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What causes success at school?

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Friday, 13 February 2015

Schools are well and truly back after the summer break and prospective undergraduates are awaiting orientation week and the beginning of their journey through academia.

And when it comes to Year 12 results measured by students’ Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) and tertiary entry there’s no doubt non-government schools, with the exception of selective government schools, achieve the best results.

Every year, in Melbourne for example, when results are released students from Catholic and independent schools like Caulfield Grammar, Ruyton Girls’ School, Mt Scopus and Loreto Mandeville Hall are ranked at the top of the list.


It’s not unusual for such schools to have 50 to 60 per cent of Year 12 students achieving ATAR scores of 90% and above while the Victorian state average for ATAR scores is 64.4 % for girls and 62.2 % for boys.

Add selective state schools like Melbourne and Mac Robertson Girls’ High and Nossal High School, where entry is based on academic ability, and it’s clear that government schools can also guarantee their students get into prestige course like medicine and law.

But, why do non-government schools and selective state schools do so well in Victoria and across the other states and territories?  With state schools the fact that selective schools only enrol students who can pass the entry test helps explain success.

Selective schools like Melbourne High, Sydney’s James Ruse Agricultural High and Adelaide High have hundreds sitting entry tests every year and parents often spend hard earned cash on tutors and practise tests to give their children the edge.

Add the fact that the majority of students at selective schools in Melbourne and Sydney are from Asian and Indian families, where parents value education and push their children to succeed, and it’s understandable why they do so well.

The reality is that having parents who spend time and energy educating their children by reading books, turning off the computer and plasma TV screens and having high expectations gives students a head start when it comes to doing well at school.


As to why non-government schools get the best academic results the answers aren’t as clear.  Critics like the Australian Education Union argue that private schools only do well because their students come from wealthy, privileged backgrounds.

The only problem here is that non-government school critics are confusing cause and effect.  Just because two things are linked doesn’t meant that one causes or is the reason for the other.

It’s true that non-government schools like Scotch College in Melbourne and the King’s School in Sydney serve wealthier families but, it is also true that many high-performing Catholic and independent schools are low fee-paying and serve less well-off communities.

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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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