This story appears in the(sydney)magazine, out today
When Susan Brown’s eldest child started at Cranbrook School a decade ago, the fees were about $10,000 a year. Now, with the last two of her four children still in the private school system at SCEGGS Darlinghurst, the fees are close to $30,000 – each. “The increase at both private schools has been relentless,” says Brown (not her real name), who calculates that her husband has had to earn $1.2 million before tax to pay for 28 years of school fees. The eldest two children sat the selective government high school exam but didn’t get a place. “Fees have doubled in real terms; this would have been a serious consideration if we had known this when we were starting out.”
That’s a lot of money – but no one gets sympathy whingeing about the cost of something that you can get for (almost) nothing at a government school. Although soaring fees are a favourite topic at many eastern suburbs dinner parties (see p45), the more interesting issue is whether the fees are worth it. Are parents getting value for money, or would their child be just as happy, successful and well-rounded at the local government high school?
First, some definitions. There are basically two sectors: government (public primary and high schools, including selective ones) and non-government (often called private schools). Within the non-government sector, there are Catholic schools and “independent” schools, which are not part of the Catholic system. It’s the elite, single-sex independent schools that capture all the headlines. Kambala, Cranbrook, SCEGGS Darlinghurst, The King’s School, The Scots College, Ascham School and the like. But hundreds of small independent schools – Christian, Jewish, Steiner, Islamic, non-denominational – have sprung up across Sydney over the past 30 years, after the relaxation of federal government funding rules. It has changed the picture dramatically: parents can now choose from about 450 independent schools across NSW, more than half with fewer than 200 students. About two-thirds are in areas of lower socio-economic status.
It’s this greater choice – plus other factors including dissatisfaction with the public school system – that has seen private school enrolments shoot up over the past decade. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Schools, Australia data from 2011 shows that more than a third (34.6 per cent) of NSW schoolchildren attend Catholic and independent schools, up from 31 per cent in 2000 and 21 per cent in 1970. For Sydney, the figures are even higher: 44 per cent of children are at private schools, with 26 per cent in the Catholic system and 18 per cent at independent schools. (The Sydney figures are from the 2006 census; they are likely to be higher when data from the 2011 census is released).
Clearly, parents are voting with their feet when it comes to selecting a school. What the data doesn’t show, however, is whether this stampede to the private system is a waste of money. Is spending up to $270,000 on education a good investment or are you better off, as one academic suggested, saving the money and paying for a full-fee university place? Or using it to expand the child’s education through travel? Or even setting them up in a business when they leave school?
“It’s worth every cent,” says one mother paying close to $30,000 for her daughter’s HSC year at Kambala. “Think about how much you pay for a lawyer or a plumber. Considering the quality of the teachers, the educational standards, the people they mix with and all you get, it’s an absolute bargain.” (She does, however, confess that she tries not to look at the invoices and she wonders how a school camp can cost $1000 to sleep in tents out in the bush.)
Of course, to judge value for money you have to look at why parents choose private schools in the first place. If their expectations are met, they’ll probably think the school is worth it. If the school lets them down in key areas that matter to them, they’ll resent every dollar. As one parent comments, “At [my son's private primary school] the principal seems to have the attitude that parents should ‘shut up or walk’. It’s almost like my son’s invisible. For that kind of money, it’s very disappointing.”
Another parent, with a daughter at MLC Burwood, believes the fees are good value: “My daughter does choir, chamber choir, concert band, debating and life drawing, all outside school hours. This level of commitment, you just don’t get that from a state school.”
Dr Helen Proctor, a lecturer in education at the University of Sydney, has had an in-depth look at the issue of school choice. In 2009, she interviewed 64 middle-class parents with children in year 7 at independent, Catholic and government schools. Overwhelmingly, she found that parents – whichever sector they chose – were most strongly influenced by the perceived social environment of the school. That cut both ways, however. One interviewee, for example, turned down her son’s partial scholarship to a top Sydney private school because she felt that his academic strength and family background meant that he’d do well in the public system, plus it would benefit his personal development to mix with less wealthy students. In other words, she, like most parents, didn’t want to hear her child whine that “everyone else” has a pony/is skiing at Aspen/had 50 children to their birthday party.
