If cost was no obstacle, most students would attend private schools

The independent schools don’t have the Australian Education Union’s propaganda talents, and so their interesting survey on attitudes towards private schools received very little coverage. There was a story in the print version of The Australian, but nothing online that I can find.

The UMR Research poll shows just how successful the AEU’s funding disinformation has been. A majority of respondents believe that private schools get the same public funding as government schools (25%) or more funding than government schools (33%). In reality, private schools get about half the public funding per student that government schools receive.

This error contributed to muddled responses on policy issues. Two differently-worded questions on whether private school students should receive the same funding as government school students received different levels of majority support (66%/58%). However, after being told the correct funding levels only 21% of respondents thought that the federal government should give private schools more funding, with 45% opting for current levels. Due to ignorance about the status quo, some respondents who supported same levels of funding in the earlier questions presumably thought that their reply meant no change or a cut in spending on private schools, rather than an increase.

Of those respondents with kids at a government school (an unspecified number, unfortunately) 42% said that if fees were not an issue they would prefer to send their kids to a private school. AEU boss Angelo Gavrielatos said this ‘showed the effect of a decade of undermining of public education by the Howard government’. But this figure was very similar to a 1994 Saulwick Poll result, in which 45% of respondents with kids at government schools said they would go private if ‘money was no object’. The problems of the public education system long predate the Howard government, and of course even in our decrepit federal system the management and funding of government schools is overwhelmingly in the hands of mostly Labor state governments.

(Other relevant polling: a 1996 Newspoll found 33% of parents with kids at government schools or intending to send their kids to government schools thought these schools were worse than private schools; a 2004 Nielsen poll asked a sub-sample of govenrment school parents if they would shift if the cost was the same, with 34% saying yes).

Clearly there is confusion on the funding issue. But with these attitudes among government school parents, more than 60% of Australian school students are either at private schools or would be if there were no financial obstacles. It calls into question the common assumption that government schools should be the norm, and private schools some controversial deviation from it.

51 thoughts on “If cost was no obstacle, most students would attend private schools

  1. Vouchers please. It would be nice to have the $15,000/year chunk of public funds used per student to be directed by the wishes of the parent and student.

    Although I went to a brilliant public school and I do not regret a minute of it.


  2. Except that if most kids went to ‘private’ schools they would no longer be private. The only attraction private schools offer is that they are a little out of reach for most people thus conferring a bit of status on those who can afford them. Plus, of course, countering the progressive tax system in handing back tax money to the well off. They certainly have never increased any child’s IQ by any amount.


  3. Andrew – I think you miss the point of the objection to ‘private’ – whether it’s education or health – which is that there shouldn’t be a huge difference in getting the essential services you need, depending on how much money you have.
    You shouldn’t have to wait years for a hip operation because you depend on the public system, when a private patient can get it done when they want. You shouldn’t end up in an old people’s home where you will be brutalised and humiliated because you can’t afford to place yourself in more nourishing circumstances.
    Kids shouldn’t have their chances to flourish diminished because they have been placed in an inferior school – the gap between schools, private or public, shouldn’t be allowed to be big enough that any school could reasonably be called inferior. People shouldn’t be left in ‘residual’ systems because they can’t afford better, or because the people responsible for their care coudn’t be bothered.


  4. Russell – I don’t like residualisation – though I have not seen good evidence on it, the idea is plausible – but the solution is to end the more dysfunctional of the two sectors. I can see the 19th century argument for creating a public school system, as it is very unlikely that the existing private schools could have dealt adequately with the massive and rapid scale-up required when compulsory education was introduced. But now I think the existing public schools should be reconstituted along similar lines to public universities, with substantial operational autonomy.

    Your argument about inferior schools is really very ironic – like many supporters of the idea of public schools, you pick one of their greatest failings as a reason to preserve them. It makes no sense to me.


