Why do parents send their kids to private schools?

Yesterday’s release of the annual ABS school statistics, showing another gain in market share by private schools, prompted Harry Clarke to comment:

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.

26 thoughts on “Why do parents send their kids to private schools?

  1. Is growing affluence really true? What I mean by this is that is the cost private schools really increasing less than (a) wage growth; or perhaps more importantly given Australian’s like to spend all their money on housing (b) disposable income ?


  2. Conrad – There is enough of it to explain the shifts in market share we are seeing – about 100,000 students since 2001, for example. The Family Tax Benefits on their own could pay most of the fees in a low-fee school, even before we take into account increases in family earnings through increases in real wages (particular in the upper half of the income distribution where private school attendance is most common) plus the contribution made by increasing female labour force participation.

    Also, much of the job growth in the last decade has been in the professions, so the pool of families from which private schools draw has been increasing, even if average income had not been increasing.


  3. Speaking of low-fee private schools, the front page of the Age yesterday compared the Federal government funding going to state ($920) and non-government schools ($4339), but failed to mention either the level of state funding for state schools or that the elite schools get only $1-2k of Federal money per student. It went on to provide examples of the high fees of elite private schools as if to say they are getting all this money they don’t need at the expense of state schools. Is this propaganda or what? The growth has been in the low-fee private schools, which tend not to have the flashy facilities, but do provide what parents want. Lack of money is not the primary reason for why state schools are not keeping students.


  4. I think it is related to bullying. The way in which children are bullied and bastardised in the state system is very different to the way children are “taught their place” in the private system. Intimidation is excercised by teachers and student alike. However, in the private system, the students have more recourse against teachers. Bullying of a cultural and religious nature can be so devestating as to disable a child for life. Without the private system we would all be foul mouthed, rude and envious adults!


  5. Andrew Norton wrote:
    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…

    C’mon Andrew, you know the politicising of the public school debate was one of the job lot of wedge issues imported from the Republican party in the early 1990’s, along with gay marriage and “they hates us for our freedoms!!!”.

    The real question is if an Australian government reduced the shamefully large amount of middle class welfare, would private school enrolments drop? Which side will you choose?

    Add in a bit of
    bit of news and we might find private school enrolments dropping as our appetite for debt is decreased.


  6. David – If you are worried about middle class welfare, what about the middle class kids in government schools? They get far bigger handouts than the kids in private schools.

    The state aid issue pre-dates the 1990s by more than a century, as do controversies about what and how kids are taught. There is no need to import what we have already here, though clearly there are parallel concerns with poor outcomes.

    As I think state-delivered education was one of the big mistakes of the 19th century, I am on the side of reversing the mistake.


  7. Andrew Norton wrote:
    The state aid issue pre-dates the 1990s by more than a century

    You weren’t talking state aid, you were talking politicising of the public school debate (i.e. the deliberate and calculated ruse of bringing up the twin evils of teachers unions and “values education”).

    Both the teachers union issue and the values education nonsense debates were imported in their entirety from the US. Last time I looked at the ABS statistics, Australia was a secular nation, not a religious one in anywhere the same sense as the US. Our teachers unions are also markedly different to their US cousins. Imported criticism does nothing to further the debate about offering choice to parents or rational analysis of the benefits or otherwise of public schooling. Repeating them ad nauseum doesn’t make them true.

    As for middle class welfare issues, the simple presence of middle class kids in public schools is a net positive in that they can and do offer good role models for children who may not have a great family background. Turning state schools into ghettos by discouraging attendance by the middle class would be a disaster.

    I’m not that familiar with the arguments on the failure of state schooling. However I am familiar with the ultra right wing types who normally espouse the theory that it was a fundamental mistake, and by association it would need some pretty careful analysis to determine what kind of ignorance and prejudice drives this idea. We can study for ourselves the kinds of societies that form around stratified access to education (i.e. most of the third world) and it is not pretty.


  8. Some reasons for the above figures, that have not been mentioned or only hinted at.

    A lot of cheap private schools have opened up.

    There are a more catholics in Australia than there was 20 years ago. Even expensive catholic schools have half the fees of protestant equivelants. A lot of these are not really private or independent as they rely heavily on government funding.

    There are more jews in Australia than there were 20 years ago. Jewish schools maintain their independent status but take many students without charging full or any fees, not just on a scholarship basis.

    Many new immigrants to Australia have money and have higher education, they have more disposable income and educational outlook than the migrants of the 50s, 60s and 70s from Greece and post-industrial England had when they were dropped off in Sunshine and Elizabeth respectively.

    More scholarships are handed out by private schools thesedays becuase they have to boost their tertiary entrance scores (and sports results) to bring in cash customers. There is an element of illusion here, but if people are stupid enough to think money will buy them a brain then this strategy will work.

    The reasons mentioned above will account for at least half (if not more) of the percentage increase discrepancy between secular state and private education in Victoria. It is demographics and the watering down of the idea of private.

    Personally, I think both private and state schools in Australia are lacking as educational institutions in the same way America is dumbing down. Just because Murdoch ranks the Australian Universities highly doesnt mean that there is actually a concentration of effective thought contained within their leafy compounds. His family has ve$ted interests in the one he rates highest.

    If you want discipline Mr Murdoch try Scottish state and boarding schools in the 1960s-70s during icy winters wearing shorts with sadistic teachers who had multiple leather straps and used them daily.
    The strap was passed on to the Australian school system by previously mentioned governor of NSW rather than the English cane.

    Was this the mistake of the 19th century you were referring to Norton?


  9. David, you said:

    “As for middle class welfare issues, the simple presence of middle class kids in public schools is a net positive in that they can and do offer good role models for children who may not have a great family background.”

    For a given level of government expenditure on schooling, if kids who now went to private schools were forced back into state schools, the available level of public funding per student would fall significantly. You effectively assert that both (1) the impact of this fall and (2) the drop in education quality for the students leaving private schools, would be more than offset by the ‘role model’ benefits. Any evidence for that proposition?


  10. “As for middle class welfare issues, the simple presence of middle class kids in public schools is a net positive in that they can and do offer good role models for children who may not have a great family background”

    David, I think you are confusing SES and student behavior. There are middle-class kids in the public school system that are not good role-models, and there are lower class kids that are good role models. Why assume low SES schools are always going to bad? They certainly don’t do this in many parts of the world.

    “Both the teachers union issue and the values education nonsense debates”

    I agree with this. I think they are both tiny factors in educational outcomes and I think they get singled out as convenient scapegoats.


  11. David – I know there is no point arguing with you, but I cannot resist – your political prejudices here are no substitute for knowledge of the history of this debate in Australia. You say that attacks on the teacher unions and the values debate were American imports in the early 1990s. But in 1984 Michael Hogan published a book called Public vs Private Schools in which he says (hyperbolically, but you’ll get the drift), after talking about earlier Catholic complaints about the immorality taught in public schools:

    “More contemporary accusations see [public schools] as bureaucratic monsters, in the grip of time-serving ‘communists’ of the Teachers’ Federation, unsuccessful in public examination, soft on discipline, or merely full of undesirable or criminal companions for one’s children.’ (p.38)

    So a decade before you say these themes were imported into Australia they were all part of the debate in Australia. And the preservation of the Catholic system in particular was almost entirely about ‘values’, since many of these schools were nothing special educationally.

    Australia is certainly less religious than the US, but about three-quarters nominate a religion in the census, and about 20% report attending church once a month or more.

    This is one of the longest running battles in Australian politics, even if its detail and prominence fluctuates over time.


  12. Andrew, I wonder if you have seen figures that would corroborate something an ex-teacher told me – he said that when comparing results between schools one set of figures isn’t usually released. Those figures show that in the “good schools”, both private and state, the attendance of nearly all children is nearly about 100%. In the “bad” state schools up to 20% of children are only attending 60%-70% of the time. These are kids from really dysfunctional backgrounds and it isn’t something the schools can fix.

    If this is true you can’t blame the school or the teachers for those kids poor results. And when they are in the classroom they’re probably a drag on the rest of the class. And if you were a parent who could send their children to a school that didn’t have that problem, you very well might. I don’t have a solution, but it puts blaming schools or teachers for poor results in a different perspective.


  13. Andrew,

    Michael Hogan isn’t the PM. Your concession that Catholic schools are next to useless is interesting.

    Rajat – I have no desire to force people into public schools, I’m interested in stopping the baseless denigration of them being perpetrated here and in other places. It’s my conjecture that the push toward private schooling is in part driven by ignorance and this strange scare campaign around unions and “values”. I’m sure Andrew is somewhat of an unwitting pawn in the game that think tanks etc. play, he may yet come to the conclusion that the push for private schooling is aimed at rebooting religion.


  14. David – I can’t see how Michael Hogan not being the PM is relevant. He is merely (unintentionally) showing that this is a long-running local debate, and not an American import, as you incorrectly claimed. And the fact that private schools have always had a very high market share by international standards suggests that Australia parents have long been receptive to the ‘values’ aspect.

