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Private schools can still hold up their heads

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Given debates about school funding over the last 2 years as a result of the Gonski inquiry and report and related arguments about school effectiveness a recent news piece in The Australian by Justine Ferrari deserves comment.

In her article, titled ‘Catholic schools perform badly’ (October 16), Ferrari uses evidence from two research papers to mistakenly claim that Catholic schools, and non-government schools more generally, fail to perform as well as they should.

Referring to one of the research papers, written by Buly A. Cardak and Joe Vecci and published in the Economics of Education Review 37, Ferari writes, “It said for some students, attending a Catholic school has had a negative effect and ‘on average Catholic school students would achieve better outcomes in public schools’”.


Based on the second paper, by Chris Ryan from the University of Melbourne and also published in the above journal, Ferrari argues that the decline in performance of non-government schools in the international PISA test proves that such schools are no longer academically superior to government schools.

It goes without saying, if true, that such arguments would please non-government school critics who consistently claim that there is nothing academically superior about Catholic and independent schools when compared to government schools.

Ferrari is wrong to paint such a negative picture.  The Cardak and Vecci paper, instead of concluding that there is nothing superior about Catholic schools in relation to secondary school completion rates and tertiary entry and completion rates, admits that the evidence is far from definite.

Concerns about methodology and the complex nature of the research lead the two researchers to admit that there is “uncertainty” about conclusions reached and that the results are “difficult to interpret definitively”.

Given such caveats it is wrong to write, as Ferrari does, that Catholic school students would achieve better outcomes in public schools.   In fact, at one point, the authors state “these results point to the strong benefits arising from Catholic school attendance”.

While stating that one interpretation of their research might lead to the conclusion that the impact of Catholic schools is negative, the authors also admit that positive effects might range from 5 to 7%.


Instead of criticising Catholic schools for underachieving the first paper admits, especially given that such schools enrol high numbers of disadvantaged students and receive less funding than government schools, “Catholic schools are delivering very good outcomes”.

Given the relatively strong performance of Catholic schools the authors go on to say “the Catholic school sector may offer insights to policymakers and the public school sector to improve educational outcomes for more students”.

While focusing on academic outcomes, the two researchers also admit that enrolments in Catholic schools have increased dramatically and that on indicators like stricter discipline, the religious nature of schools and low tuition fees that parents appear happy to choose such schools for their children.

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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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