Why do state school parents want to go private?

Almost half say they would choose an independent school, if not for the fees.

Almost half say they would choose an independent school, if not for the fees.



Given the current funding situation of Australia's public schools it comes as no surprise that parents are becoming disillusioned with a system that has been left behind. Both state and federal governments have fallen prey to inertia and are seemingly unable to restore the faith of parents in Australia's 6800 public schools. The right to a quality free education, a pillar of egalitarianism in our society, is becoming dangerously undermined through a reluctance for structural funding reform.

The level of inequality between certain private schools and their public counterparts is evident when our educational ''funding mix'' is compared to other developed nations overseas. An OECD report released on Wednesday ranked us 28th of 31 countries, with Australia directing 14.8 per cent less of total educational funding to public schools when compared to the average for developed nations. While private schools need to receive a degree of government funding, the current situation leaves Australia spending proportionately less on public education and more on private education than almost any other developed country in the world.

While some, such as The King's School headmaster, Dr Tim Hawkes, decree that a lack of funding to elite private schools will lead to an increase in fees, it appears that current funding levels haven't prevented this from occurring. The Herald reported earlier this year that between 2001-2011 the fees at the nation's most expensive schools ''have risen by 100 per cent - against inflation of only 37 per cent''. The antiquated ''no losers'' policy instituted by the Howard government means that elite schools continue to ''double dip'' - receiving well above their government funding entitlement, while charging parents increasingly high annual fees which show no signs of slowing down.

There needs to be a redistribution of excessive funding away from the upper echelon of private schools towards lower-fee independent schools as well as public institutions, in order to make both sectors more efficient.

While I firmly believe in a parent's choice to choose the education that best suits their child, it is unconscionable that we so heavily subsidise parents who select their personal choice of school, at the cost of providing an excellent and properly resourced public education system. We need to re-establish confidence in our public schools as it is public education that is the one true equaliser. It alone creates equality of opportunity, while preserving the Australian ethos of a ''fair go'' for all.

Michael Stocks is school captain of North Sydney Boys High School.



Research commissioned by the Herald in 2004 found that 34 per cent of state school parents would choose a non-government school if there was no additional cost. A new survey this week found that 45 per cent would do the same. The question ''why'' is therefore a pertinent one.

The most recent survey does not elucidate the reasons parents had for preferring independent schools, but others over the past decade reveal that ''traditional values'' are the strongest factors. This includes schools' disciplinary climates as well as moral and religious values.

Although about 95 per cent of non-government schools are religious schools, academics studying school choice tend to argue that religion per se is rarely the drawcard. Rather, it is the characteristics associated with religion that appeal to parents, such as self-discipline, respect for authority, self-reliance, safety, structure and cultural traditions.

However, there is wide variation in the reasons given for choosing a non-government school and there is no typical independent school. The defining change in the past few decades has been increased diversity. Until the 1980s, 90 per cent of non-government students were in Catholic and Anglican schools. The proportion is now about 70 per cent, the rest attending schools affiliated with minority religions and secular schools.

Parents choose a school on its merits. When I chose a school for my children, I did not choose a sector and then select a school I chose a particular school, which happens to be a government school. Nonetheless, I have long supported a strong non-government school sector and policies that enable choice and diversity. It is the ability to choose I prize most highly.

According to US research, parents are more likely to be satisfied with their child's school if they have chosen it. This week's independent school survey, and others before it, show many parents have not chosen the school. And while it suggests that, given the opportunity, half of the state's school population would abandon ship, this is a short-sighted view. With the opportunities and incentives created by school choice policies, including the flexibility to respond to parents' values, state schools could become the preferred option for more parents.

Jennifer Buckingham is a research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies (which is not associated with independent schools).



There are 342 different reasons - one for each of the 342 different independent schools in NSW. Parents choose a particular non-government school for their sons or daughters because that school provides an education closer to their aspirations and values than the local "free" government school.

There is no such thing as free education - government schooling is paid for by us all through our taxes. Parents choosing to go private are choosing to spend their after-tax dollars on top of this for the education of their children. Why would they do that? Well, it must indicate at least a doubt about government school education and a recognised value from independent education.

Education is of paramount importance to all parents - and the right of choice of schooling for their sons or daughters is enshrined in our legislation. I want parents to be able to choose the school which best suits their wishes for their children and is tailored for their special needs, interests and talents. There is no such thing as a private school education. There are many different types of schools - religious (Christian, Jewish and Muslim to name a few) and secular those charging high fees and those charging low fees those with grand educational and sporting facilities and those as under-resourced as any school in the state those catering for children with special education needs those specialising in the performing arts those which are academically selective those with differing educational philosophies such as Steiner or Montessori, and so on.

There is one thing that defines independent schools - the ability to determine the ethos and philosophy of their education, and the freedom to implement that. It is important to say this. At SCEGGS, I choose the best teachers - those right for SCEGGS. I decide whether I need another mathematics teacher or instead an additional learning support teacher. I discipline staff and students appropriately so that desired standards are met. I can introduce new subjects or eliminate old ones in order to provide a contemporary, cutting-edge education. I determine how sporting, music, drama and other cultural activities are provided. I shape and define the community and instil the values, the discipline and the moral code for which parents have chosen SCEGGS. I decide how the budget will be best spent to achieve the standards I am seeking.

I wish that my counterparts in government schools had the same authority.

Jenny Allum is the principal of SCEGGS Darlinghurst.



I reckon I can do it: I want to commission a poll to show that kids prefer ice-cream to carrots. After all, ice-cream tastes better, is richer and the packaging is neat. Then I want to use the poll results to drive policy about nutrition and, if possible, get a subsidy for ice-cream eaters.

Now that the school funding review is raising a better debate about schools it is precisely that type of stunt that is being played, especially by private school lobbies.

It's easy to prove that parents might prefer one type of school over another. Previously commissioned polls show they also want increased resourcing for public schools. Each result tells a story.

If parents were asked if they wanted to go public in a ''better'' suburb, the score would also have been high.

Private school growth rates have slowed for a decade and we now also have growth in public schools with a higher socio-educational enrolment. The OECD shows that - when it comes to what parents do rather than what they say - a school's social profile is even more important to them than student achievement scores. Sure, we can continue the three decade-old debate about the relative worth of different school types and labels - but even the data behind the My School website tells the story: when we really compare schools' apples with apples, the brand makes little difference. Brand doesn't matter - your parents matter.

Teachers also matter, but if student results are any guide there are more teacher differences within schools than between them.

There is one reality that underpins what this poll is supposed to show. The very thing that public schools are obliged to offer - particularly access and inclusion - is the reason why those with the capacity to choose want to be somewhere else. The reason we all need public schools is the same reason why many will want to leave them.

This is not about blaming parents. Every local school should be of the highest quality. We owe our parents something better than a framework of schools with the moral authority of a pyramid selling scheme - with those on the bottom punished, not so much because they were last in, but because they were born into the wrong families.

Other countries have avoided this. We should too.

Chris Bonnor is a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development and co-author of The Stupid Country - How Australia is dismantling public education.

Join the Conversation...

There are comments posted so far.

If you'd like to join this conversation, please login or sign up here

Related Articles