    The people who run religious private schools, and many of the parents who send their kids to them, no doubt hope that they will foster religion. The evidence that they succeed is not that strong, but being a liberal who believes in tolerance I have no philosophical objection to parents trying to instruct their children in their beliefs. In that my stance on this is not as as unwitting pawn, but quite deliberately wanting to let people do this.

    Russell – Education Departments are often reluctant to publish any peformance statistics, though the Victorian Education Department is reasonably good on this. I know truancy is very bad in indigenous communities, but I am not aware of the numbers you cite. Please provide a reference!


  15. David,

    This might be impossible to answer, but what percentage of people do you think move their children to private schools because of scaremongering and ignorance and what percentage do you think move there because of reasoned decisions?

    My bet is most move for the second reason since. Its not scaremongering to say that (a) students from private schools get higher marks for the same brain-power; and (b) private schools have far more options in getting rid of a small number of extremely disruptive students (and other such rules). What surprises me is not so much the growth in private schools (I’m surprised its not higher) — but the fact that so many parents are too cheap to send pay any extra for their children’s education — they are basically cursing their children for life and this seems like a fair trade-off for a bigger tv/house/etc.


  16. growing affluence and less policy discrimination are undoubtedly the major reasons for the increase in private school numbers, rather than an underlying shift in preferences. But I do admire the particular locution you’ve used – “less policy discrimination” is a fine argument-begging way of saying “more subsidisation”.

    And David Rubie’s absolutely right, Andrew – you are being disingenuous in blaming Teh Left for trash-talking government schools when most such trash talk has come from the opponents of publicly provided education.


  17. And Conrad, I resent your claim that those who send their kids to public schools are “cursing their children for life”. My kids got a fine education at such a school.

    I dunno about private schools always getting higher marks for the same brain power, but if so it’s a good argument fro discrimination in employment and in uni entry in favour of public school students. Or is that not what you meant?

    You’re right, though, about the ability of private schools to put kids into the “too hard” basket by expelling or by just not accepting them. But if we move to a full voucher system as Andrew proposes, what happens to these kids?


  18. I got a public education too DD, but I also realize that private schools get kids about 10 points extra at VCE (I’m not sure what distribution is used, but if it is marked on a bell curve, not a flat distribution, then that’s huge). THat makes a huge difference in life for many people — when I did my degree years ago there were only two public school kids in the entire course, and it was a crap university. Where I teach now I think the stats are 75% private school students if I remember correctly (and most of the others are mature-age students). I’m sure my life would have been easier if I’d gone to a good one. If you don’t believe it makes such a difference, you can look up the numbers. If you want to be a martyr and send your children to somewhere that doesn’t get the most out of them, feel free, but don’t be delusional about it.

    I agree with you that it might be reasonable to correct university courses for entry scores of the individual schools if evidence can be shown that better student performance can be obtained on lower marks (and I sure it wouldn’t be hard to get — most universities have big databases where they could do this), although somehow or other I don’t think that is going to be likely.

    I don’t think we need a full voucher system to solve the “too hard” case. My suggestion is that we create schools for the “too hard” basket that are more targeted at them, in which case they won’t end up wrecking the other public schools that could otherwise be decent, although we’re still left in the position where not enough parents are willing to pay enough (and taxpayers for that matter).


  19. DD, are you Canberra based? I have a feeling (that is not backed up by any empirical evcidence — after all, why let facts get in the way of a good story!!!) that the average quality of public schools in the ACT is much higher than it is in the rest of Australia. If I had children and I lived in Canberra (neither of which is currently the case, although I have spent most of life thus far in Canberra), I would probably send them to public school too. Especially when you realise that the money you save can be used to fund a whole heap of additional tuition and other developmental activities.

    Nonetheless, I think it is an interesting thought experiment to ask what would happen if every parent made this choice. Since private school students are currently subsidised much less heavily than public school students, either an increase in taxation would be required or the average quality of public school education would fall. (I have heard this type of thought experiment posed before, probably by private schools.)


  20. I’ve done your thought experiment Damien, and now we’re in the third world. Here’s an alternative thought experiment that doesn’t take us there.

    Imagine if all the parents that could (say 80%) paid a reasonable amount of the cost for their children’s education (or, for that matter, imagine if even those parents whose children were at public school did). This might mean a smaller house (or might not if everyone thought that way), an older car, an older tv, a slower internet connection etc. You now have a teaching force paid a reasonable amount. You could probably get rid of most of the crazy rules in schools if you had this amount of money, because people couldn’t complain about under-pay. People might actually want to become teachers more too since they would be afford to live in the big cities where rent/housing is now ridiculously expensive (you can see the problems this causes in big cities like London, incidentally — and its only going to get worse if recent reports are to be believed).

