Monday, 20 April 2015

Are independent schools value for money? (2015 Term 2 Week 1)

Welcome back to school for Term 2! I trust that you and your families enjoyed the break and that you are ready for the term ahead.

Last week a number of media outlets reported on a study drawing on data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children which apparently concluded that "Sending children to private or public school makes no difference to their educational development because the things that matter — such as birth weight, parent education and the time mothers spend with their children — have already been set in stone." The headlines attached to these reports used language like No benefit in private schools. These stories were also picked up in last night's 60 Minutes story, which was entirely unabashed in driving a public vs private agenda.

Naturally enough, this grabbed my attention; not only do I lead an independent school, but I also pay independent school fees as a parent. If there is no benefit in doing so, I need to know about it!

However, as is often the case, a bit of digging beyond the headlines reveals that the research is significantly more nuanced; the sub-editors' imperative of grabbing attention over-reaches (and sometime misrepresents) the more restrained and responsible research that has taken place. Unfortunately, as the study was published in the Labour Economics journal, which is not available to the general public, most of us do not have access to this more nuanced work.

The first thing to note is that the data used in the study only referred to the NAPLAN results for children who are involved in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. Whilst it is valuable information, as I have written before, NAPLAN provides a very narrow set of data; most parents are interested in a far broader range of issues to do with the learning and growth of their children. For what it is worth, the NAPLAN data indicates that, in both performance and growth, Inaburra students are doing well; you can check this assertion on the MySchool website.

The second note is that the data is only concerned with students in Years 3 and 5. As students move into high school a substantial gap appears (although this observation is based on raw data from the MySchool website, without controlling for socio-economic status or other variables). Other research indicates that, after controlling for students’ socioeconomic background and academic ability, the odds of university participation for independent school students are still twice that of government school students. Recent analysis of data collected for the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey (HILDA) shows that, having entered university, students educated at independent schools are almost three times more likely to graduate.

A third comment is that, while the study in question does not identify a difference in cognitive outcomes, it does identify a difference in non-cognitive outcomes such as social skills, which improved over time for students in non-government schools relative to the government schools.

As a matter of policy, I make a point of not disparaging any of the school education sectors. The preceding comments are intended to act as a corrective to misrepresentations about the data. In each of the three sectors (public, Catholic and independent) there are dedicated and professional teachers. In each sector there are schools doing a wonderful job of caring for children and preparing them for the years ahead. In each sector it is possible to get an excellent education.

In the end, each family will evaluate the wisdom of investing in an independent school education. I am less concerned with the opinions of the usual commentators with a public vs private axe to grind than I am with the experience of Inaburra students and their families. This is one of the reasons that we conduct our tri-ennial K-12 Parent Satisfaction Survey; it is a means of gaining data from Inaburra parents as to whether you are satisfied with your investment in an Inaburra education. I will be writing to parents in the near future with information about the parent satisfaction survey. When the survey is launched in a few weeks time, would you please make a priority of participating? Your input will be an invaluable aspect of our strategic planning process through the course of the year.

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