  5. “but the solution is to end the more dysfunctional of the two sectors”
    That is exactly the point. Despite the significantly greater resources that parents and the government put into the private schools there is no commensurate betterment in outcomes outside of what would be expected from the family demographics.
    The answer is to resource the public schools so they are clearly more attractive to potential students, greater autonomy, substantial trust funds, excellent infrastructure.
    Let the private schools – particularly the religious ones, wither on the vine.


  6. Speaking as a private educated kiddie myself (only from one of those local St Pats though) with kids myself… When I ask my friendship group their intentions or aspirations I find this curious result, those who went to private school, Catholic or to Timbertops, tend not to want to send their kids to Private schools. Admittedly we are latte sippers.
    In any case their may be an argument that it is one of those skipping generational issues. In 20-30 years the children now pushed into private schools may not send their kids there and these numbers could reverse again.
    The two friends who went to Geelong Grammar just look back at the money and shake their heads now. What a waste they say.


  7. meika – Though if your sample is representative, the shift from public to private is bigger than it looks, because its effects are being reduced by parents going the other way. Of course this kind of switching does go on all the time, but overall school preferences are inherited. The 2007 Australian Election Survey has about 300 respondents who went to private schools and themselves have children at school. 62% of parents who went to Catholic schools send their kids to private schools, and 83% of parents who went to independent schools send their kids to private schools.

    Persse is wrong in thinking private schools don’t on average outperform the government sector even after controlling for student background (I will find the ACER study on this later), and wrong in thinking that this is necessarily the major factor in school decisions. But on schools like Geelong Grammar you are entirely right that parents need to (and presumably do) make a decision about whether the expenditure is worthwhile, given the other experiences you could give your kids with the same money.


  8. “…but the solution is to end the more dysfunctional of the two sectors.”
    But changing to some sort of ‘totally private’ system won’t end it because it won’t address the causes of the problems. It’s a bit unfair to refer to one system as more dysfunctional when it’s competition is free to expel and dump any problem kids into it.
    Like Meika I had 12 years of Catholic school and while I’m happy to pay more tax for better schools I don’t want one cent of it going to organisations that use schools as their main proselytising effort. Andrew you surely don’t want some of your taxes going to Archbishop Pell to decide how they’re spent? Let’s hang on to the idea of compulsory, free and secular.


  9. True, there is only so much schools can do about incompetent parenting. But this is not the only reason for school under-performance.

    Archbishop Pell, some leftie bureaucrat in an education department – I’m not too keen on either, but in my view it is for parents to make the call. The subsidy is to deal with the basics, and what else schools offer is their business.


  10. But with these attitudes among government school parents, more than 60% of Australian school students are either at private schools or would be if there were no financial obstacles.

    And in other breaking news 50% of people would drive a top of the range black BMW if their were no financial obstacles. 10% saw no reason to change cars.

    Previous research shows that 60% of Melbournians would prefer to live in Toorak in a large house with nannies, gardeners and housekeepers if their were no financial obstacles.

    Other worrying news is that 60% of Australians would still wear t-shirts, shorts and thongs irrespective of financial status.


  11. FXH – In the context of a system where the government will give you a close substitute for free, a situation which does not apply to cars, houses, etc.


  12. FXH/Persse

    When you have a situation – as we do in Sydney – where nearly 50% of households use the non-public school system (remember, many families choose different schools for different children), the notion that private schools are somehow ‘elite’ is a nonsense. Given that 50% of households are not in Toorak (or similar suburbs), and 50% do not drive fancy cars, such comparisons are also nonsense.


  13. “The subsidy is to deal with the basics, and what else schools offer is their business.”
    No, it’s not, if they want public funds, because what they offer is the basics plus 5 periods of ‘religion’ a week – you can’t opt out of the ‘religion’, and I don’t want to fund it.
    If you lived in the western suburbs of Perth you have many excellent private schools and one rather tatty public high school. If you live there and merely want your child’s education to be secular, you don’t have any choice but the one comparatively poorly resourced school – whether it be privatised or not.


