Chris Bonnor. The public and private of school achievement.

Once again we are in the middle of the annual HSC result festival – time to celebrate the winners amongst students and schools. Names of the top 100 schools are again paraded, seemingly to confirm a language about schools variously described as elite, high performing or prestigious. Everything else is out of sight. We read about the (well-deserved) success of particular students and hear from school principals about why their schools (apparently) did so well.

The language of sporting competition is readily employed as schools rise or slip in the ranks – as they inevitably do as Year 12 cohorts come and go. School labels are prominently displayed: selective, private, comprehensive. Cheer squads for one label or another are found in almost every home, every workplace, in the columns and airtime of media and in the halls of policy and power. Competing claims and even urban myths are created and recycled.

The more astute punter will know that the top 100 schools are dominated by those which are selective, private or planted in the right postcode. Any school which selects kids will gravitate to the top of the academic and social pile. Many private schools are there because their fees are high and fees always have a gatekeeping role. For other schools the right postcode has the same effect.

Some of the top 100 schools are very good – it’s just that we don’t really know which ones. After all, around 75% of the so-called top schools would also be in the top 100 if ranked by the level of advantage of the enrolled families.

To really comment on school achievement – especially to compare school apples with apples – we need to take into account this level of advantage. So what does such a fair comparison of schools really show, especially about the public and private labels?

If we use NAPLAN as a measure it seems that public schools across Australia nudge above Catholic and Independent schools, especially among schools enrolling above-average advantaged kids.

For the Higher School Certificate the story is more complex, mainly because the numbers of schools are smaller. But there is still a story:

  • For schools enrolling the most advantaged students, public secondary schools are ahead by a country mile, but they are not included on the next graph because most of those schools select their enrolments, so any comparison isn’t fair!
  • But in the next rank of advantage (ICSEA 1100-1149 for the My School savvy) public schools, almost all them local comprehensive schools, are ahead.
  • Going further down the food chain we find Catholic schools ahead of both public and Independent,
  • Then in the next group (ICSEA 1000-1049) they are all the same.

There aren’t too many private schools enrolling the less advantaged so comparisons at that end are more difficult.

There are a few take-outs from all this. There are certainly quality differences between schools – even schools which enrol similar students can achieve at different levels. But brands and labels, such as public and private, don’t describe, or align with, these differences.

There are implications for parents. The differences between the sectors are simply not significant, hence choosing schools by sector label can be largely pointless. Even where one sector is apparently ahead in one group of schools parents still have to believe that their child would be advantaged by enrolling in a school in that sector. They also have to weigh up any perceived advantage against other factors such as cost, transport and whether the apparent advantage actually exists for similarly labelled schools in their locality.

All other factors being equal, an informed process of school choice needs to be sector blind. Parents would be best advised to put urban myths and rusted-on beliefs to one side, do their homework and pay much closer attention to the many and complex indicators of school quality.

At the level of school provision and funding there is another interesting implication of the similarity between school outcomes. Given that the achievement of schools enrolling similar students is much the same what does this potentially reveal about the effectiveness of the public and private investment in schools?

The average recurring cost of educating public school students is around $12 000 per annum. There are large numbers of public schools, disadvantaged and remote, where the average investment is much higher. Much of this higher investment is tied up in fixed costs but is the additional investment well-targeted? At the other end of the scale there are large numbers of higher SES private schools where the combined public and private investment per student is well above $12 000. The investment in these schools is around $3bn each year. It is going into schools which don’t achieve at levels above equivalent public schools.

We need to know more about this. For almost a year my colleague Bernie Shepherd and I have been analysing My School data to see what it tells. So far we have revealed:

  • shifts in funding which are seeing more going to schools which enrol more advantaged students,
  • a widening achievement gap between high and low SES schools, and now
  • a persistent lack of significant difference between outcomes of public and private schools.

At a time when the Gonski recommendations have been largely written off as being too hard or too expensive these findings are enough to raise considerable concern about equity and achievement.

Watch this space.

Chris Bonnor








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