Schools out – public or private that is the question

2 Sep 2016

The decision to send your child to either a private school or a public school is one Australian parents have tussled with for generations. Once upon a time it was arguably split along perceptions of class or socio-economic lines, as well as firm beliefs around academic performance and proper religious instruction. But, do the old prejudices still hold sway? Or, as the years have gone by, and the public education system has improved in leaps and bounds, are more and more Australians less concerned with perceptions of status? Is this changing to perhaps a modern perception that public schools offer a more “well-rounded education”?

As part of Real Insurance’s ongoing efforts to unearth changing contemporary standards, we have turned our attention to the education system itself, surveying 1000 parents about what they think represents the best education for their child and why. And while many people still hold strong opinions on the subject, the results might just surprise you…

Turns out, it’s not all blazers and ‘old-boys’

Curious as to why parents elect to send their kids to a private school, we asked them to rate a selection of potential motivations. Rated highest, as drivers for sending their kids to a private school, were ‘personal development’ (69% Major role), ‘level of discipline’ (69% Major role) and ‘standard of education/teachers’ (66% Major role). What appeared to be less important was whether the school was co-educational (22% Major role), whether it ‘offered parents a social network’ (18% Major role), or if they considered private school a ‘status symbol’ (15% Major role).

A major divide in opinion arose when we asked both private and public-leaning parents what they thought motivated parents to send their children to a private institution: almost two-thirds of private school parents listed ‘academic results’ and ‘standard of education/teachers’ as key, while around half of public school parents believed the reasons for private school parents had more to do with ‘status’ and ‘religion’. Interestingly though, when private school parents were asked the same question about how much ‘status’ played into their decision, less than four out of ten considered it to be a driver.

Amongst all parents, at 9.1 out of 10, ‘educational standard’ was rated highest overall in terms of the most important aspect of any child’s schooling, followed by ‘personal development/life preparedness’ and ‘academic results’. However, curiously, it was actually the public school parents who rated these criteria as of higher importance. Meanwhile, when it came down to considerations such as ‘discipline’ and ‘traditional values’, the split between private school and public school parents over level of importance was 4.5 v 3.4 and 3.5 v 1.9 respectively. Parents with children at private schools also listed ‘teaching/encouraging religion’ (2.3) and the ‘future professional network for child’ (2.1) as more important than their public school counterparts, which could suggest that expectations for these parents fall across a broader range of attributes.

When private school parents were asked if they’d consider sending any of their kids to a public school, only one in seven said they’d ‘strongly consider’ it. Meanwhile, half said they ‘might’. Of these two groups, their reasoning mainly came down to the expensive fees, but others said it really depended on the child and their motivations to learn. A proportion also said they regarded public schools in their area simply being better. That said, a third wouldn’t consider moving their kids to a public school at all – and their reasons included ‘poor discipline’ and wanting a school with a ‘focus on religion’.

The favoured child

Nearly a third of private school parents surveyed admitted to having to make a decision over which of their children went to a private school – with 54% citing ‘financial reasons’ and 12.2% unsure of their child’s ‘religious affiliation’.

Personal experience

Respondents were also quizzed over how their own personal attendance at either a private or public school assisted them in life – over half (51%) of the private schoolers ranked their schooling as a great help when instilling ‘values, morals and character’. But as for whether it resulted in a better ‘financial position’ later in life, only 22% claimed their private schooling helped.

Interestingly, when it came down to choosing a particular private school for their child the main considerations appeared to be a close mix between school heritage and geographic practicality: ‘reputation’ (70%) and ‘location’ (60%). And in general, private school parents were satisfied when it came to the level of schooling – ‘overall education’ (65% satisfied to a large degree), ‘quality of teaching’ (62%) and ‘personal development’ (62%). This was consistent with the ‘value for money’ question, where 81% of private school parents rated value as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’.

For better or for worse

Curiously, while private school parents almost unanimously believe the standard of private institutions to have either improved or remained the same over the last three decades, a small percentage (3%) assess their own child’s private school as ‘poor’ and believed that the quality had actually dropped in the last 30 years. In that small fraction of dissatisfied private school parents, their reasons were mainly around expensive costs, large class sizes, lapsed teaching standards and issues with their children’s moral development.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a contemporary society, co-educational private schools are now overwhelmingly seen as preferable – three-quarters of private school parents believe that having boys and girls together in the same school is the best arrangement.

As for beliefs around when is the best time for a child to start at a private school, nearly two-thirds judged it to be as early as kindergarten or primary school, while the remaining third nominated high school.

Hurting the hind pocket

But what about the financial sacrifice? In terms of how much money private school parents spend on their children’s education, some of the results were startling – almost a third allocate at least 20% of their income – and in fact, almost the same amount of private school parents saw this as a ‘big financial sacrifice’. Unsurprisingly then, half of all people in this category made compromises by reducing their expenditure in other areas such as entertainment spending, eating out and holidays.

