Saturday, February 17, 2007

Advantages of private schools?

Have people lost faith in public schools because of their unsound educational practices? Or is it just that, with rising incomes, aspirational parents seek to give their children a ‘leg up’ by investing more intensively in education by sending children to private schools?

Investing in a private education does provide tertiary educational advantage. The Age today shows that state school students are under-represented at Victorian universities, with 70% of Melbourne University students recruited from private or academically selective government schools. Half of first-year students were from independent schools, with 35% from government schools and 17% from Catholic schools. At Monash University, 43% of students were from government schools, 33% from independent and 25% from Catholic schools.

But overall, in Victoria, 58% of year 12 students went to government schools, 22% to Catholic schools and only 20% to independent schools.

In part, popularity of vocational programs in public and Catholic schools explains their low representation in elite universities but high university entry scores are also a barrier to public school student. Private schools deliver much higher entry scores.

Parents who send their children to expensive private schools will earn above-average incomes partly because they received good educational opportunities themselves. This solid educational background will influence their children directly. Such parents will also often be educationally-ambitious and confident with respect to their children. Moreover, children at private schools enjoy positive externalities by interacting with other children who have well-educated, academically ambitious parents. These factors will drive self-fullfilling, successful academic outcomes in private schools even if these schools do not provide a better education.

This does not prove that the independent schools are not outperforming public schools but it is a plausible hypothesis. I’d like to see evidence on these issues. I am reading Kevin Donnelly’s Dumbing Down to become better informed on the views of the public school critics.

In my case I attended a public school because my parents were not in a position to pay for a private school. My own 3 children have attended private schools and have (so far) done academically well. But I am unsure whether, it is environment or parenting that has generated most of these outcomes. I am very aware of the externalities generated by putting children among others with academically ambitious parents.

One factor that has been highly influential in encouraging me to choose private schools for my own children is the large number of Labor-voting school teachers I know who express support for the public school system but who send their own children to private schools.

My younger colleagues at work ask me whether I think private schools are worth it and I generally respond by suggesting the question is stupid. Unless you are very wealthy the cost of a private education is a major burden. In many years more than half of my disposable income has been spent on school fees. I’d have to be more crazy, than even my most severe critics would claim, to be involved in such an investment without a belief that there is a private school payoff.

But I am uncertain about the size of the payoff and whether, with the same parenting input, much the same outcomes would have occurred with a public education. After all, ignore my gruff good looks and my occasional overindulgence in booze, and look at the outstanding citizen I have become!

Certainly the size of the educational investment must be assessed. Unless family incomes are huge, funding private school education means foregoing other forms of education derived from, for example, family travel. Paying for private education is also a long-term commitment that creates the need for working parents to ‘moonlight’ and which also creates an excessive concern for money that has negative externalities within the family. This concern to pay school fees arriving as a huge bill every 4 months can extend to cover half of the average parent’s working life.

Even if private education is all that it is claimed to be parents must balance their own welfare against the altruism they feel for their children.


whyisitso said...


I know I'm not allowed to say this, but in North-West Sydney (quite prosperous suburbs) one of the main reasons people are deserting public schools is that many public schools have become mono-cultural. Caucasian children feel out-of-place. Chinese parents put an extremely high value on their children's education but instead of sending them to private schools, tend to spend their (ample) funds on private tutoring to get their kids into selective private high schools (James Ruse comes to mind).

Chinese people are admirable citizens, sharing many of the more esteemed values of the broad community. But even in middle class suburbs they seem to remain socially isolated. I'm not sure why this is. Maybe their reluctance to allow their kids to participate in sports and other broadening activities acts towards this isolation, as well as their perceived lack of the need to mix with caucasians given the preponderance of their own country people. There is a marked reluctance to participate in activities like P&Cs and other self-help groups. They even have their own Christian churches. I personally think this phenomenon will pass within a generation or two, but it does lead to a level of monoculturism in public schools.

hc said...

whyisitso, A lot of Chinese parents use the private schools too - many of the friends of my kids at school are Chinese. To get into the selective or high quality public schools in Melbourne they also live in suburbs like Balwyn and Glen Waverley and pay anyway because the price of real estate is bid up in this areas. They are still investing huge amounts to gain access to a quality education.

As I have previously posted Asian families invest more effort into education and get better grades on average. They are also more interested in cultural activities such as music and the AMEB exams.

In my view this reflects badly on Anglo-Celtic Aussies not on the Asian communities. How can you criticise people for recognising the value of an education?

