what you assumed from reading the article? So the description of the U.S. program was more like what I had been arguing for, and not what you had.

    As for “people who read it know that it often editorialises in its stories” – well I don’t read it, so I just evaluated the article as I found it – rubbish – a mixture of describing some existing US program, with unsupported proposals and claims.

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  40. Allowing schools to fail is the ultimate sanction, but what the US package does is impose other sanctions that basically attempt to mimic market forces. That is, penalise schools and remove administrators who perform poorly on the basis of publicised data, as well as enabling choice: “Schools that fail to show ‘adequate yearly progress’ face penalties. Parents of children at consistently failing schools must be allowed to move them to better ones.”

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  41. I should say, Russell, that I wouldn’t mind if more money went in to education and really bad schools had their management replaced by state education bureaucrats instead of allowing them to fail, so long as other reforms were introduced such as vouchers and greater principal responsibility and accountability. It’s just that I believe having bureaucrats decide when management ought to be replaced is unlikely to work as well as a market-driven response, which is either have the parents make the decision to replace management or allow the school to close down so that children are forced to go elsewhere.

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