A public school education didn’t stop former Australian prime ministers John Howard, Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard from reaching the nation’s top job. It didn’t hinder former High Court Justice Michael Kirby or Australian Governor General Quentin Bryce from achieving high office. So why are Australian parents increasingly choosing to fork out up to $30,000 a year per child for a private education?
Maybe parents feel the public system has declined in the past few generations? Does Michael Kirby believe that a publicly-educated child today could still go on to have a career like his?
“Of course they can,” Mr Kirby said, “and they do. Sixty-to-70 per cent of Australians students are educated in the public system, and there’s no reason they can’t go on to do great things.”
Mr Kirby believes the trend toward private schools is partly the result of “propaganda” by media outlets that profit from private school advertising and by a disproportionate number of serving politicians with a religious or private school background.
“I will always speak up for public education,” he said. “If parents wish to choose a private or religious education for their children then that is their choice. What I don’t agree with is the government funding private schools at the cost of public schools, and that’s what’s happening.”
According to data from the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM), the average cost of private school fees is $216 per week. The figure skyrockets to almost $600 at the country’s most expensive private schools, such as The Scots College in Sydney where annual fees were $30,900 in 2012. Melbourne’s St Catherine’s School recently announced a five per cent fee rise for 2014, taking its annual fee to $29,260.
NATSEM figures show that Catholic school fees average out at $81 per week, with $12 per week for government schools.
Private school fees have risen by as much as 200 per cent over the past 20 years – a much bigger increased than the average increase in wages of 119 per cent over the same period.
If all that isn’t daunting enough, the Australian Scholarship Group estimates that a child born this year will set his or her parents back an estimated $500,000 of post-tax money to educate privately from kindergarten to Year 12. A Catholic-school education is estimated at just over $200,000, making a government-funded education look like a relative steal at just over $65,000.
Tracey Logan, a mother of four, pulled her children out of private school in order to spend the money that would otherwise go on fees on enriching life experiences such as travel.
“We had our children in a private school, but the costs were crippling,” she said. “We took them out two years ago and instead took them on a six-month trip around Australia. Our lifestyle has vastly improved without the constant fee pressure – we take the kids out to restaurants, and they do lots of after school activities. For us, it makes sense to invest in our family in this way.”
But clearly many parents believe the costs are worthwhile, with an increasing number choosing private education. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 76 per cent of Australian students attended government schools in 1982. By 2012, the figure had dropped to 65 per cent.
That’s a much lower figure than other countries in the English-speaking world. In the US, just 10 per cent of students attend private schools. In Britain, the figure is even lower, at just seven per cent of students.
The growing trend towards private-school education comes despite decades of research showing time and again that a stimulating home environment, parental engagement and socio-economic backgrounds are the biggest determinants of a child’s academic performance.
Dr Sue Thomson, director of educational monitoring and research at the Australian Council for Educational Research, was the lead author on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment results (PISA) report, released this month.
“What the results showed is that there is really no difference in the educational outcomes at public, catholic or independent schools,” Dr Thomson said.
“Once you control for the socio-economic (SES) profile of the school and the SES background of the student, the data is quite clear that there is no added benefit in sending a child to an independent school, unless for the sake of exposing them to a different social milieu.”
Although independent schools regularly come out on top in terms of academic performance and exam result league tables, Dr Johnson says that such rankings are more about the student’s SES background, the school’s SES and whether education is valued and supported at home.
But choosing a private education isn’t just about academic results. Many parents also want to give their child the perceived leg-up that a prestigious alma mater can add to their resume, possibly placing them above their publicly-educated peers for university and job selection.
Parents also chose independent schools to give their children a well-rounded education that emphasises life skills, according to research from the Independent Schools Council of Australia.
But Michael Kirby disputes the idea that independent schools do a better job of teaching students values and life skills.
“Public school trained me to be flexible and capable,” he said.
Prominent publicly-educated Australians
• Joint winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics, astrophysicist Brian Schmidt
• Performer Kylie Minogue
• Former Deputy Prime Minister, Wayne Swan
• Model Andrej Pejic
• Billionaire businessman Lindsay Fox
• Actor Russell Crowe
• Author and illustrator Graeme Base
• Former science minister Barry Jones
• Actor Nicole Kidman
• Businesswoman and philanthropist Janet Holmes a Court
• Joint winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine, molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn