February 21, 2022


In Australia, around 30% of primary and 40% of secondary school children attend a private, or independent, school. School fees vary widely, depending on the type of private school and the different sectors that govern them. Catholic schools generally cost less than independent schools where families can pay fees of more than $40,000 per year.

Despite the term “independent school”, all schools in Australia receive government funding. On average, Catholic schools receive around 75% and independent schools around 45% of their funding from state and federal governments.

Research shows parents believe private schools will provide a better education for their children, and better set them up for success in life. But the evidence on whether this perception is correct is not conclusive.

What does the research say about academic scores?

Our recent study showed NAPLAN scores of children who attended private schools were no different to those in public schools, after accounting for socioeconomic background.

These findings are in line with other research, both in Australia and internationally, which shows family background is related both to the likelihood of attending a private school and to academic achievement.

While there may appear to be differences in the academic achievement of students in private schools, these tend to disappear once socioeconomic background is taken into account.

An analysis of 68 education systems (mainly countries, but some countries only include regions which are known as “education systems”) participating in the 2018 Programme for International Assessment (PISA) tests showed attendance at private schools was not consistently related to higher test performance.

The OECD report says:

On average across OECD countries and in 40 education systems, students in private schools […] scored higher in reading than students in public schools ([…] before accounting for socio-economic profile)[…] However, after accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile, reading scores were higher in public schools than in private schools […]

Do private schools improve student achievement over time?

Another argument used to support Australia’s growing private school sector is the idea private schools actually add value to a child’s education. This means attending a private school should boost students’ learning trajectories over and above what they might have achieved in a public school.

Our research is the first to examine whether students differ in learning trajectories across the four NAPLAN test years (3, 5, 7 and 9) depending on the school type they attended.

We compared the NAPLAN scores of students who attended a public school, a private school and those who attended a public school in years 3 and 5 and then a private school in years 7 and 9. The students in the latter group scored highest in reading and numeracy tests in each of the four NAPLAN test years.

This group outperformed students who attended private schools at all years, and students who attended public schools at all years. But there was no evidence that making the switch to a private school added to students’ learning growth.

These high-performing students were already achieving the highest results in public school before they left for private school in year 7.

This suggests private schools may be be enrolling the highest achievers from public primary schools.

Other analyses in our paper showed that once socioeconomic background of these students was taken into account, apparent achievement differences between school sectors were no longer present.

The other interesting point is that there were no differences in achievement trajectories between the groups. So, making the switch to private schools in year 7 did not affect the gains students were making in NAPLAN over time. Students in public schools made just as much progress as their peers who attended private schools.

This undermines claims private schools add value to students’ academic growth.

What about other private school benefits?

Some Australian research has shown students who attend private schools are more likely to complete school and attend university, and tend to attain higher rankings in university entrance exams. Indeed, the recent announcements of NSW students’ HSC results showed almost three-quarters of the 150 top-ranked schools were independent.

The concentration of higher-achieving students in private schools could also magnify any peer effects on students’ decisions about future career paths or attending university.

Nonetheless the research on these questions is not definitive: it is very difficult to separate out the effects of background characteristics of students and the effects of the school sector given that more advantaged students tend to concentrate in private schools.

Some Australian research has shown the characteristics of students before they enter private schools have a larger effect on their aspirations, behaviour and attitudes than the school.

Rethinking the system?

While the capacity for parents to choose a school that best suits their child is often seen as an advantage, many disadvantaged families are a lot more constrained in their ability to choose, and pay for, private schools.

Students attending private schools may have access to other non-academic benefits, such as more opportunities for sports, excursions and other extracurricular activities.

But in terms of academic advantage, we know, from our research and other studies that explored similar questions, there is little evidence to show independent schools offer any. It is likely children will do equally well in any school sector.The Conversation

Sally Larsen, PhD candidate, Education & Psychology, University of New England and Alexander Forbes, PhD Candidate in Psychology, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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  • My children have been to both private and public.
    They’ve had great teachers and distracted teachers in both schools. However at private they both have under 20 kids in their classes. The private school is in a fantastic location to our house and both seem to be doing better, more engaged than previously. The private school also runs from prep to year 12, so they will never have to move again, fingers crossed!!


  • 100% agree
    All teachers come from the same learning background in uni. For some it’s a religion thing, others it’s the reputation of the school, and cost


  • I’ve always said private or public school is irrelevant, if the kids want to learn, they’ll do it at either. Personally I think private schools are mainly chosen so the parents can say “my children go to private school”

    • I feel this way too. I don’t actually think my son is any worse off going to a public school


  • I had both of my children one in State High School and the other in a private school and academically they had the same good points as bad both schools had good and bad areas in the other areas as well. The only reason my child went to the private school was that they got more assistance where it was needed.


  • I’m not surprised by this nor the comments of others.
    Personally, I believe my child has better opportunity for learning at the independent school they are at because of class size (14 in her class in yrs 5 &6) and the nature of her peers. I also pay for the ease of having her at this school given its location. It is incidental that the school is the only one in top 100 in NSW in our area- despite there being numerous other independent schools. I have no doubt this is because the school seeks out and provides incentives for academically gifted students, skewing the results.
    In the end, I like the schools ethos and core values.


  • I believe if the child wants to learn it won’t matter which school they attend, they will do well and not everyone can afford Private School fees.


  • I’ve always believed that a child that puts in the effort will achieve the same results at a public school as they would at a private one. I personally think it would be better to spend money on a tutor & other educational tools rather than expensive school fees.


  • I strongly believe it isnt the school yet the child and what they do themselves to get the best out of their education


  • Many factors come into this rather than just the school they go to.


  • I think so many factors contribute to a child getting good grades or simply doing well. Not just the school they attend


  • In my opinion this isn’t considering the low ses areas like the fringes of the outer west. The public schools out there don’t have equal opportunities or outcomes. I live there.


  • I’ve always thought that the effort the parents put in is a big factor too. Making sure they do homework, reading to them from a young age etc. Teaching them in everyday situations too like counting their blueberries or reading signs.


  • I do feel it does depend on the child. My children went to public school and they have done fine in their chosen careers. I feel parents try to do the best for their children but I’ve know some private school kids do really well and some that don’t. We always spent time helping our children with their school work and encouraging them with their hobbies and activities out of school and I have to say it worked well for them. It all depends on the child.


  • And it is hugely expensive. I know people for whom it’s an enormous burden.


  • It definately doesnt, it depends on the child!


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