Are Private Schools Really Better Than Public Schools?

  • Parents Only

It's one of the biggest decisions us parents will have to make. And yet for many of us, our bank balance will determine the choice for us. But should we feel guilty about sending our kids to public schools? And can private schools do anything for our children that we can't offer them at home? If your child has the desire, ability and motivation to succeed at school, does it matter if he is wearing a blazer? 

Full disclosure: I am going to send my children to public school. Even if I became a billionaire tomorrow my decision would not budge for many reasons of which I won't go into today.

The Private School Versus Public School Debate

So you may say reading the book Free Schools, how to get a good education for your kids without spending a fortune by David Gillespie was a futile waste of my time, like a chocoholic reading a study about how chocolate makes you live longer or become smarter. It changes nothing, except for making you feel a little more smug as you plow through your third dairy milk bar.

Yet, even though I have made my decision about schooling, the book gave me lots of insight into how I can improve the educational outcomes of my kids. It also made me feel a bit better about the money I will save as I discovered the growing body of research that proves you are no better off sending your child to private school than you are the local public school.

If you are on the fence about your decision I would encourage you to take a look at the book. It is incredibly detailed, yet accessible, and delves into the history of the Australian education system and explains why it is the way it is today.

If you don't have time to read it, don't worry, we've got you covered. Here are the main take-home messages of the book: 

Private Schools Do Not Yield Better Results

You may think that a private school is a one way ticket to a high ranking ATAR result but there is years and years of research that suggests this isn't the case. A 15 year study showed that public, private and Catholic schools produce the same results when comparing children from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.  What does matter, and what will have an impact on your child's education, is quality teachers and principals. And do you know what? They are found at public schools too. 

“Non-government schools do have more money than state schools and in some independent schools that money makes its way into the pockets of better performing teachers and more administration staff. But more commonly, all that extra dosh ends up in new buildings. Whatever’s happening to the dough, it isn’t changing educational outcomes at the individual level,” says David in the book. 

The grass might literally be greener at your private school, but what has that got to do with Jimmy's education? A great teacher can give Jimmy a fantastic education on a dirt patch. 

Single-Sex Classes Make No Difference

Oh, but I don't want Jimmy distracted by the fairer sex! Trust me, Jimmy has hormones and there's nothing you can do to protect him from that force of nature. And perhaps the people in his class are the distraction, anyway. Either way, there have been studies conducted around the world that prove there are no differences in academic performance between single-sex and co-ed schools. In Australia the WA Education Department implemented a pilot program in five public high schools commencing in 2006, but after three years of trials in Years 8 to 10 classrooms, they found there was “no conclusive evidence in any school to indicate that single-gender classrooms supported improved student outcomes”.

The Private School Pickle

School kids
Private school students at school. 

There have been several studies that have tried to work out why private school kids who did well in high school effectively bomb once they get to University. Of course, there are many factors to take into account, but the studies have suggested that the contrast between the advantage of private school attendance on university entrance scores at the end of year 12 and their disadvantage in first-year Uni is due to private schools 'artificially boosting' university entrance scores by intensive coaching. That's right, the coaching that was designed to get them into Uni. These kids struggle once they get into the real world because they now have to work more independently....

What are you Really Paying for?

The findings of these studies suggest that parents are effectively paying for something else other than education results by choosing a private school. They may be paying for a religious education, shiny new facilities and football fields, extracurricular options, social status or a future employment network. This of course is what they set out to do, just take a look at their brochures! But us parents should be under no illusion that this choice will deliver better education outcomes for our kids. Oh, and David debunks the 'old boy network' mentality that you might think will guarantee Jimmy strolls his way into a fancy job. With the way technology is changing the workforce, David believes that the 'who you know' card won't get you very far. As he says, computers don't care who you went to school with, they care about how well you can use them and work together with the rapidly changing technology. Your fancy blazer means nothing to them. 