    Now lets also imagine that most parents care about their children’s education in the same way as they do in most of Australia’s likely future comeptitor countries (excluding NZ).

    I think we’d now have a great system that isn’t going to fall apart further in the long term. I think there are two main problems (a) some people have the wrong priority list in terms of education and other things, and want the government to subsidize them more than it is going to; and (b) many Australian parents don’t care about their children’s education enough.


  21. Parents who went to State schools are sending their children to private schools because they remember how bad State schools can be. There is far too large an element in State schools who send pupils home with propaganda for parents at election time, want ever reducing class contact time, can’t control classes and fight the very idea that there should be academic standards. However, the State school teachers who don’t have such tendencies seem to be sending their children to private shcools in even higher proportions than the general population. Inside knowledge.


  22. Andrew Norton wrote:
    David – I can’t see how Michael Hogan not being the PM is relevant. He is merely (unintentionally) showing that this is a long-running local debate, and not an American import, as you incorrectly claimed.

    Andrew, I had some trouble working out what you meant by “long-running local debate”, given the history of Catholic schools in particular in Australia. To be honest, what initially flashed into my mind was the protestent-catholic sectarianism that was the greatest driver of catholic school enrolments. You may not see it in the same way as I do: it was a cultural divide, not anything to do with the nebulous and ill-defined concept of “values” which seems to have different meanings to different people. To make an attempt to link old style Australian sectarianism with the modern “values” debate is tenuous at best. Mr Hogan wrote nothing of “values” in your example – his words were straight out of the old DLP playbook, not the obvious language linkage you can see in Republicaln party (and now Liberal party) nonsense. It isn’t the same thing.


  23. Some parents will always be committed to sending their children to private schools for religious reasons.

    Some parents, as mine did, believe in public education and think that it’s more important to be in a classroom with people who come from a range of backgrounds rather than those whose parents are well-connected.

    Then there are those with no firm convictions either way. These people work long hours and pull in what looks like a high salary, but it goes out on a big mortgage and, yes, school fees. This notion of high-income earners who feel as put-upon as any proletarian has killed class-warfare rhetoric stone dead in Australian politics. It’s this latter group that are a new phenomenon, and are thus interesting.

    They talk about values and discipline, but only because they don’t have time to spend with their children. To instil these qualities in your children you need to spend time with them. If you’re pulling in the tall dollars you don’t have much time. Private schools offer themselves as outsource providers of family values while also fanning the flames of consumerism necessary to make exorbitant fees seem necessary – even an achievement. School education is one service where the consumer does not receive the service, and the recipient is not a consumer; nice work if you can get it.

    If you’re pulling in a reasonable income at a job that doesn’t demand more than 40-50 hours/week, where you place a premium on spending time with kids and can afford broadening experiences such as overseas holidays, music camps, theatre and sporting trips (i.e. those “extras” that private schools provide, but as extra revenue sources), then you will have more resourceful and well-rounded children than you would by shunting them off to St Blazer’s or Our Lady Of The Harbour Views and hoping they make friends with a surgeon’s kid.

    Not addressed in this debate is the notion that private school students are getting to uni without the ability to hunt for information, having had it spoon-fed to them in a way that is simply unknown at state schools, and which makes them rubbish at analysing information effectively in comparison to the scrappers who’ve always had to scrounge for information.

    they are basically cursing their children for life and this seems like a fair trade-off for a bigger tv/house/etc.

    Conrad’s only right if you accept every bit of scaremongering that comes down the pipe – including the idea that if you don’t get a high VCE/HSC mark, your life is over at 18.


  24. Andrew Elder,

    you can call it scaremongering, I prefer the term quantitative analysis, which is of course a good way to make decisions.

    Speaking of quantitative analysis, you might also like to consider your claim that public schools have a more diverse range of students than private ones — at what level are you talking about — SES, race, performance?


  25. I think your analysis is more anecdotal than quantitative Conrad, so my term might not be flattering but I’ll stand by its applicability. I’d ask you to raise your eyes from the spreadsheet and consider people who are different to you in so many ways, if you can.


  26. Children usually attend the school closest to where they live. Parents or carers can select another school if there are places available. Make contact early, to allow time to visit a number of schools. Principals or other staff members can provide tours, classroom visits and information.
    Most schools conduct a starting school program for students entering Prep. Students are usually invited to visit their new school in the year before starting, so they can get to know the new environment. Some schools set up buddy systems with older children to ensure that Prep children have a stimulating and welcoming experience from the beginning.


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