Proctor’s interviewees, when talking about the social environment of a school, were mostly talking about more nebulous concepts. “Values were a big thing for many parents, good social values,” she says. “And a lot wanted discipline, they were very worried about their kids being lead astray by bad kids, especially boys.”
Similar findings emerge from surveys by the NSW Parents’ Council, which represents parents at 116 independent schools. President Stephen Grieve says children thrive when there are clear rules and boundaries that are fairly enforced. “Government school principals are often not given the level of authority that is really essential; they report to a very big educational bureaucracy that runs things from afar,” he says. “There’s so much regulation now it’s often difficult for [public system] teachers to construct a regime where a reasonable level of discipline can be maintained.”
Grieve and Proctor both say parents also judge a school’s social environment on how well it develops their child, by exposing them to a wide range of ideas and experiences.
“The feedback we get is that parents feel [private schools] have a greater focus on developing things like leadership skills and exploring the talents of the individual child, as well as forming successful relationships with others,” says Grieve. But he points out that research shows that one of the main contributors to the success of kids in school is parental engagement – with the school and with the child and their education. “It doesn’t matter which system you’re in; you can’t just send your child off to a school and sit back and fold your arms.”
Susan Brown – despite questioning the value of sending her youngest child to SCEGGS in year 5 (her other daughters went in year 7) – says overall the cost has been worthwhile. “The girls are pretty confident in their own skin, inclusive, considerate, appreciative of creativity in its many forms and fun loving. Did we buy those attributes? To a certain extent we did.” And, even though she describes her son’s experience at Cranbrook as “not great” and possibly not good value for the money spent, she emails back to add a softener: “He formed some terrific friendships with really well-rounded boys who all have an attitude to life that is egalitarian, open to challenges and warm to their fellow man.”
There’s another element to the social environment of a school that parents are often reluctant to acknowledge: the racial mix. During Proctor’s interviews with parents, she says there were plenty of coded references to “a particular group” being dominant. “They were not so worried if the dominant group was Anglo, but many were worried if it was, for example, Lebanese or Islander,” she says. “There was a different worry if the dominant group was east Asian – would their child fit in, what if they didn’t come top of the class?” (A reminder that Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High schoolgirl character Ja’mie, who describes herself as the “smartest non-Asian” at her school, is not entirely fictional.)
This controversial topic was examined in research by Christina Ho, a senior lecturer in the faculty of arts and social sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her findings, published last May in the Australian Review of Public Affairs, suggested what she called “a clear pattern of cultural polarisation” because public schools – including the high-achieving selective ones – were increasingly viewed as ethnic ghettoes. “There is a growing unofficial creed among Australian parents that a good school for their children is one where minorities are in the minority,” she wrote.
Few parents – and none interviewed for this story – will confess to having such thoughts. But the My School data analysed by Ho shows extraordinary disparities in the percentages of students at various schools having a language background other than English (LBOTE).
Examples include Ravenswood with a LBOTE score of 13 per cent while nearby Killara High School scored 45 per cent; and Queenwood’s 10 per cent LBOTE score compared with nearby Mosman High School’s 26 per cent. Overall, Ho found that (continued page 44) government schools had an average LBOTE score of 52 per cent, Catholic schools had 37 per cent and independent schools had 18 per cent.
The most startling statistics came from the top-performing selective government high schools. James Ruse Agricultural High School, which topped last year’s HSC results for the 15th straight year, has a LBOTE of 97 per cent. North Sydney Boys High School has 90 per cent and its female equivalent 93 per cent (nearby Wenona has 5 per cent). In the eastern suburbs, Sydney Boys High School has a LBOTE score of 91 per cent and Sydney Girls High School has 88 per cent.
The other big factor influencing parents’ school selection – and therefore their views as to whether they are getting value for money in the private sector – is the quality of the teachers. It isn’t so much about the top-level teachers, but more about the worst-performing teachers and the school’s ability to improve their skills – or get rid of them.