  14. Peter – I don’t think anyone is claiming that ALL private schools are ‘elite’ – certainly the one I went to wasn’t! But even at 50% there is certainly a danger that we’re already creating a ‘residual’ system of comparatively poorly resourced schools, with more problem students and parents who don’t care, and where pupils will be disadvantaged.


  15. Russell

    Why are you concerned about ‘Religious Education’ in private schools? In my ideal curriculum Comparative Religion and World History would be compulsory for all students from infants to the end of high school.


  16. Russell

    I could not agree more with that. I deliberately chose where to buy a house based on the quality of local public schools, which I can safely say offers the widest selection of the best public schools going. However, not everybody is as – reasonably – well off as I am.

    That is why I vehemently oppose direct funding of private schools in favor of vouchers to individual parents who wish to ‘opt out’ if the public schools in their area are crap – for example, in Mt.Druitt.

    Eventually, some sort of equilibrium would be reached where public schools that are leaking students shape up or are closed down. The incentive to investigate what is going wrong that so many parents are leaving this or that school can surely only lead to improved public schools, no?


  17. Andrew is correct on the academic performance of private vs. public schools. If you extract the top extremely elite selective schools in Sydney, there are only about five public schools in the top 50 based on HSC performance. Also, a lot of parents send their kids to private schools for non academic reasons. Any parent who sends their kids to the Geelong Grammar of 2010 clearly does not give a damn about academics! 🙂


  18. Andrew, I find it a slightly odd argument that we should read significance into people’s preferences in a hypothetical situation where ‘money was no object’. My understanding was that economic analysis tends to start from the position that resources are scarce, and we should look at the best way to make the most out of them. There a quite a few things that I would choose to do ‘if money was no object’, but I’m pretty uncomfortable at the idea that these preferences should form the basis of public policy.


  19. Peter – education about religion should be taught, but that’s not what happens in Catholic schools, rather it’s indoctrination (I can still rattle off the Catechism and God alone knows how many prayers, but then ‘religion’ was taught by the cane in those days.)
    Peter if you live outside the metro area where are you going to take your voucher? There’ll be only one school in the vicinity.


  20. Lewey – I think it is a reasonable point in the context of an argument over whether or not public and private schools should be funded on the same basis. If they were, many private schools would also be free or very cheap. The poll suggests that if price was a neutral factor, most people would prefer private education. The stronger critique of this interpretation would probably be over whether people have low-cost private schools in mind when they say they would prefer private.


  21. Russell

    But just about all services outside the metro area are not as good as in the city; it’s a matter of scale. If you choose to live outside the metro area you do so with full knowledge that all sorts of amenities and choices are going to be less bountiful in the cities.

    OTOH, with a voucher system, incentives for people to set up a private school in your area might see locals set one up themselves, or a ‘branch’ of an existing school system establish itself.

    I am also a big fan of more public boarding schools.

    One of the arguments people make against vouchers is ‘oh, but what about the bad schools when children leave, they’ll get even worse.’ But they are bloody terrible right now!


  22. Peter – not convinced: a school is a big and expensive piece of infrastructure. It would be impossible for some people in a country town to start up an alternative high school. We need to think of how to improve existing schools, rather than experiment with vouchers and the possible creation of replacement schools.


  23. Russell

    We cannot allow the hypothetical inertia of non metropolitan folk to be a reason to reject a policy for the entire nation.

    As for “we need to think how to improve…” knock yourself out, parents have been voting with their feet at continually increasing rates for over 20 years now. We have an AEU that is pathologically opposed to any transparency, indeed any change.

    Empowering the parents the walk strikes me as the best way to put a bomb under bureaucratic and AEU inertia and obstruction.


  24. Russell

    Also, literally hundreds of small private schools have opened in Australia over the past 15 years, including in non-metro area.


  25. Russell – ‘and I don’t want to fund it.’
    If you support taxpayer funding, then you give up the right to decide how it gets spent. That decision is made through the democratic process and you are only one of many, many, many voices trying to influence that decision.

    If you want to be the one who decides what your money is spent on, then you need to support private funding where you get choose how your money is spent, without having to convince the majority.


