Private and public schools


There is a vigorous debate over the relative merits of private and public secondary schools. Of course, this has been going on for as long as I can remember, so I don’t expect any great new developments soon. But an article in the Fairfax press did catch my eye – or at least one research result that it presented.

Marks’ research indicates that private schooling does account for slightly better outcomes: private school students score an average 7.5 points higher out of 100 on the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, when adjusted for socio-economic background.

Now I am not sure what ‘slightly better’ normally means but a 7.5 mark advantage in ATAR scores strikes me as huge. Remember, these are a ranking of students from zero to 99.95. So if there are 100,000 students sitting VCE in Victoria (which is in the ballpark of the true number each year) then going to a private school rather than a public school shifts you up 7,500 places on average.

To get into (say) Monash Law you essentially need an ATAR above 98 (i.e. you are in the top 2%). To get into Monash Commerce you need at least 90. A 7.5 ATAR advantage makes a big difference. Say you have a child who is at the ninety-second percentile. Then send them to a public school and (on average) they miss out on Monash Commerce (they get crowded out by private school students below them who get on average a 7.5 ATAR advantage). Send them to a private school and chances are they get in.

Now, the Universities have various schemes based on access and equity to try and assist students from low income backgrounds to reach university. But if you are in middle-class Melbourne, then these schemes are not relevant for you. So what we need to know is – why the difference? Unfortunately when it comes to explaining the difference:

It’s difficult to say why that is,” Marks says.


9 Responses to "Private and public schools"
  1. Why the difference? I would like to advance a theory. Maybe, just maybe… the government is incompetent to run schools?

  2. Historically it used to be that there were more KPI gaming opportunities available to private institutions, though that by itself may not account for the entire difference.
    Discontinuing final year students just before the exam period if they were seen as likely to drop the schools average score was (and still is?) a good example.

  3. Some NSW private schools have been nominating an improbably high proportion of their students for special  allowances in Higher School Certificate exams. Such allowances, depending on the nature of the claimed disability, can include “Braille papers, large print papers, use of a reader and/or writer, and extra time or rest breaks for conditions including emotional and physical disabilities”.

    In 2009, according to the cited report, almost 42% of students at  one  private school claimed special provisions. While nobody with unimpaired eye sight would request Braille exam papers, provision of rest breaks and extra time could be very helpful in achieving a  high mark.

  4. Holding socio-economic background constant, maybe smarter parents = smarter kids AND smarter parents = more likely to enrol kids into private school BECAUSE they know ‘private schools are better’ = 7.5% ENTER advantage privates schools have over govt’ schools.

    Clearly 7.5% ENTER advantage is a huge bonus so why don’t we see a bigger proportion of enrolments in private schools (according to Mark’s report 30% of Yr 9 students in 1995 were enrolled in catholic or independent schools)? I just cannot believe a 30% enrolment in private schools when there is a 7.5% ENTER can be a equilibrium.

    Maybe the cost factor is a deterrence but if they were optimising over a lifetime I would assume marginal benefit would heavily outweigh the marginal cost. On the other if the ‘smarter’ parents were better able to weigh the pros and cons of private school enrolment you would think (holding all other things constant) they would more likely enrol their kids into private schools. So maybe private school fees is a screening device of ‘smarter’ parents.

    If I’m correct then you should see the 7.5% advantage disappear over time if you introduce a ’school voucher’ system that covers the fees of the majority of the private school charge as the ‘less smart’ parents (with less smart kids) will keep enrolling into private schools until the % ENTER advantage disappears.

  5. “… Universities have various schemes based on access and equity to try and assist students from low income backgrounds to reach university. But if you are in middle-class Melbourne, then these schemes are not relevant for you.”
    Oh no! Poor little moderately affluent middle class Melbourne girl! 

  6. What difference does this all make in the long run in terms of employment prospects and salary? Okay so the 92 percent kid does not make Monash but gets into any number of any other law schools in the country.
    Sure some of the elite end up working with the Big 4 but its not like they are the only law firms in the country and that your 70-92% student can’t get very well paying jobs in other law firms or other industries.
    Furthermore, once they have some work experience and have a proven track record they can probably be picked up by any number of top firms.
    This is the whole problem about this fixation on the top 2% – it’s irrelevant in the longterm. We should be focussing more on the bottom 40%.

  7. This statistic does mean a thing. Private schools choose their students and from experience, there is no way a school would allow poor students to stay in year 12 since they will bring down that school’s average.

    This, of course, is a luxury that public schools do not have.

    I believe that studies have shown that a college has minimal effect on a student’s performance. so why pay $20,000? The only logical reason that I can think of is that private schools offer access to other up-and-coming talent which will help in the job market.

  8. Obviously, this stat says absolutely nothing either way about whether private schools do a better job than public schools – you’d have to be utterly ignorant of social science methods to think otherwise. Merely controlling for SES does not control for a host of other possible selection effects – there’s no way anyone can say whether the link is causal or not.
    Of course, if in fact private schools do a much better job at getting TERs for equivalent students than public ones, then this is a strong argument for affirmative action in uni entry for public school applicants.  They have got their TERs in spite of worse teaching, and so must have more talent, diligence, etc.  Or is that not what the private school boosters meant?

  9. People who pay whopping fees to private schools can in general be assumed to be interested in good educational outcomes like ATAR scores.  Parents wealthy enough to live in the areas served by, say, Balwyn, Camberwell, McKinnon high schools are also more likely than the average Victorian parent to be interested in ATAR scores as an outcome.  Isn’t parental occupation and income a better predictor of conventional academic success than the number of dollars paid to the owners of the secondary school they go to?  This was the argument to support the reintroduction of tertiary fees anyway – abolishing them resulted in no broadening of student socioeconomic background.  Middle-class academically-oriented parents produce middle-class academically oriented kids.  (Wonder if there’s a correlation between good ATAR scores and parental ownership of a German 4WD??)

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