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Private school tuition trumps SES status

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Thursday, 7 May 2015

One of the perennial questions parents face, when deciding where to send their children to school, is whether government or non-government schools achieve the best results. Given the financial commitment involved it is only natural to ask which school sector achieves the strongest outcomes.

Judged by recent comment pieces in the Fairfax Press like 'No academic advantage in private schooling' and 'Public, private schools give same results, 30 studies show' it appears that the evidence is clear.

In the first comment piece Tim Dodd cites a study by researchers at the University of Queensland outlined in the Australian Journal of Labour Economics that argues "the returns to attending private schools are no different to those attending public schools".


Trevor Cobbold in the second Fairfax piece argues there are "no significant differences between the results of students from public, Catholic and Independent schools".

Add that the same argument is put in a recent piece on The Conversation website, titled 'Studies consistently find no academic gains from private schooling, but don't explain why', and parents could be forgiven for thinking there is no advantage in choosing a Catholic or an independent school.

Why choose non-government schools if the results are the same?

Reality check. Instead of under performing there is widespread agreement that non-government schools, whether literacy or numeracy tests, Year 12 results or tertiary entry, with the exception of selective secondary schools, achieve the strongest results.

A 2001 study carried out by the Australian Council for Educational Research investigating Year 12 performance and tertiary entry concludes that "School sector has a substantial impact" and that Catholic and independent school students' results are between 6 to 12 points higher than government school students.

Gary Marks, a Melbourne-based researcher, in a 2004 analysis of Year 12 results reaches a similar conclusion, he writes "So a variety of studies using different sources of data all show substantial sector differences in university entrance".


Marks also argues that non-government schools are more effective at what is described as 'value-adding' – a situation where a school helps a student achieve a stronger result than what otherwise might be expected.

In a research article in the April 2009 edition of the Australian Journal of Education, Marks writes that "non-government schools relative to government schools 'add value' (between 5 to 9 percent) to student performance among those students vying for tertiary entrance between age 15 and Year 12".

Such is the evidence that even Trevor Cobbold, a strong critic of Catholic and independent schools, agrees that non-government schools outperform government schools when he concludes, "Raw comparisons of student outcomes in public and private schools generally show higher achievement in private schools".

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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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