Private schools gain market share despite downturn

As the GFC took hold in late 2008, some people were predicting a trend back to government schools. ‘Parents abandon private schools as downturn bites’ said a SMH headline.

I was sceptical, predicting a moderation in the trend to private schools rather than a reversal of the trend. In my view, religious diversity, discipline issues, growing affluence, and increased long-term importance of education will all, other things being equal, continue to favour private schools for the foreseeable future. Cyclical events like recessions may temporarily affect the affluence factor, but will not change the basic trend.

The preliminary 2009 schools data, released today, supports my scepticism about a trend back to government schools. Despite a small economic downturn, Catholic schools grew at more than twice the rate of government schools, and independent schools grew at around 5 times the rate of government schools.

Overall, private schools gained .24% of market share. Consistent with my prediction of a moderation rather than a reversal this is below the long-term trend. The annual average private school market share gain was .39% during the Howard years.

The first Grattan Institute research paper

The Grattan Institute has released its first report, an analysis of student progress measures by Ben Jensen. It argues that ‘value-added’ measures – that is, how much students improve between NAPLAN tests – are a more useful way of assessing a school’s performance than simply looking at its absolute results.

The report meets Grattan’s claims to be ‘objective, evidence-driven and non-aligned’. It is well-researched, uses data, and presents ideas that could easily be adopted by either major political party. While the media played up its differences with the about-to-be-launched My School website, it’s hard to imagine that Julia Gillard would have any fundamental objection to the ideas presented. And that was pretty much how she handled it today:

From what I’ve seen of the reports of the Grattan Institute work, they are saying that this is a good start but they are wanting to see more. Of course we are going to keep building on this website year by year as we get more results from national testing, more results on Year 12 retention, more results on vocational education and training pathways and attendance at school.

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More racism at government schools

According to the public school lobby, government schools promote ethnic tolerance. But according to a new report on racism and its effects among young Australians, three-quarters of students at government schools in the survey had experienced racism, and that after statistical analysis:

students who attend a catholic school are 1.7 times LESS likely to report experiences of racism than students attending government schools.

Admittedly there were only a few Catholic schools in the survey and we aren’t told anything about the ethnic composition of those schools. Though overall NESB Australians make identical school sector choices as English-speaking Australians, that doesn’t tell us much about any individual school.

However I can think of a couple of plausible reasons why the broad finding might be right. The first is that while the public school lobby focuses on religion as a potential ‘divisive’ force, major religions such as Christianity and Islam are multi-ethnic and so religious identity cuts across ethnic identity. By making a common religious identity more salient, kids at religious schools may focus less on ethnic tribal affiliations.

The second reason is that private schools tend to have stronger discipline, which should reduce racial incidents. Behaviour is much easier to change than attitudes, and so students at schools which police anti-social behaviour effectively are less likely to experience racism even if underlying attitudes are similar to those at other schools.

Educational Standards Institute

In the Des Moore model of one-man think-tanks, Kevin Donnelly has established the Educational Standards Insitute.

I’ve had my disagreements with Kevin in the past, since the conservative ‘standards’ approach easily turns into top-down bureaucratic control of schools. The Coalition-backed national curriculum is an example of how this line of thinking ends in what is likely to be a policy disaster in the long term.

Still, Kevin has had many sensible things to say about the unhappy results of ‘progressive’ education, and I wish this new think-tank well.

School vouchers at any price?

The IPA’s Julie Novak received good media coverage earlier in the week for her new paper on vouchers.

I’m certainly in favour of school choice. But I’m not convinced that Julie’s proposals – which would cost between $5 billion and $10 billion, depending on various options – represent value for money. Most of it would be spent giving current private school parents the entitlement they would have received had they sent their kids to a government school.

It’s paying people to do what they would do themselves anyway without public assistance. As a classical liberal, I need a lot of convincing that this is a sensible use of taxpayers’ funds (and personally I have difficulty with yet more income redistribution to people with school-age kids).

It is likely to speed up the current trend, by which private schools gain 0.3-0.4% of market share each year. But there are limits on how quickly private schools can expand, and even at triple that rate the majority of kids will still attend government schools for years to come.
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How much power should government funding give?

The Age this morning reported on religious groups mobilising to fight possible changes to anti-discrimination law, which could force religious organisations, including private schools, to end otherwise-prohibited discriminatory practices against people who do not share their beliefs or lifestyles.

In this dispute, I favour religious freedom and believe the current exemptions to anti-discrimination law should be retained.

But ANU academic Margaret Thornton raises a possible complicating issue:

“I think that if private schools receive money from the state, as they do, they should be subject to the law of the land, they should not be able to claim all these exemptions,” she said.

But this kind of argument has huge implications for government’s broader financial relationships with civil society. Should taking any government money give the state total control? (And state governments are minor funding sources for private schools.)
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Would parents use league tables?

The NSW Opposition has landed itself in political trouble for cooperating with a Green proposal to ban league tables of school performance.

School league tables are part of a strange obsession with lists and rankings, which in my view are very rarely of much value (eg here, here, and here).

The public education lobby believes school rankings are worse than worthless, since any ranking system must have those who come last, and we can be pretty sure that public schools will be heavily over-represented in the lower ranks.

Implicit in this worry is an assumption that parents will misunderstand what published school performance data means and rely on rankings based on school academic performance, without taking into account the significant socieconomic factors which influence student results. An Essential Research survey, reported at Pollytics blog, starts to explore this assumption.

Given the choice between assessing a school’s performance by the percentage passing tests, and the improvement shown by students (the school’s value adding), 59% thought that the improvement was the better measure, with 30% going for the percentage passing tests.
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Hayek vs Friedman on school choice

Commenter Robert suggests, regarding my post suggesting Milton Friedman influenced views in favour of competitive curricula on government not delivering school education, that

It could just be that better read classical liberals tend to favour freedom in education (and perhaps freedom in other areas) and it’s not Friedman specific. Is it worth testing whether the effect from Friedman is greater than having read other liberal thinkers?

I’m sorry to report it, as I like and admire Friedman rather than just admire Hayek, but a test comparing Friedman readers and Hayek readers (Hayek being the second most popular classical liberal writer among classical liberals, after Friedman) suggests that Robert is right. Hayek readers are slightly more likely to give the ‘correct’ classical liberal responses to questions on school curriculum setting and funding.

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A Friedman effect on school opinion?

One of the surprising features of the Australian political identity survey results for classical liberals was the large proportion with statist views on education. From a purely ideological perspective, it seems unlikely that a classical liberal could conclude that any monopoly control of curriculum was a good idea, and especially not a government monopoly. And from a purely practical perspective, the public education system isn’t exactly the greatest advertisement for the state as a service provider.

No 20th century classical liberal did more to argue the case for decentralising control of school education than Milton Friedman. So I wondered if the classical liberals in the survey who said that they had read Milton Friedman would have different views on education issues compared to those who had not. It turns out that they do.

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