Public or Private – what you need to know

Many parents are wondering whether their kids would be better off at a private school. Are private schools better? Most people tend to assume you will get something extra for your money, but what is it and is it what you are after. This is what you need to know.

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to the public/private school question. The rough groupings of schools that we are talking about in Australia are government schools that are called public schools, Catholic schools and then there are the Independent schools and these are all subject to different funding mechanisms and rules in relation to their curriculum.

Follow the money

Let’s focus on the money first. Will schools you pay more money for spend more money on the kids? Not necessarily.

All schools in Australia get some government funding, unlike e.g. in the UK. In rough terms, government schools get the most funding per student, then the Catholic schools rank second and the Independent schools rank third. You will see this clearly reflected in the fees they are asking for. The amount of funding schools get in part depends on a social index that is put together from the parents’ postcodes, the ICSEA, the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage. The Education Act provides a loading for schools with parents drawn from statistically disadvantaged areas.

The funding structure is important to note because, if the school asks you to pay, say $5000 for a year of schooling, this doesn’t mean that the school has $5000 more to spend on the student and facilities. Private schools provide a product and you have to decide whether this is a product you want to purchase. The main feature to note about private schools is that all the families at the school are in a financial position to pay the fees, sometimes for several children. This gives a degree of social exclusivity directly related to the fee structure that many are willing to pay for quite apart from the services, facilities or values provided by the school.

Be honest, what is it that you want. Exclusive company because of the level of the fees, religious education, facilities, extra-curricular subjects provided?

What product do you want

One common product sold is the religious denomination. When you send your child to, say an Anglican or a Greek Orthodox school, then make sure that is the product you want and if this is not your primary concern, ask them about what else they provide that is different to the state school system and decide if it is what you want.

If the religious or cultural education is important to you, then you have an easier decision to make. Finding your religious, cultural or linguistic preference will often be a question of geography as there are very limited e.g. Greek Orthodox, Islamic, Montessori or French and German schools or indeed even harder when it comes to special needs like deaf-blind schools. These more eclectic schools you will have better odds of finding by contacting special interest organisations.

Catholic schools are widespread and include religious education but they are today more mainstream and inclusive than Catholic schools of old. You will find there are some differences between the different Catholic schools as the leadership teams take different approaches to the religious content of their education and the values they will support at their schools, so do not make assumptions from one school to another or much less from your own childhood. Many are more progressive in their inclusiveness than Vatican doctrine may lead you to believe. Catholic schools are not necessarily a closed option for students who are non-traditional in terms of sexual orientation or gender identification. Remember the local bishop oversees Catholic schools, however, the principal still has the last word, at least until his or her contract is up.

If you are looking for Christian religious education or consider a school that is aligned with a religious denomination, consider your stance on creationism; it is out there among the Christian schools. Sometimes as an open policy, other times it pops up as an aside to the main curriculum at the initiative of individual teachers whom the governance and administration quietly condone. If you ask them when you attend the open day or when in an interview, I’m sure you will get an answer that will guide you, whether it is straightforward or not.

Independent schools are independent both in regards to values and in regards to curriculum. This block of schools includes Special schools set up for particular needs as well as religious denominations and philosophical theories. While they have to cover the national curriculum, hence, just the same as what the state schools teach, they can go about it very differently and then add what they want. This is where your kids can add on Latin and Ancient History, more commonly offered at independent schools. They can also fill up the curriculum with any number of activities on or off campus, individual or in groups, with teachers or completed independently. Usually, this ability for leeway only means unusual subjects. They also have the ability under the legislation to deliver the required hours for your child in a different way. This will not be relevant unless you experience any particular issues. If your child experiences serious health issues, mental health issues etc., it is worth it to talk to them as they can diverge from the usual curriculum and still let the child pass the year level. Years 11 and 12 are of course a lot more restricted if the student wants an ATAR score for University entrance.

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The Independent School category includes the glossy, famous grammar schools and others that charge big fees that top $20 000 a year before property levies and other levies, not to mention the school trips. Remember, these schools receive less government funding than other categories of schools, but the amount is still variable. Check out how much they get if you want to get an impression of how much the school has to spend on each student.

Many people are arguing that this type of school and funding model suits a liberal political mindset, as a great proportion of the money for the child’s schooling does not come from the tax kitty but from the child’s family. There are still big tax dollars propping up the independent schools, so is still not a straightforward argument to make. You could equally well argue that the tax dollars are propping up benefits for the privileged few. However, your view on that maybe, if you want to understand how the money is spent for your child’s benefit, the government’s MySchool website will surely help. A shortcut also will be to look at the facilities. I know of several top schools that spend such a great proportion of their money on council property fees, the swimming pool, sports courts, sprawling buildings and green lawns etc. that they have bigger class sizes than in the neighboring government schools and the science labs are still pretty standard. The point for you is to decide what is important to you and your child. If playing weekly sports like hockey and rugby at school during the week is a priority, then you have to opt for this most expensive stratum of the independent schools and put your Saturday aside for the inter-schools games. Just be aware that all that money you pay does not necessarily equal smaller classes and better teachers.

Private schools tend to have better results

Have you looked up the NAPLAN results and concluded that you have to spend a lot of money to get your child to a school with good NAPLAN scores. If this is important to you and is becoming a deciding factor for you, let’s make the picture a bit more nuanced.