  26. “If you support taxpayer funding, then you give up the right to decide how it gets spent.”
    I have the right to argue for what I believe, and participate in making the decision – via elections if nothing else. It’s interesting that in their hatred for public provision of services the right are happy to partner with churches (and thus support their religious agenda) in taking over the provision of those services. God help us.


  27. So the argument is we look after 60% of students who can afford private schools and throw the other 40% out with the garbage? Or are you going to start thinking about school vouchers, and hecs loans for secondary school students?

    I was one of 225 students in year 7 of my Melbourne western suburbs government school that received drastic funding cuts under the Fraser government and sent some of that funding into the coffers os schools who were significantly better resourced than mine. But I digress.

    Of the 225 students starting secondary school 51 make it to the last year 12. Seventeen students pass year twelve and three of us (me included) make it to University. It wasn’t the teachers, it was the resources they had to work with. I had GREAT teachers.

    I received a scholarship to a private Grammar school and my parents couldn’t even afford that option *WITH* the scholarship.

    It turned out alright (more than alright in fact) for me. I can’t however speak for the other 222 that were left behind.

    If money were no object, I would have gone to Cambridge University then Harvard Law, but money was an issue and will *always* be an issue unless we want to be all paying 60% income tax so that every school is as well resources as the top 10% of private schools.

    What Andrew is proposing is a precursor to school vouchers, which in effect give more students a chance for a better education, but it will still leave some students behind.

    And to Peter Patton, not all parents have the financial luxury to vote with their feet.


  28. “I was one of 225 students in year 7 of my Melbourne western suburbs government school that received drastic funding cuts under the Fraser government..” (emphasis added)

    Maybe that’s what the AEU’s predecessor said at the time, but very unlikely to be true. The Commonwealth did not start funding state schools until the early 1970s, and the Year Books shows steadily increasing funding during the Fraser years, starting with $186.7 million in recurrent funding in the last Whitlam Budget, rising to $348.6 million in 1981-82.

    On fiscal grounds, I oppose what most people regard as a full voucher scheme, ie all students get what government school students get now. Instead I prefer a voucher scheme based on SES principles, with the essential supply-side reforms.


  29. “On fiscal grounds, I oppose what most people regard as a full voucher scheme”
    An additional reason is that it is a basically a free subsidy to private industry. It surprises me that many of the people that think that health care etc. should all be privatized seem to have no problems with giving freebies to the education sector without the slightest consideration of how much people earn. Why not just give everyone a thousand dollars without qualms like last year instead?


  30. Conrad – If there is an argument for subsidy, the fact that it goes to a private industry doesn’t strike me as relevant. The question is which delivery arrangements are likely to be most effective.

    One of the arguments for continuing subsidy of at least the compulsory years of the school system is that it is a universal experience, and so subsidy is mostly intrapersonal distribution of money around the life cycle, avoiding massive bills during the childrearing years.


  31. I think it is a bit of a stretch to dump private schools into the “private industry” bin, as though they were like auto companies. As Andrew said above, as a society we have decided on compulsory education up to the age of 17. As the government is already paying for every public school student, if a student merely takes that subsidy to another school, it is no real – or at least not great – fiscal burden.

    Sure, there are issues surrounding the real marginal cost of educating children in public schools versus – the presumed – average cost, that a coupon would cover (under my preferred system at least, if not Andrew’s.

    A much more real subsidy to ‘private industry’ is Medicare. Every time I go to my GP, the government is subsidizing his private practice, by the amount of the Medicare rebate, which is the same dollar amount for every Australian, regardless of their wealth/income. Once again, as a society we really, really like our Medicare. That is why we accept the extra taxation required to fund it.


  32. But maybe we could reduce the GP subsidy. It was recently reported that Australians visit GPs more than almost all other nationalities. Many of the people in GPs’ waiting rooms don’t need to see a doctor – they are seeking routine tests or prescription refills or drugs they don’t need but that many doctors are happy to prescribe to keepthe punters rolling in. Perhaps bulk-billing could be targetted at the unemployed and pensioners while everyone else could pay $25 to see a doctor. If you smoke or drink or can afford a mobile phone, you don’t need to be bulk-billed.


