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Why non-government schools provide the best model - part 2

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Non-government school critics argue that the only reason independent schools outperform government schools is because their students come from wealthy backgrounds.  The critics are wrong.

Contrary to the argument put by the President of the Australian Education Union, Angelo Gavielatos, such success is not caused by the fact that non-government schools only enrol already privileged students.  It’s also wrong to suggest that the advantage associated with enrolling students in non-government schools disappears once the socioeconomic background of students is taken into account.

Gary Marks from the Australian Council for Educational Research, on examining the relative performance of government and non-government schools, argues that, “This study shows that school-sector differences can only be partially attributed to socio-economic background” and that, “Neither can school sector differences in tertiary entrance performance be attributed to the non-government school sector being able to recruit high achieving students or to restrict low achievers from competing for university entrance”.


Two researchers from Curtin University, Paul Miller and Derby Voon, provide additional evidence that non-government schools are more successful than government schools when they state, after analysing performance in literacy and numeracy tests, “The results also indicate that test outcomes vary by school sector, with non-government schools having higher school-average scores.  Even after differences in schools ICSEA are taken into account” (ICSEA is used to identify levels of educational disadvantage).

Why do non-government schools achieve such strong results?  Critics argue that the only reason non-government schools do well is because they only enrol medium to high socioeconomic status students while government schools enrol predominantly disadvantaged students.  Such critics are wrong as students’ socioeconomic background is only one factor influencing educational outcomes.

As noted by Gary Marks, “socioeconomic background does not have a strong relationship with student performance.  It accounts for less than 10% of the variation in both tertiary entry score and university participation.”  Marks goes on to argue, “Researchers and policy-makers should be cognizant that simplistic sociological explanations of school sector socioeconomic inequalities in education do not apply”.

In addition, and contrary to the argument that a school community’s socioeconomic profile explains why some schools outperform others, Marks also concludes that such is not the case when he argues, “This study has found no effect for school SES, indicating that the socioeconomic context of the school does not effect student performance when taking into account the academic context”.

Further undermining the argument that socioeconomic background, generally measured by factors such as parental level of education and occupation, determines success or otherwise is a recent Australian study investigating the factors impacting on school completion.  It concludes, “The role of the commonly used indicators of disadvantage associated with school completion, including parental education and occupational status, is shown to be less significant than previously indicated”.

It also should be noted that a number of OECD research papers describe Australia, contrary to the argument put by critics, as having a high degree of social mobility and equity in education. In analysing the relationship between educational outcomes of parents and of their children, used as a measure of intergenerational mobility, one paper concludes that out of 11 OECD countries Australia is the most successful in promoting mobility. 


Instead of Australian society being riven with inequality and disadvantage, a second OECD study analysing social mobility comes to a similar conclusion when it states, “Australia is one of the most socially mobile countries in the OECD”.

A recent OECD paper, Education at a Glance 2012, states, “Young people (25-34 year-old non-students) from families with low levels of education enjoy the greatest educational opportunities in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden, where at least 25% of this cohort have attained a tertiary degree, and less than 30% have not completed at least an upper secondary education”.

Dispelling the belief that demography is destiny and that class determines how well students perform at school is critical as the cultural-left, exemplified by the Gonski report, uses the argument about disadvantage to characterise Australia’s education system as inequitable and socially unjust. 

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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