For some, the sacrifice is even greater, where they are forced to either work additional jobs (16%), take out loans (6%) or even re-mortgage their homes to cover private school fees (4%). Additionally, a third admitted that other family members have pitched in to assist with paying fees.

That said, half of private school parents surveyed saw the investment as ‘considerable, but manageable’. Only one in six private school parents deemed private school fees as ‘only a small financial sacrifice.’

Interestingly, almost one in seven of respondents claimed to have placed their child on a waiting list for a private school, only for the enrolment to not go ahead (with an average of $522 lost). This is driven by one in five private school parents (21%) who are most likely to have had their children on multiple private school waiting lists.

The public perception

In order to gain a better understanding over the motivations behind why people chose to send their children to public schools instead, we asked a range of similar questions. Namely, perceptions over whether public schools have either improved/stayed the same or worsened. Interestingly, nearly nine out of ten public school parents believe the former, while only just over one in ten think standards have deteriorated – and some of the reasons they cited were ‘low teaching standards’, ‘lack of values’, ‘bullying’ and other ‘inappropriate behaviour’.

Quite tellingly, when surveying both private and public school parents over which school system benefits children most in a range of areas – namely, ‘fostering a good network of friends’, ‘development of social skills’, ‘academic results’, ‘career opportunities’, ‘better manners’ and ‘discipline’ – the private school parents were far more adamant about the superiority of their chosen institutions across all areas. However, while public school parents conceded private schools might offer an advantage, they disagreed with the first two – believing public schools achieve greater results when it came to ‘fostering a good network of friends’ and ‘social skills’.

Everyone hates homework… or do they?

Across the board – among both private and public school parents and at a ratio of 19% to 12% respectively – around one in seven kids receive additional private tutoring outside of school, with both sets of parents almost unanimously spotting definitive improvement in their children’s academic performance as a consequence. Not only that, but almost eight out of ten public school parents are confident that additional private tutoring ‘bridged the gap’ to a private school education.

That said, over two thirds of parents acknowledged tutoring as an expense that amounted to one tenth of their total income. Similar to private schooling, nearly one in five of parents regarded tutoring as a ‘big financial sacrifice’ – one which regarded juggling of their household budget. Four out of 10 viewed it as ‘considerable but manageable’.

When it came to hours spent doing homework, it varied between the subsets – private school kids were perceived to do ten hours per week compared with 6.9 hours per week for public school kids. However, while over eight out of ten of parents said they regularly help their child with their homework (3.3 hours on average per week), the public school parents appeared to commit more time (3.5 hours) compared to the private school parents (3.2 hours).

Levels of parental guilt over not spending enough time assisting with homework were equal across both types of parents, with 58% feeling at least ‘somewhat guilty’. Interestingly, public school parents were slightly more likely to feel ‘very guilty’ (10% vs. 8%) about not assisting their children further, suggesting that parents with children at private school feel less guilty because of their investment in school fees. And as for the reasons why parents wouldn’t help their children with homework, the reasons most often cited were ‘they don’t need my help’ (42%) and ‘work commitments’ (39%).

An apple for the teacher

Whether or not parents blame the teacher for poor academic performance of their child fielded some revealing results – across both groups, 57% said they’d hold teachers ‘somewhat accountable’. However, 27% of private school parents said they were more likely to judge their children’s teachers as ‘largely accountable’.

That said, there was a general respect and admiration for the vocation of teaching and an acknowledgement it was underrated by society – all but nine out of ten respondents believe teaching should be honoured as a ‘highly esteemed professional position’. Not only that, nearly two thirds believe teachers are not paid enough.

Overall, Australia’s education system scores a solid B+

As for perceptions around the performance and overall health of the Australian public education system, virtually three quarters of parents believe it works relatively well, but could be improved if there was (in order) ‘additional funding’, ‘better discipline’, a focus on ‘higher teaching standards’ and ‘better facilities’.

Those surveyed were also presented with a range of statements in relation to values learned at school and asked to which ones they agreed with most. The claim given the highest endorsement by respondents was that ‘values learned at school will help shape values for life’ – with a slight skew towards private school parents (92% vs 88%). The idea that ‘teaching religious values at school is important’ was split as expected – six out of ten private school parents agreed, while only a third of public school parents also agreed.

However, the largest disagreement between private and public school parents – and again rather revealingly – was the assertion that ‘public schools are more representative of local communities so students are more likely to value inclusiveness and be supportive of others’ – less than half of private school parents agreed with this statement, while over three quarters of public school parents supported it.

Final marks

So sifting through all this, what do we surmise? Well, for a start, it’s clear fewer Australians who send their children to private schools do so for old-fashioned class perceptions – and many of them even see it as a financial strain.

Among both private and public school parents there seems to be a mutual acknowledgement that both school types offer good opportunities and different benefits, depending on their values. However, perhaps the most optimistic insight to emerge out of the survey is that the standing of the humble teacher is one which deserves to be more recognised in our society… and that’s something that surely every Australian can get behind.

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