“If teachers are not performing to their true potential that will be dealt with in the private system,” says Stephen Grieve, of the NSW Parents’ Council. “In government schools, [principals'] hands are often tied. There is no question there are many, many fine teachers in the government sector, but the weakness is there is a cultural reluctance within government to deal with the non-performers.”
That said, the NSW government has announced sweeping reforms to give school principals more control and pay teachers based on their performance rather than years of experience.
John Smith (not his real name) is a reluctant advocate of the private school system. In 2011 his son had the year from hell at a well-regarded non-selective government high school on the upper north shore. The list of problems sounds like a Chris Lilley comedy: a teacher who regularly fell asleep in class and smoked on the balcony; English taught by three different teachers, including one for only a period a fortnight; a bullying issue dealt with by putting the two children in a room together to apologise to one another; a mix-up concerning which children were meant to be doing an extension program, which was only remedied after six weeks.
What annoys Smith most is that his family sold a house they loved and paid $60,000 in stamp duty to move into the zone for that school. “We did years of analysis and costing, we went to open days at all the private schools, talked to alumni, and we felt the environment at [the school] was as good as any private school,” says Smith, who has now sent his son to a co-ed Steiner school, costing about $14,000 a year. “My biggest problem with [the high school] was their sales pitch. They made out they were something they were not – desperate to compete with private schools they gave the impression they provided all the features … but they didn’t have the funding to deliver. The private system can attract and retain better talent because they are not tied to a government salary structure, conditions and promotions hierarchy. They can also get rid of underperformers.”
Smith is still very upset at the school’s inadequate responses to his complaints. The flip side is that many parents in the private system expect their child’s school to be responsive to any issue. “Parents are making a choice to pay for something they could get for free,” says Geoff Newcombe, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of NSW. “We’re in a consumer society – whether they pay $25,000 or $2000 they expect value for money.”
Says one mother with three children at top Sydney private schools: “Because I’m paying, I really feel like I’d better get good customer service and I think the schools feel that way, to
.o.” Her eldest went to a public school for three years, and she used to sometimes wait at the school gate trying to catch a teacher for a quick chat. “Now, at [her daughter's private school] I have everyone’s email addresses and I know I’ll get a response that day. The school, and the teachers, are very accountable and very focused on delivering a high-quality product.”
For many of the big schools, that “high-quality product” includes top-notch facilities. Websites can sound like real estate pitches: Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College describes its “manicured lawns and colourful gardens”; Shore talks of having “one of the finest ovals in Sydney”; and Loreto Kirribilli has “a beautiful Sydney harbourside site”. Then there are the extensive co-curricular activities: perhaps a basketball tour to the US at Knox Grammar School, or a term at the Redlands “winter school” campus at Jindabyne.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, none of the parents interviewed for this story said the facilities or co-curricular activities were a big part of their “is it worth it?” assessment. Instead, as Proctor found in her survey, they were far more focused on the social environment of the school and its effect on their child’s character and happiness. Although academic success certainly counted (see p43), parents tended to think the fees were worth it if their child was developing into a decent, well-rounded adult with similar friends.
Perhaps the value for money equation is best summed up by this parent – a very successful product of a government school education – who is paying fees of almost $27,000 at Redlands: “That is so hard to judge. But what you are banking on is that the experience stays with them for life. You’re hoping that if your child is challenged in any area there will be exceptional efforts [by the school] to overcome it, which we have experienced. The opportunities of a private school are terrific, but ultimately it comes down to the individual to thrive in their environment, whether it’s a private school or a state school. Are they better people? You hope so, but that’s the lottery of life.”
The Gonski Report
For parents, there’s a simple message from the Gonski report on schools funding, released in February: don’t hold your breath. While the report has been widely praised for its recommendations to boost education funding by $5 billion and to establish a base funding rate per student (plus loadings for disadvantage), the federal government’s response has been muted and no changes are expected any time soon.
If the Gonski action plan does see the light of day, government schools will receive 100 per cent of the base funding rate per student (called the schooling resource standard) and non-government schools will receive a minimum 20-25 per cent of the standard. At present, non-government schools receive public funding based on the average wealth
of the suburbs where their students live (although some schools get more because then prime minister John Howard guaranteed no school would be worse off under this model than they were before).
