Six myths about private schools in Australia
Further revelations that even more of the funding meant for Australia's public schools will be diverted into the private sector — $700 million over the next four years — has again exposed the Howard Government's agenda to decimate public education. This agenda is underpinned by a propaganda program denigrating the public system and promoting the private. The Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), a right-wing think tank, recently issued a paper entitled The Truth About Private Schools In Australia, which is little more than an attack on government schooling. The only common theme appears to be a defence of the policy directions developed by Minister for Education David Kemp. The Australian Council of State School Organisations addressed some of the main ideas being used to promote and fund private schools at the expense of public education. Myth 1: Private schools do not drain money from public schools. This really covers two issues. Private schools receive substantial funding from both Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments. Dr Kemp's latest figures show that on average, non-government schools receive over 60 percent of Average Government School Recurrent Expenditure (AGSRC). Under legislation currently before the Commonwealth Parliament, the highest funding category will in some States receive 95 percent of AGSRC. This is all money that could be spent, and arguably might be more socially usefully spent, on government schools, which rightly offer a place to all students. On the Enrolment Benchmark Agreement (EBA), this money does not go directly to private schools. However, the EBA has deprived government schools of around $60 million from the funding they were entitled to under the Commonwealth per capita funding formula. In this case Dr Kemp is draining money from public schools. Myth 2: Private schools have spent less per student than public schools. The gap in the CIS figures is quite narrow, and the trend is for expenditure in private schools to exceed that for government schools. Generally, these sorts of figures do not take account of the costs of services provided by government agencies to private schools in areas of curriculum, centralised examinations and subsidies to transport students over large distances to the school of their parents' choice. In addition, government schools rightly have the obligation to enrol, and retain, all students, and that students with the greatest and most costly learning needs (students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, students of Indigenous origin, students from rural and remote areas and students with disabilities) are concentrated in government schools. Expenditure in government schools ought to be significantly higher. Government school systems often also provide small rural schools and distance education, often at high per capita costs. Similarly, government school systems need to provide specialised education facilities for students with behavioural problems. Given the high costs of the general service obligations of government schools, which do not apply to private schools, the figures in fact show that government schools need more funding to enable them to cater for the diverse needs of their students and achieve equity in outcomes. Myth 3: Private schools are not elitist. The CIS analysis here is fundamentally flawed, since it fails to take account of the distinct types of non-government schools. At least two need to be distinguished. The majority of schools in the independent sector are clearly elitist. Figures from the Australian Centre for Equity in Education show that students from the lowest socio-economic status families are virtually unrepresented in these schools, yet they enrol 30 per cent of students from the highest socio-economic status bracket. The Catholic schools show a similar pattern of increasing enrolment share with increasing socio-economic status, although the elitism is not as marked as for the independent schools. Government schools enrol around 80 percent of students from the lowest socio-economic status decile, and around 50 percent from the highest socio- economic status group. Myth 4: Private schools achieve better results than public schools. The links between academic outcomes and socio-economic status, Indigenous origin, rural and remote residents and disabilities are well known. These groups are overwhelmingly enrolled in government schools and under- represented in private schools, which skews the results. The crucial question for a parent is whether they can buy a better academic outcome for their child. After allowing for parental income, education and attitudes, there is really no advantage for private schooling. Professor Gannicott, a general supporter of the policies pushed by the CIS has concluded that "the unfortunate reality is that it is not possible to provide clear-cut conclusions about this key issue", yet this myth has become a fact for CIS. There is one consistent finding from studies in this area that is rarely mentioned by the advocates of private schooling; students from government schools out-perform their private school peers when they go on to higher education, presumably because the government schools equip them better for the wider Australian society they will encounter after school. Overall, students of similar family background will do every bit as well in a government school as in a private school, and those from government schools on average will do better after leaving school. Myth 5: Private school students have better post-school outcomes. As noted above, students from government schools appear to do better at higher education than comparable students from private schools. Retention rates are lower in government schools, and unemployment rates are higher for government school students, but since these characteristics are associated with students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, of Indigenous origin, from rural and remote areas and for students with disabilities, the enrolment differences warp the data. There is simply no evidence that students going to government schools are more likely to leave schools early, or to be unemployed, than comparable students from private schools. But they do surge ahead in further studies. Myth 6: Parents choose schools for many reasons, not just academic outcomes. This myth has at least a grain of truth. Parents often site better discipline or values as the reasons for choosing a private school. We do not claim government schools are free from problems, but there is no evidence that behaviours such as bullying or major drug use are less common in private schools. Parents rarely admit to other reasons, such as the desire to buy an educational advantage for their children (unsuccessfully as noted above), or to buy social status. But that is hardly something that deserves government support.