The Guardian October 11, 2000


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.

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