You Cannot Pay for Your Child's IQ

Private school can cost your family hundreds of thousands of dollars, but if your child is naturally smart, why should you have to pay for an education they could technically get at home for free?

Genetically, IQ is not influenced by a person’s socioeconomic status, even if looks that way at the sandstone pick-up gates of private schools. 

Oh but Jimmy needs direction and support and extra-curricular activities to keep him on the straight and narrow, you say. Sure, that is fair. Again, this will be found in quality teaching and school leadership - which David believes can be found in public schools - if you do your research (he includes a comprehensive checklist in the book for 'school shopping'). As for the orchestral music your child needs to immersive themselves in, well that can be found at any school, and if not, after school tuition can be a lot cheaper than 12 years of private school fees. If your child has a high IQ then we implore you to nurture this at home. Read your child books (another thing which has been linked to academic success). Access to a library won't cost you a thing. Take them to museums, go on family holidays, simply spend time with them. Your private school teachers can be the rudder on your child's path to success, but nothing compares to the moral compass we get at home from our parents and caregivers.

The Naplan Myth

You might say the numbers don't lie but NAPLAN is a bit of a riddle wrapped in spreadsheet dressed in clever marketing. David believes it is misread by everyone so is largely meaningless as a measure of quality. He suggests you do not compare two schools by comparing their average performance of NAPLAN – as it can be like comparing apples and oranges. And then there is the whole uneven playing field of NAPLAN not being an indicator of your child's strengths or encouraging the 21st competencies that they will need for the future workforce. But that's a whole other ball game... 

What Actually Matters Most

Quality teaching is most definitely important. But do you know what matters most of all? YOU, the parent. You having an interest in your child's education and having high (but not unachievable) expectations is what delivers the greatest results time and time again. You are reading this so obviously you care, well done, you have given your child a huge advantage and put them on the best path for success, whether they think that right now or not! Let's hope they thank you one day...

Disclaimer: This article did not set out to knock private school (seriously!) - some of the greatest people I know came from a private school. It's just here to give you options. And let you know that just because the coffee tin says 'premium' on it, it doesn't mean it's the best one for you or your family. If you are still interested, check out David Gillespie's book here. I highly recommend you read it, whether you've made a decision about your child's school or not. 

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Oct 05 2023

I agree with the information that David has provided and his viewpoints on this ongoing debate. Back in the mid 70’s as a young university student on a scholarship courtesy of the Whitlam govt I met some private school students who couldn’t adapt to the demands of university life. One young man I met in first-year got drawn into the party scene to the detriment of his studies, He skipped most lectures and as a consequence had little to offer at tutorials. The temptations were too strong as he had no one enforcing his participation. He dropped out as a consequence. I felt I owed it to my family and high school teachers to give my coursework a ‘red hot go’. I was no saint but my scholarship didn’t go very far, so I couldn’t waste what little money I received or worked for between lecture times and on weekends. On reflection I realise that as a public school student and coming from a working class family I simply valued what I was given, which wasn’t only a small scholarship but most importantly an opportunity which I valued more than my party going friend could ever imagine. Overall the issue of which high school and which system you participated in during your high school years gradually evaporated over the first months of first year. As a parent of a child who attended a public high school and earns great results in her double degree, I am happy that I may have encouraged and supported her. She valued her public high school and achieved band 6 six results with the help of her public school teachers. What is presented to everyone in the media and social media about independent schools being superior to public high schools is complete nonsense. Young people can find success on matter how much their parents are willing or able to pay.


Mar 23 2023

What if the option is a poor performing government school with a lower socioeconomic background or a private school with a higher social economic background. Schools like this exist all over southwest of Sydney, unlike schools that fall into Sydney latte line. Your article only covers sameness but out in the southwest of Sydney this does not exist. There is little investment in new schools, public schools lack teachers or quality as they can get jobs in better performing schools as there pays are the same in the government system. It does not matter that private schoolkids perform poorly in there 1st year in university it matters that they are even in to perform poorly whereas a public school student wouldn't even get in.