Fighting for Equity in Education

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Public Primary Schools do as Well as Independent Schools and Better than Catholic Schools

Friday September 16, 2016

A new study published in the latest issue of the Australian Economic Review has found that students in public primary schools achieve better results than Catholic schools and similar results to Independent schools. These findings confirm those of other recent studies in Australia and overseas that student performance in public schools is as good as, or better than, those in private schools.

The new study concludes that:

… government school students perform no worse than independent-school students and somewhat better than their Catholic-school counterparts in spelling, grammar and numeracy. [p. 285]

The study analysed the 2010 NAPLAN test scores of Year 5 children included in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), which is the most extensive nationally representative survey of Australian children throughout their development. The survey contains a wealth of data on the characteristics of children, the income and education of their parents and aspects of the neighbourhood in which they live.

The study conducted two separate statistical analyses of the data. The first compared the results of students in public, Catholic and Independent schools controlling for the various background characteristics and the socio-economic composition of the schools. It found that there is no consistent statistically significant difference in reading, writing, spelling, grammar and numeracy between public and Independent schools. It also found that Catholic school students are approximately three months behind public school students in spelling, grammar and numeracy, while there is no significant difference in reading and writing results.

The second analysis examined for separate effects of school sector attendance for male and female students, those from high- and low socio-economic status households, students whose primary caregiver is and is not Australian-born and children from metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas. It is the first study in Australia to conduct an analysis at this level of detail.

The results for these separate groups of students indicate no advantage from attending an Independent school and an advantage of attending a public school over a Catholic school. There is no statistically significant difference between the results of public and Independent schools in most categories of students for all NAPLAN tests while Catholic school students in all categories are between two and nearly five months behind their counterparts in public schools in spelling, grammar and numeracy.

The study reports 40 results for eight categories of Independent and Catholic school students compared to those in public schools in the five NAPLAN tests (a total of 80 results). There is no difference between Independent and public schools in 35 of the 40 results.

One exception is that children whose primary caregiver is not Australian-born and who attended Independent schools did better than their counterparts in public schools in writing and spelling. However, there are only 87 students in this category in a data set of nearly 3,000 students and, therefore, the study says that this result should be treated with caution. Other exceptions are that students in Independent schools in metropolitan areas did better in reading and spelling than those in public schools and students in Independent schools in non-metropolitan areas did better in writing.

There is no difference between Catholic schools and public schools in 21 results, and public schools did better in 19 results. Catholic schools did not achieve better results than public schools in any test for any category of student.

The study says that its findings raise questions about the benefits from extensive government recurrent and capital funding of private schools.

…non-government schools cost society up to 20 per cent more per student, expenditures which appear to be producing few, if any, educational benefits at the margin, both for non-government-school students as a whole and, as we have shown in this study, for particular categories of non-government-school students. [pp. 285-286]

Given this, the study says, the poorer performance of Catholic schools does not appear to be a result of insufficient per student funding in Catholic schools. As the study controlled for student and household differences across school sectors, it says that the causes of the difference in performance between Catholic and non-Catholic schools are likely to be related to the varied educational practices and environments across the school sectors.

The study notes that its findings are consistent with other recent Australian and overseas studies. These studies find little evidence that private schools achieve better results than public schools. In fact, poorer performance by Catholic schools, particularly in mathematics, has been a common recent finding. Recent Australian studies suggest that there exists no significant achievement advantage for students attending a private school in Australia.

The study concludes from its own findings and those of recent studies that:

…there now appears to be a growing tide of empirical results which suggest that the educational productivity of government schools may not be very different to that of non-government schools, despite common perceptions to the contrary, and may in fact be superior to that of Catholic schools, at least in some cognitive domains. [p. 286]

Trevor Cobbold

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