  33. Rajat

    I see no reason why that particular point cannot be debated. I suppose my own point was more general in that as a society/polity we have given our blessing, as it were, for a limited number of these government ‘subsidies’ to ‘private business’ because of the universality of their use,

    We have – once more, as a society/polity decided that access to healthcare and education are very, very basic prerequisites to living and functioning in our society. We thus contrast these two good/services with other material goodies.

    We have decided that health and education should not be subject to the same distribution mechanisms as the quality of car one drives, suit one wears, or part of the airplane one travels in.

    It is highly likely, however, that the current mechanisms for funding and providing education and healthcare could be improved significantly without compromising our general values. I, for one, think that is definitely the case in education. You appear to think improvement can be made in Medicare rebates.

    Discuss! 🙂


  34. Rajat

    Also, to be fair, most (sorry, haven’t got the exact % in front of me) GP practices nowadays only bulk-bill people reliant on Centrelink, who carry the appropriate card. It seems that both the government and the citizenry have been pretty relaxed about the rebate remaining relatively stagnant,while GPs fees increase.

    So, I think a lot of what you advocate is already happening.


  35. Peter, I’m not opposed to providing subsidies to enable people to acquire privately-provided goods that society considers different from general consumables, and to that extent I disagree with Conrad’s view. So I agree with you and Andrew that the issue is the mechanism for provision.
    On the GP issue, I don’t have figures either, but I thought well over half GP consultations were bulk-billed. A relation of mine works exclusively at bulk-billing centres in outer suburban Melbourne and there is no need to have a health care in order to be served at no out-of-pocket cost. And I should say that this relation (not to mention the doctor that actually owns the practice) earns well into the (current) top marginal tax bracket.


  36. Bulk billing is about three-quarters of consultations. It depends where you live – in affluent areas most practices don’t bulk bill routinely. Elsewhere they do. They seem flexible. A doctor who normally charges me $60 bulk billed when all I wanted was a flu shot. When I was very sick in the past my GP took pity on me and started bulk billing – a discount for a big customer perhaps. Also, people on welfare go to the doctor more often so bulk billing people on welfare is a bigger driver than you would think given their share of the population.


  37. Wow, Andrew, thanks for that. That really surprises me. I suppose it just shows what limited circles I must move in! 🙂 But I hear from people I know, and acquaintances, from all over the place that their doctor does not bulk-bill non-Centrelink ‘clients’, especially in non-metro areas.

    Maybe the stats are telling us that GP visits are disproportionately made by OAP, DSP, unemployed, and children (whom I understand most GPs will bulk-bill). Actually, that sounds pretty intuitively right, doesn’t it?


  38. About 80% of all medicare consults are BB. But that includes quickies for a repeat script on your medication (which could and should often be done by phone or email for a small fee thus lessening the patients costs and freeing up valuable GP time for someone who is sick) and it’s not 80% of everyone or every district.

    And often the longer consults, say with various standard fee care plans, are BB because the $ return is ok.


  39. I remain amazed that when it is fairly clear that government production of food is a bust, government production of cars is a bust, etc there are still adherents of the notion that somehow government production of education is so terrific it should be The One And Only System.

    Particularly as it would clearly *reduce* the total resources available to schools, since there would no longer been private income being added in.

    One of the effects of private schools is to put more pressure to perform on public schools. The issue of “dumping” of problem students (and toxic kids are an issue) is due to the failure of the government school system to develop effective ways of dealing with them.

    Why might that be? Not due to lack of resources, which have been going up over time. But to pretty dreadful incentives. Inevitable, when the regulator is also the main provider: a conflict of interest which does much to explain the generally poor record of government production. (Including a well-established tendency to falling productivity over time: which eats away at the effectiveness of the spending.)