It is to be expected that a school with a high socio-economic index will also get good NAPLAN results. Quite apart from anything else, there is a statistical correlation and when parents have done well academically and have a higher average level of education, you will expect that the children will do on average quite well. Thus, the good NAPLAN result of a high fee-paying private school does not necessarily reflect the standard of teaching at the school, in fact, it may be achieved in spite of the standard of teaching and be derived from mainly three factors: one: smart parents have smart children, they do well regardless of where you put them; and two: private schools tend to have a very high level of private tutoring; three: exclusive schools offer scholarships to attract smart students that in turn do well in NAPLAN.

It is hard to gauge the standards of teaching from the NAPLAN but if you can assess the difference between the best and the poorest performing students in the school, you will start to get there – how long is the tail basically. If there is a long tail behind those best students, then the teachers are not able to catch up the weaker and non-tutored students.

Also, ask yourself how much effort the school puts into the NAPLAN. If NAPLAN has taken over the curriculum at the expense of a more rounded approach to teaching, your child may do very well in NAPLAN which after all is only a funding tool for the government and will benefit the school’s recruitment, but will not benefit your child in terms of future study.

Subject selection

Another issue parents and students tend to focus on when selecting a school is the subject selection. Subject selection concerns electives and extracurricular offerings: extra sport, languages, business studies, music, choir, ensembles etc. It is worth noting that all schools teach the same national curriculum. If your kids complain about what they do for a core subject – they would do the same in any other school for the same year level. As the main trend to go with here: larger schools offer more subjects than smaller schools, regardless of whether they are public or private.

Some private schools make a point of offering more esoteric subjects like Latin or Ancient Greek and they tend to do more excursions to support the curriculum. Language selections in schools tend to be heavily influenced by the predominant ethnic groups in the local community. If you are looking for Arabic or Egyptian, you will have better luck in a big city and in an area with corresponding ethnic predominance or find a private school with a creed to match what you are after, like Islamic, Greek Orthodox or Coptic etc. The main rule when it comes to subject selection is that bigger schools have more subjects and usually more specialised facilities for special requirement subjects like cooking, arts, technology etc. If you choose a small, expensive school, you can expect to get fewer subjects and fewer facilities compared to the next-door government school. That is just a numbers game and you have to make up your mind what you are after for your children.

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The thing to ask schools about subject selection, including sports on offer, is whether kids can choose to participate or whether there is a tryout/selection process for them to enter and if they involve extra fees.

Sport

All schools offer some sport. Where they differ significantly is on whether they offer team sports or athletics on a regular and inter-school competitive basis with training and matches every week. Most State, Catholic and Independent schools have one athletics sports day a year, one swimming day and maybe one cross-country day and they may send the best students to one-off inter-school competitions based on that. Most State, Catholic and Independent schools will try to field teams for some team sports such as netball, soccer, and hockey. Teams will be based on interest and try-outs with little or no training in school time.

This is where the more expensive independent schools differ significantly. In schools with fees approaching $20 000 and up, you can expect that they will provide a range of team sports, athletics and sometimes rowing, sailing, riding etc.

The difference to overseas private schools

If you did your schooling overseas and are not familiar with schools in Australia, I will outline a few things that you may find different.

Those who come from overseas should know that Australian private schools, almost without exception, finish at around 3 pm, just like the state schools. There are no afternoon clubs included in the school fees or after school sports included in school fees. Anything after 3 pm on school grounds is called ‘after school care’ and is charged extra. You want your kids to do sport, you better not work and drive them there yourself, get a nanny or opt for the most expensive strata of independent schools. You will usually get sports fitted into the school day before the 3 pm finish when you approach or exceed $20 000 a year in fees.

Private schools will usually have a canteen service but no dining hall and sit down, supervised hot meals such as is the norm in Europe. They don’t provide ready-packed lunches for excursions, sports days etc. You just have to read the notes about what to send with them on the day. The canteen will rarely be an alternative to sending a packed lunch with your child.

Music lessons are usually provided at all private schools at an extra fee. The standard for such music lessons varies widely from school to school. While the tradition in the UK is formalised feedback forms to parents sent with school reports and to progress kids through external music examinations, the standards tend to be more relaxed in Australia. This is where you have to approach the school to see if they are likely to meet your expectations and, if you take the music lessons seriously – interview the music teacher.

Class sizes in Australian private schools are just as large as in the state school system, typically more than 20 in primary school and at or near 29 in the senior years. British private schools typically have around 15 to a class and they have a tradition for following up very closely with each student and they tend to communicate with parents throughout the term. In Australia that is knows as ‘spoon feeding’. If you come to a private school here, it is time for your kids to become more independent. That is not a bad thing, just different and some research out of the UK indicate that the advantage of private schooling drops off dramatically at university where state school kids were shown to perform better than private school kids entering university with similar scores.

Lise Copeland
Author: Lise Copeland

I like to write about current topics concerning young people, education and mental health. I developed this website to help other parents and it is used by several hundred people every week. I have two kids at University and one in high school. They have attended State, Catholic and Independent schools in three States and Territories as well as overseas, giving me lots of first hand experience of how different schools can contribute. Education: BA(Hons) with Philosophy, Latin and Ancient Greek languages and BA Law (LLB).

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