Why do Australian parents continue to fork out extra for private schools?
If private schools offer little academic value over public schools, why do 35% of Australian parents continue to choose to pay the hefty fees rather than sending their child to the local state school?
Parents have a high regard for public schools
School choice is a dilemma for a minority of parents. My research with parents in Melbourne suggests that the preference for public schooling is strong even amongst those who end up sending their children to a private school.
In fact the most highly regarded form of education, as reported by parents, is the local public primary school. Parents making the decision on where to send their children to secondary school spoke glowingly of the quality of teaching and the cultural and social diversity in public primary schools.
For some, at the secondary level, it is simply a question of resources and facilities. The super-funding of private schooling by successive federal governments has resulted in visible disparities, and this drives demand.
Some of the parents I studied were contemplating private schools with twice the level of resources per student, and more than ten times the spending on capital works (including five times more capital funding from government) than the nearest public secondary school. This extra funding is reflected in sporting and music programs and state-of-the-art science facilities.
The cut-throat competitiveness, archaic trappings and social selectivity of private schools are held against them by many parents, who under a different funding regime would go public. In fact, school sector was not considered to be an important consideration in choosing a school in my study.
For the 666 parents surveyed, the most important consideration was the quality of the teachers (“very important” for 82.7%), followed by a caring environment (75.4%), a good reputation (72.9%) and well-behaved students (71.4%). This suggests that most parents make decisions about where to send their children to school based on perceptions about the quality of the learning environment.
It is difficult for parents to gain an appreciation of quality of learning environment, and it is unlikely that many will be swayed by the “value for money” findings of recent research.
In my study, just one in five parents consulted the MySchool website and little store was placed on the information provided there. Word-of-mouth, and in particular the views of extended family members, counted most.
The most obvious signs of quality, for parents, are classroom harmony, student eagerness, extra-curricular activities and orderliness. The blazer, with no pedagogical value, has come to symbolise qualities of academic excellence through its association with the most traditional private schools.