The upshot is that fees at some of the wealthier private schools could rise if their government funding reduces under the Gonski plan. Poorer private schools, especially those with large numbers of disadvantaged students, should get more government funding under Gonski’s formula. And government schools will get the bulk of the extra $5 billion, to deliver funding for every child to have a high-quality education. That’s the theory, anyway.
It’s a lay down misere. If academic results are your number-one priority, Sydney’s top selective government high schools are your best bet. Last year, nine of the top 10 spots for HSC results were filled by selective public schools. Moriah College, a Jewish co-educational school in Queens Park, waved a solitary flag for non-government schools, in ninth spot.
For some parents, however, the selective school system is not their thing – even if their child is bright enough to get a spot. Dr Helen Proctor, a lecturer in education at the University of Sydney, says her research on school choice shows that parents worry about the schools being academic hothouses, with a lot of private coaching for students to pass the entrance exam, and little focus on anything other than academic success. Stephen Grieve, the president of the NSW Parents’ Council, agrees that “well-roundedness” is more important for many parents. “Absolutely, HSC results are important, but they are not the be all and end all. Selective schools might get higher results but there’s a broader educational issue here. What we don’t measure on HSC scores is all those extracurricular activities that take place.”
Of course, few parents would be happy to fork out a small fortune on their child’s education and have them fail the HSC – as well-rounded as they may be from choir, debating, rugby, rowing and cadets. But below the top 10, the top 50 schools for the 2011 HSC results were overwhelmingly from the non-government sector. Independent schools, particularly, punched above their weight in terms of students on the all-round achievers and distinguished achievers lists, as a percentage of overall candidates.
HSC results are not the only measure of academic performance, however.
Some of the most comprehensive data on academic strength by school sector comes from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment, which tests 15 year olds in 65 countries in reading, maths and science literacy.
The most recent Australian PISA results, for 2009, show that, on average, students from independent schools achieved “significantly higher” results than students in Catholic or government schools. And students in Catholic schools achieved, on average, significantly higher results than those in government schools. For example, the top level of reading literacy was reached by 22 per cent of independent school students, 14 per cent of Catholic school students and 10 per cent of government school students. Conversely, 19 per cent of government school students were at the lower end of reading literacy, compared with 8 per cent in the Catholic sector and 5 per cent from independent schools.
“The bald results show there are differences between the three sectors and that’s not surprising given the [HSC] results,” says Dr Sue Thomson, who runs Australia’s PISA program for the Australian Council for Educational Research. She notes, however, that the report concludes that: “Once differences in students’ socio-economic background were taken into account, there were no longer any statistically significant differences.”
As to what this actually means, Thomson explains that if children from medium socio-economic backgrounds are educated in a school with a similar socio-economic profile, their results are likely to be similar in a government, Catholic or independent school. It doesn’t mean that children from a high or low socio-economic background will get the same academic results no matter where they go.
“It’s the kid’s background and the school background combined,” says Thomson. “The family background has some effect, but it’s the pooled resources of the school that has the bigger effect. It’s about what that pooled background can purchase – the principal has more buying power and will attract better teachers and resources.”
Costs and fees
If you’re planning to send your child to one of Sydney’s elite independent schools, and you’ve got a figure in mind of about $20,000 a year, think again. Tuition fees at some of the most expensive independent schools are now more than $25,000 for year 7 and creeping towards $30,000 for year 12. The King’s School, for example, charges $25,068 for year 7 and $27,396 for year 12. Cranbrook is even more expensive, at $26,421 for year 7 and $28,251 for year 12.
As a general rule, Catholic schools are more affordable. Loreto Kirribilli, for example, charges “only” $12,825 for year 7 and $14,145 for year 12. But prestigious Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview, has edged up close to some of the independent schools, charging $19,400 for year 7 and $21,090 at year 12.
Of course, the explosion of smaller independent schools means there are plenty of so-called “low fee” schools. Geoff Newcombe, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of NSW, defines low fee as less than $7000 per year, high fee as more than $15,000 and mid fee as anything in between. He says the global economic ructions of the past few years have meant mid-fee schools have lost some enrolments to low-fee schools – but the high-fee school enrolments have been unaffected.
