When I was 12 years old my parents gave me a choice. I could stay at the leafy-green Perth private school I’d cracked into that year on an academic scholarship, or move to a selective public school.
At the time, I shrugged my shoulders: I liked where I was, but wondered what a change might bring. In a decision that felt like a coin toss, I went down the public school path.
My decision was not guided by whether I might ultimately earn more as the graduate of a public, rather than a private, school. But that is a preoccupation for aspirational parents who often pay huge premiums to send their children to private schools, ranging from relatively lower-fee Catholic system schools to exclusive institutions charging more than $45,000 a year. The huge cost many families are willing to cop suggests there are benefits to kids attending private school.
Is it worth it? A 2021 University of New England study found no difference in academic performance between children attending public and private schools – as measured by the national literacy and numeracy assessment program (NAPLAN) – once adjusting for socioeconomic background.
But Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research associate professor Gary Marks found students who went to a private school achieved ATAR ranks five or six points higher than those who went to a public school.
“There is an incremental benefit, beyond that of socioeconomic status, of going to a private school, to an independent school, followed by Catholic schools, followed by government schools,” he said.
One thing I remember clearly from my year at a private school is the taste of raisin toast (coated in butter because 12-year-old me didn’t like raisins). Most days after school, a building would be opened up with space for studying, teachers sticking around to answer questions, and an unlimited amount of raisin toast. Then, the library would be open late into the evening.
After moving to Western Australia’s only selective school the library hours were shorter, study sessions were small and sparse and there was no raisin toast in sight – despite the school’s drive to foster academic performance. Resourcing at public schools often falls short of private schools, which can make educational support less accessible.
Families earning higher incomes can supplement this with private tutoring, but it’s often the students at public schools, whose parents are less likely to have the means to provide that support, who are doubly disadvantaged. Even something as trivial as providing food after school can make it easier for vulnerable students, who would otherwise have to study on an empty stomach.
The discrepancy in support for students at private and public schools, and those from lower and higher income families, can affect their educational performance, confidence and future earnings capacity.
A study by Curtin University’s National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education found Australians who attended Catholic schools experienced an hourly wage premium of about 10 per cent, and that those who attended other private schools enjoyed a premium of about 15 per cent, compared to those who went to a government school. Researchers attributed this to the greater levels of educational attainment in private schools.
Some researchers noted the gap could be a reflection of private schools fostering soft skills and making it easier for students to develop personal networks to help with their job prospects.
Parents at private schools often work in higher-income professions, meaning children who go to private schools have more opportunity to network with key decision makers and those in high-income professions across areas such as business and law – even if it’s as simple as meeting a friend’s mother who is the boss of a major company at the afternoon pick-up.
We need to make it easier for students at public schools to be connected with people across industries, in different professions. Perhaps starting on a small scale, state governments could run a portal that connects public school students with industry professionals, who volunteer to mentor them.
It’s also important for students to have access to extracurricular activities such as sport and debating, which not only pad out CVs, but help develop skills, confidence and connections. It’s easier for students to partake in these opportunities when they’re offered by schools, but we need to make sure lower-income families at public schools can give their kids the opportunity to participate, even if their school cannot provide it.
Local sports teams and music lessons are costly. If we’re not willing to level out funding between private and public schools so that both can offer a range of extracurricular activities, we should offer more generous nationwide subsidies. The Active Kids voucher in NSW, valued at $50, barely scratches the surface if we want meaningful access to extracurriculars such as sport.
When I look back to my school years, extracurriculars were some of the most valuable opportunities. Debating helped me become a more confident public speaker and playing soccer made me a better team player – not just on the field, but more generally.
The extracurricular options were greater at the private school I went to, but I was lucky to go to a relatively well-off public school that offered more than most, and to have a family that could pay for me to continue pursuing opportunities outside of school when I moved.
The choice I made when I was 12 – between private and public schooling – may not have been a game changer for me. But there’s inequality within and beyond the schooling system, which we need to address if we want kids to reach their potential.
Millie Muroi is a Herald business reporter.
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