I think the cultural separateness issue is not that serious. Many Chinese people enjoy interacting with Chinese ethnic groups and speaking Chinese but simultaneously enjoy western culture and non-Chinese people. I notice a lot these days in western restaurants getting stuck into red wine.

The separateness that is there will, as you suggest, dissolve quite a bit, within a generation or so.

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Anonymous said...

I think there are two reasons why people choose private over public schools.

Firstly, there is a big difference in educational culture. Many private school students I have known are used to both recieving more resources from their teachers and having greater workload expectations placed upon them, regardless of the quality of the teacher. Teachers work to satisfy the presumed desires of parents.

Although I went to Uni High, I don't believe there is that significant a drop in teacher "quality" between public and private schools generally speaking. But because of diversity of students' post-school intentions, an entrenched culture of uncompetetiveness, and a fear of "brute" teaching, most state schools are not likely to bring out the best in a student unless they're quite self-motivated.

But I think it's foolish to deny that the appeal of private schools for a lot of people is having their children pass their time with wealthy, respectible, clean, well mannered people of influence. Although there may be an incidental cultural homogeneity at James Ruse, the sameness of many independent schools is in part a result of the desires of some parents to maintain that culture and insulate their children within it, so that they might assimilate into it.

Anyway, that's my ramble as a recently graduated student.

rabee said...


My personal impression is that while most students in Melbourne Uni are from private schools, the situation balances out at honors level. The good PhD students that I've met have all been public school kids.

It would be interesting to know the makeup of students that decide to do a PhD.

Any clue?

hc said...

Rabee, I think the anonymous ex-student said some interesting things. The kids at private schools are more spoon-fed. I think also parents do seek externalities by gaining contacts -and, as I pointed out, for getting eucational externalities.

This means ublic school kids are likely to be more self-reliant. I forget where I have seemn it but I have seen data suggesting that school kids from private schools get better entry scores and then lose out relative to more self-reliant kids from public schools. That matches with what you have observed.

rabee said...


My first guess was that private school kids were better informed. What exactly is the expected value of a PhD?

Further, if you want your kids to grow up and be rich doctors, lawyers, labor back benchers, then by all means send them to private school.

If you want them to be good scientists, artists, intellectuals, then I'm afraid there is little that you can do (teach them to read write and add, and keep them off addictive drugs); it's in their hands and is probably determined by the role of the die.

conrad said...

whyisitso: Thats a weird comment. My impression is that when lots of East Asian kids go to a public school, the public school gets better and the white parents start chasing them around so their children can get into those schools because they think they are better (which they probably are). Epping Boys High being a good example and the public schools that have suddenly become "good" in Melbourne have for this reason too.

I'm also not sure why you care whether Chinese people "integrate" or not -- You have a smart entrepernerial group that has crime rates far lower than the average. In addition, any Chinese people living in Australia before about 1990 probabl have every reason to not "integrate" -- its not like Australia was exactly the most accepting and least racist place on Earth. Its only in recent times that they have been replaced by Arabs as the most hated group. If you create social-out groups, don't expect them to do you any favors.

Anonymous said...

All these comments are good, but do people single out the Chinese people? Do you know that they are all Chinese? You don't refer the Caucasians by their nationality, but why Chinese? Why don't you refer them as Asian? I am not Chinese but I am disturb why Asians aren't called Asian but Japanese, Chinese, etc. While other ethnicities are generalized.

But back to topic, what are the advantages of public schools if there are any?

ezra said...

As a student who graduated with what one would consider an excellent ENTER score from a public school I then went on to study at Melbourne.

However this year I have changed my course and am now at RMIT. Amoungst other things, and admittedly sadly, I left Melbounre Uni due in part to the people/students. With the majority from higher socioeconomic families and from priavte schools I found the forum for debate quite limited. Indeed I found the private school students to be dull, and unwordly.

As a generalisation these students are NOT exposed to the real educational world that exists outside of their school with a latin slogan and to go onto Melbourne Uni just perpetuates this closemindedness.

It is my belief that a good student really depends on good parenting and being exposed to the REAL world. I am from a single parent family, rural, and my mother is not employed in a "wealthy" job however through her encouragement, nurturing and teaching I regard myself to be successful in education and most importantly in life itself.

hc said...

Ezra, There are ceretainly many interesting self-reliant students from public schools. Students in Melbourne from private schools do sometimes take an elevated view of their own import - not all but some.

Anonymous said...

Some private schools give admission to the troubled teens and to the students who have the problem of dyslexia. Schools have good therapists and counselors to give treatment to students. These private schools also provide good residential facilities to the students.