Every time data is released about enrolment numbers in public and private schools, it’s closely followed by a chorus of squawking about the latter being for the wealthy elite.
But Australia continues to have one of the world’s highest proportions of students attending non-government schools, and the notion of school choice is firmly embedded in our education system.
Why do so many Australian parents choose a non-government school?
In 2004, John Howard caused controversy by saying that more parents are choosing non-government schools because the government school system is “too politically correct and too values-neutral.”
The situation is more complicated these days. Parents often have several good reasons to send their kids to non-government schools, but the most important factor for many parents is the school’s values.
Government schools are not the default, impartial option when it comes to values. Just look at the government school programs Safe Schools and Respectful Relationships. Many parents — understandably and justifiably — don’t agree with the ideas being taught about sensitive topics, and avoid schools with programs like this.
These parents aren’t just making an expensive lifestyle choice; they’re doing what they think is best for their children’s development, by not exposing their kids to controversial content on gender and sexuality. This is their right as parents, because they — not the government — are primarily responsible for the well-being of their children.
Sometimes parents opt for a non-government school for other non-academic reasons, such as extra-curricular opportunities, or for academic reasons (although there are lots of high-performing government schools).
While the majority of parents make the judgement that the local government school is their best option, at the end of the day, parents know what’s best for their own kids.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data released last week showed a minor decrease in the proportion of students in non-government schools, from 34.6 per cent in 2016 to 34.4 per cent in 2017. This is still a much higher proportion than in most countries (the OECD average is about 14 per cent).
But the small decrease was enough to result in renewed calls from the usual quarters for an end to all government funding for non-government schools. We’re told that non-government schools are too rich and only cater to wealthy parents.
The truth is non-government schools generally don’t charge high fees, and also save taxpayers’ money, while often having more disadvantaged students than some government schools.
Most non-government schools charge fees well below $10,000 per year. In the Catholic school system, fees average around $2,000 and are much lower for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The existence of non-government schools saves a huge amount of government spending. For most non-government schools, the government funding they receive allows them to keep their fees sufficiently low to be affordable for middle-income or low-income.
Non-government schools don’t rely on the government to fund the full cost of a child’s education, as parents contribute directly through school fees. Furthermore, non-government schools receive less government funding if they are in richer areas, while government schools get the same base amount of funding regardless of location.
As a result, non-government schools mean less taxpayer money has to be spent — estimates range from $2 billion to $9 billion of savings per year. According to a new report from the Productivity Commission, federal and state governments combined spend over $7,000 more per student in government schools than in non-government schools.
Finally, government schools don’t always have more disadvantaged students than non-government schools. For example, the selective government schools in NSW actually have fewer disadvantaged students on average than even the ‘elite’ GPS schools. So sanctimonious lecturing about how non-government schools cause ‘social segregation’ fails the common sense test.
There is no need for ‘public school versus private school’ class warfare in Australia. All parents should be supported, no matter what school they choose.
Blaise Joseph is an education policy analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies.
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