    One reason parents like private schools is the sense of greater control, if only in the sense of picking a specific package rather than the generic model. A system where the main “input” is electing a parliamentary majority who will pick an education minister who will supervise a department responsible for both regulating all schools and administering some of them is not exactly a great control mechanism. But, of course, that is part of the appeal for those who wish to game the system.

    For so much of this is not actually about inculcating skills but controlling the socialisation of belief. Hence the biggest providers of schooling after the state are religious bodies: hence also totalitarian systems do not allow private schools. While educational theory is an intellectual slum dominated by theories about how to, you guessed it, inculcate “appropriate” beliefs.

    Remember, if a student screws up, the student pays the price. If a teacher screws up, the student pays the price. If a teacher trainer screws up, the student pays the price. If an educational theorist training the people who train the teachers screws up, the students pay the price. There are lots of bad incentives in education, and setting up a monopoly provider who is also the regulator is, as they say, not helpful.

    The paucity of government-funded research on what makes for good teaching is another telling indicator. A vital issue, one would think, for governments who spend billions on schooling. But not so much, it turns out. Though a service-oriented NGO has done some interesting work.


  40. “The issue of “dumping” of problem students (and toxic kids are an issue) is due to the failure of the government school system to develop effective ways of dealing with them.”
    Actually, dealing with difficult kids is really difficult and really expensive, so it’s not clear the government is really screwing up. There are bad options and bad options.
    “The paucity of government-funded research on what makes for good teaching is another telling indicator”
    I’m sure there must be innumerable studies on this, and in fact some of the main factors are already known, so it’s not clear to me that more research on what makes good teaching is the first priority. The problem in some areas is that the factors we know about are hard to deal with. For example, teaching is obviously now so unpopular it’s one of the university courses with the lowest entry requirements. That affects standards. In other areas, it’s the bureaucrats that are evaluating the research that is the problem, so you end up with poor courses being taught.


  41. I don’t believe there is any rule saying a private school has to be religious.

    I am opposed to religious schools, too. But surely having LESS complicated hurdles to pass over would help secular private schools and surely encouraging the private sector would help secular private schools, too?


  42. The point about private schools is that they use fees as a filter to limit the social group of their intake. If every parent was given $10,000 a year per child so they could pay to send their children to private scholols, there would immediately be a group of schools that charged $25,000 a year so that they didn’t have the problems of trying to meet the education needs of a broad cross section of the community.
    The classic study on voucher system schools, by Chubb and Moe concluded that a voucher system can only work if: students with greater education disadvantage are given a much higher voucher; no school has funding external to the vouchers and therefore all schools are obliged by their financial needs to take a genuine crossection of the community.


  43. Mike – Your point about voucher system ‘working’ highlights that there is actually significant disagreement about what voucher systems are for. The kind of SES model I favour has as one of its purposes its capacity to leverage in additional school spending; the capped amount of total spending is one of the central flaws of the current public system that should not be replicated. I would oppose a voucher scheme if it included fee control, a central source of dysfunction in the higher education sector.

    Most private schools don’t *use* fees as a filter, though that is a consequence of poor private schools still getting significantly less public subsidy than government schools.


  44. People might also consider why top private schools have scholarships. It is to (1) increase the intellectual quality of the intake and (2) broaden the experience of their students. Both of which make their school more desirable, hence offering scholarships.

    Besides, the notion that an all-government system means everyone gets the same schooling quality is nonsense. Government schools from higher socio-economic areas tend to be better than government schools from lower socio-economic areas because the parents tend to be more education-motivated, lobby better, their children tend to be more pleasant and easier to teach. To the extent that areas with good schools acquire housing-price premiums.

    Which goes back to the point that it is really about controlling the socialisation of belief combined with minimising accountability. With the latter having the added effect that the belief-set in question becomes whatever has captured teachers, teacher training and curriculum setting. If your belief-set has done that, then you really want a monopoly provider with minimum parental (or, for that matter) voter control, which is what an all-government the regulator-is-the-provider system delivers. Either way, eliminating private schools is about eliminating rival belief-sets from the education process.


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