The expensive truth about private schools and student learning
Published by The Guardian, Monday 20 August
When Australian parents shell out fees to send their children to private schools, they like to think they’re getting many things for their money. So they may be surprised to learn that superior student growth in literacy and numeracy is not one of them.
Conventional wisdom holds that private schools generally perform better than government schools academically. Many parents believe they are “purchasing” a better education for their children by choosing a private school. But new Grattan Institute research suggests the conventional wisdom may be wrong.
Yes, a cursory glance at Naplan achievement test scores (the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) shows students at private schools are, on average, ahead of students at government schools in numeracy and literacy. But Naplan achievement scores at a point in time prove nothing about the standard of teaching in private schools compared to government schools.
Students at private schools in Australia are more advantaged, on average, than their peers at government schools: they have better-educated parents with higher incomes, so it’s no surprise they achieve at higher levels. The past three Pisa reports (the OECD’s international problem-solving test for 15-year-olds, in 2015, 2012 and 2009) all found that once student and school-level socio-economic background are considered, there is little discernible difference between the achievement of private school students and government school students.
Grattan Institute’s new analysis digs deeper. We examine student learning growth over time, rather than just achievement at a point in time. Student growth is a better measure of how much value a school adds, because it indicates what learning takes place while students are actually at school. It shows how much kids are stretched to their potential, taking into account what they could already do at a given point in time.
We look at the learning growth of students at government and private (that is, independent and Catholic) schools, and we make comparisons on a like-for-like basis (that is, we compare schools with similar levels of advantage). This kind of analysis has only recently become possible. Naplan, the first standardised test in Australia, was introduced in 2008. So it is only in the past few years that we have seen the results of students all the way from year three to year nine.
The results of our analysis are clear. We find only very modest differences in student growth among sectors. At primary school, between years three and five, students at independent schools make similar rates of progress as students at government schools, while students at Catholic schools make slightly less progress. At secondary school, between years seven and nine, independent schools do only very slightly better than government schools – less than one month of extra progress per year.
This is not to say to the parents of private school students that you’re wasting your money on those school fees. Our analysis focuses solely on student progress in numeracy and literacy; it does not examine other subject areas that may be of specific interest to students and parents.
Our analysis also does not measure everything parents would be looking for their children to get from a school. The non-government school sector in Australia is very diverse. Many parents may choose an independent or Catholic school for the pastoral care, extra-curricular activities and leadership opportunities, or for a specific peer group and type of learning environment they believe is best for their child. No dataset can say how well these varied decisions pay off.
But our findings debunk the idea that private schools do a better job of stretching students to their full learning potential in core subjects of literacy and numeracy.
It’s not that school choice is irrelevant for parents: our analysis finds large differences among individual schools, with students at some schools making consistently more literacy and numeracy progress than students at similar schools. It’s just that once student background is taken into account, high performing schools are equally likely to be government or private schools.
The lesson for parents is clear: if you think sending your children to a private school guarantees that they will make more progress in the classroom, think again.