On top of the tuition fees, there are plenty of extras. The costs start with the fee to put your child on the waiting list – about $200-$300 at the elite schools. Then there’s another fee or two – for enrolment, entrance or acceptance – of about $3000-$6000.
Once your child is finally at the school, the bills don’t stop with the annual tuition fee. There are uniforms, sports uniforms, IT charges ($1050 at Cranbrook), camps, excursions, outdoor education levies ($936 at Knox), surcharges for doing the IB (International Baccalaureate) rather than HSC ($3850 at Redlands) and charges for co- curricular activities such as music and drama. And don’t forget voluntary contributions to building, library and scholarship funds, often added to the bill on an “opt-out” basis. Saint Ignatius’ College, for example, suggests a building fund donation of $1200, while Loreto Kirribilli says the “usual” voluntary contribution is $900 per family.
“Now that I add it up, which I’ve never done, it’s a truckload,” says one father who is forking out $26,740 for Redlands tuition fees plus another $2400 for co- curricular activities not to mention $13,950 for his son to spend a term at the school’s winter campus at Jindabyne.
This year, the Australian Scholarships Group (ASG) released an estimate of how much schools cost on average, based on a survey of 14,000 of its members. The figures include tuition fees, uniform, travel, computers, books and extra-curricular activities. For Sydney, the annual cost of a child to attend a government secondary school was $4360; a Catholic school was $11,518 and an independent school was $24,376.
ASG also calculated the total cost of secondary schooling for a child who will start year 7 in 2020. A government high school will cost $34,990; a Catholic school $121,244 and an independent school as much as $272,522.
That last figure seems mind-bogglingly high, but bear in mind that private school fees have soared over the past decade, rising an average 6-7 per cent a year. What really upsets parents, however, is the little charges.
One parent with children at two independent schools resents the automatic $60 charge from each school for a copy of the school magazine. She’s also at a loss to understand why she has to pay $25 per term for accident insurance, when she’d expect it to be part of the school’s insurance. And she’s furious that one of the schools charges $110 for late payment of tuition fees. “That,” she says, “really gets up my nose.”
When Anna Jones finally got around to applying for a year 7 place for her daughter, she was immediately offered spots at two elite eastern suburbs girls’ schools. Her daughter was 12 and it got Jones (not her real name) wondering just how long the waiting lists really are at some schools. “I hardly know anyone who hasn’t got in [to the school of their choice],” she says.
Dr Helen Proctor, a lecturer in education at the University of Sydney, says waiting lists can be a source of great stress to parents. In her 2009 interviews with 64 middle-class parents with children in year 7 at independent, Catholic and government schools, Proctor found that many were frustrated and anxious about the lack of transparency in waiting lists and the selection process.
Geoff Newcombe, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of NSW, agrees it can be frustrating, but says schools are juggling many factors, including parents putting their child’s name down at several schools and students switching schools. “Waiting lists are very fluid,” he says. “Certain schools in certain areas are very difficult to get into.” But, he adds, when it comes to crunch time, and the final fee for a confirmed place is due (usually two years before commencement), most parents will only pay for one school, so spots free up at others they’re on the waiting list for.
Another parent points out that being flexible helps. For example, her daughter’s school has just one prep class, so only 22 girls will get a spot. Parents who wait until upper primary or secondary school, when each year level has several classes, or until mid-year, when students sometimes leave, increase the chances of their child getting a place.
The school revolution
The state government has announced sweeping education reforms, beginning
this month and to be completed by 2015.
The key changes proposed are:
- School principals to be given control of 70 per cent of their funding budget, including choice of teachers.
- Teachers’ salaries will be linked to performance rather than number of years’ experience.
- Staff will be paid more to work in remote and disadvantaged areas and 600 categories of funding will be reduced to two: staff and equipment. Principals can use funding from the equipment budget to pay for additional teachers but cannot use staffing funds for other purposes.
- Schools can buy supplies and services from local companies without going through head office.
Are private schools worth the money? Add your voice to the debate by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org