Cyclical and structural school enrolment shifts

Catholic students lead exodus to public high schools

– headline in The Australian, 19 February 2009

Sydney Catholic schools, the biggest diocese after Melbourne with 147 schools, reported their biggest rise in enrolments since 1991 with 500 more students, with about 26 per cent starting Year 7 coming from a government school, as did 20 per cent of Year 11 students.

– later in the same Australian story.

Melbourne’s Catholic Education Office director Stephen Elder [said] that, in Victoria, Catholic enrolments had increased by 2400, or 1.3 per cent, this year

– report in The Age, 19 February 2009.

The trigger for both stories was a survey of public school principals suggesting that some are taking additional enrolments of students who formerly attended non-government schools. Both the survey and the Catholic response could be correct, because as I argued last month, a recession is likely to cause a cyclical shift back to cheaper government schools among some parents, without disrupting the structural shift towards private schools triggered by greater affluence, more diversity, and increased importance of education in lifetime outcomes.

With the global recession only slightly affecting employment in Australia so far, I would predict a lower increase in private school market share for term 1 2009 than is usual, but not a gain in market share for public schools.

(It’s annoying that there is no comparable survey data from previous years reported, since there will always be some students shifting from private to public schools for various reasons.)

By contrast, Australian Education Union federal president Angelo Gavrielatos claims

the findings indicated “parental perceptions of public schools are changing since the demise of the Howard government and the decade-long, systematic and unrelenting attack on public schools”.

As if parents spend tens of thousands of dollars extra on educating their kids based on occasional comments by politicians, rather than through observing what happens in their own families. And as my earlier post noted, the average annual shift to private schools under Howard was almost exactly the same as under Hawke and Keating.

14 thoughts on “Cyclical and structural school enrolment shifts

  1. One thing this is sure to cause is a widening of the gap between private and public schools, since at least according to the article, the main private schools it is affecting are those down the chain (which is not surprising, as I believe the top ones already have too much demand). This will have the effect of increasing the average private school ENTER scores. It’s not clear what will happen to those that go back to the public system — it would be super interesting to see whether they regress back to the public school mean or keep the slightly better than public school mean from the schools they came from. Either way, the difference between public and private schools will increase, since the best public schools can hope for is to be boosted slightly, but private schools will lose from the left tail of the distribution.
    I’ll bet that this will be reported as “public schools decline further compared to private schools” whenever the data is available in a year or two, despite it having nothing to with that.


  2. “the main private schools it is affecting are those down the chain”

    Down the chain of fees, that is. (Presumably the neurosurgeons and QCs are still well enough to send their children to the very expensive schools.)

    I’m not aware of any evidence that private schools that charge $25K p.a. fees get better ENTER scores than those that charge a mere $10K p.a.


  3. Spiros – This is due to the secrecy surrounding school results, because the public school lobby believe that poor results will be ‘misinterpeted’.

    I’d be very surprised if these schools were not significantly over-represented in 90+ ENTERs. The only real question is how much value they add, given their admissions standards and student base drawn from educated and affluent families (ie kids who would on average do well wherever you put them).


  4. “This is due to the secrecy surrounding school results, because the public school lobby believe that poor results will be ‘misinterpeted. ”

    are you sure? I’d heard that the private schools were more vehemently opposed to the ‘league tables of results’ … not surprising, since they have more to lose.

    BTW I don’t know if it’s only the policy in WA but if you don’t have any money you will not be turned away by a Catholic school – fees will be waived. This is a fairly new policy, so it could be attracting more kids to Catholic schools. Catholic schools in WA are also having a problem matching the recent pay rise granted to the state school teachers – so they are facing a few challenges!


  5. I agree that school results should not be taken at face value, for the obvious reasons. If value-adding statistics can be provided that would be better. But I don’t think parents are as silly is the argument against releasing results assumes; they know kids vary in ability, that teachers vary in ability, etc.

    I hadn’t seen private schools opposing release of information, but I don’t follow every twist and turn in this debate.


  6. Spiros,

    I’ll bet you there’s a pretty decent correlation (say > .5) between fees charged and average ENTER scores across non-government schools (at least in Victoria). We already know that Catholic schools charge less than private schools and their results are lower (this number is released), so part of the correlation is already there, and I’d be exceptionally surprised if the top echelon of private schools wern’t churning out students with high marks (which is no doubt in part due to a selection effect). It seems to me the most interesting part is how well private schools that don’t charge the really high fees do, and if the relationship breaks down there.


  7. Andrew, in Victoria, when the VCE results come out, the Age publishes for each school the median ENTER score, the percentage of students with scores over 40 (whatever that means), and other statistics.

    Conrad, if you are looking for a Victorian case study, I suggest you compare the two leading Catholic boys’ schools, Xavier College and St Kevin’s college. Both draw from the same upper middle class demographic, the difference being Xavier’s fees are double St Kevin’s. (I think they might also be different types of Catholics, one Jesuit, the other not).


  8. “the difference being Xavier’s fees are double St Kevin’s”
    I looked this up Spiros, and, for Year 12, Xavier is about $16,000 (Similar to Wesley but less than Scotch), and St Kev’s is about 10,600. Despite this, they’re all high and all get good results. Try comparing St Kev’s to average private school X and see if the numbers are still higher (you’ll find that St Kev’s is still quite a bit above average) — so I’m still betting on that correlation.


  9. Spiros – The statistics that VCAA publishes every year, and the ones that newspapers tend to publish are:
    (1) % of Study Scores greater than or equal to 40
    (2) the median Study Score

    Rankings of schools according to the above can be found here.

    As I understand them, your Study Score in a particular VCE subject is your ranking in that particular subject. Study Scores are normally distributed with a mean of 30 and a standard deviation of 7. So receiving a study score of 30 for VCE English implies you are ranked at the 50th percentile.

    To account for the fact that the strength of competition varies between subjects (e.g. coming in at the 90th percentile at the Olympics is not the same as coming in at the 90th percentile at your high school athletics carnival), VTAC adjusts these Study Scores to calculate an ENTER subject score. These individual ENTER subject scores are then aggregated, and then converted into an overall ENTER.

    As I highlighted above, there are problems with using study scores to compare across students doing different subjects, and also to compare schools. Even using median ENTER subject scores is not the right metric, as some independent schools have a significant proportion of their high achieving students taking the IB rather than the VCE, which generate Study Scores or ENTER subject scores. Though IB students do get an overall ENTER.

    Some schools, do voluntarily publish things like the median ENTER or % of ENTERs above 90 or 95, but they are typically typically the high performing ones.

    The median ENTER of the state selective schools, Melbourne High School and MacRobertson, typically floats around 95-96.


  10. Re #4, the claim that Catholic schools will waive fees, I would be highly suspicious of this. My children go to private Catholic schools, and starting two years ago, there has been a pretty ruthless crackdown on late-payers, let alone non-payers.

    Catholic schools try to keep their fees as low as possible, which means they can’t afford students who fail or are slow to pay. I haven’t mentioned which state this is in, because I don’t think it’s specific to my state. I think it’s a general strategy throughout Australia now.


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