The 60 Minutes program which went to air on Sunday April 19 had a section, titled Public vs Private. The segment focussed on a very complex area of decision making that many parents face: the choice of a school for their children. The segment tended to focus on two criteria only: money and academic results, and even the latter theme was mostly limited to NAPLAN results.

The 60 Minutes segment is the latest in a number of media reports comparing the academic results of government and non-government schools. These reports cite research studies which purportedly show that non-government schools add little or nothing by way of value compared to government schools and go on to question the value of parents’ investment in their children’s education in non-government schools.

The selective use of research results to make claims about the performance of non-government schools and to pose value for money arguments is of genuine concern. We want all Australian children to enjoy a school education that develops their potential and offers them the best possible grounding for their future. Attempts to diminish the results of some schools does nothing to contribute to the achievement of students in other schools and undermines – and even trivialises – public debate about education.

A glaring problem with the claims made about the relative performance of independent schools is that the research cited analysis of NAPLAN data only, sometimes only to Year 5 and rarely to Year 9. Analysis of student academic achievement beyond Year 9 to Year 12 tells a very different story. As time in school accumulates, the differences in development become more noticeable and research clearly supports the additional value that independent schools bring to your children in terms of academic achievement and the prospects of gaining entry to university. What is of interest to note is that this research, some of which I discuss below, shows that the value adding of independent schools has been consistent over time.

A school’s academic orientation is one of the three most important factors affecting a student’s TER (Tertiary Entrance Rank); another is attendance at an Independent school. (Gemici et al: 2013)

After controlling for socioeconomic background and Year 9 achievement in literacy and numeracy, the average ENTER (Equivalent National Tertiary Entrance Rank) of independent and Catholic school students is 5 and 3 points above that of government school students. (Marks: 2004)

The attributes of individual students are the main determinants of Year 12 academic outcomes. This is a statement that most find commonsensical. However, it is interesting to note that school characteristics account for around 20% of the difference in students’ TER scores after making allowances for socioeconomic status and achievement at Year 9. (Gemici et al: 2013)

Noted researcher from the University of Melbourne, Dr Gary Marks conducted an analysis of ENTER scores against PISA scores (Program for International Student Assessment) (Marks: 2009). His analysis indicates that independent schools ‘add value’ of 9% to student performance in the final years of schooling, after allowances for socioeconomic status and prior achievement. This is a conservative estimate because students’ achievement at age 15 (when PISA tests are conducted) is also likely to be influenced by the school.

Measured by ENTER score, the academic gain or ‘value add’ for students in independent schools is highest for students in the lower half of Year 9 literacy and numeracy achievement. (Marks: 2001)

Amongst students from government schools who must choose a new school at the completion of Year 10 (e.g. Tasmania and ACT), for those who attend an independent school in Years 11 and 12 there is a positive effect on their ENTER scores even after accounting for former academic achievement. (Ryan and Watson: 2009)

The academic environment is the major school-level contributor to sector differences in tertiary entrance performance. (Marks: 2009)
Students’ tertiary entrance performance is influenced more by a school’s academic context than the school’s socioeconomic status. ‘Academic press’ (the extent of the teachers’ and school’s expectations of students, the homework demands, and a rigorous program of work) has a significant impact on tertiary entrance performance. Other dimensions of school climate, including student morale, attitudes to school, student behaviour and disciplinary climate are not significant at the school level, but do affect performance at the individual student level. (Marks: 2010)

Attending an independent school increases the odds of university enrolment up to 2.7 times over those attending a government school. Only about 10% of this effect can be attributed to students’ subject choice and about 14% to socioeconomic status. (Marks: 2010b) In an earlier study, Marks (2004) showed that after controlling for student ability and socioeconomic status background, the odds of university participation for independent school students are 2.0 times that of government school students.
Gemici et al (2013) also found that students from independent schools are more likely than students from other school sectors to transition to university, even after controlling for TER score.

Recent analysis of data collected for the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey shows that, having entered university, students educated at independent schools are almost 3 times more likely to graduate. This data is embedded in a table within an article purporting to show that private schooling does not pay off! (Chesters: 2014)

There is good evidence that schools in the independent sector add value and increase the likelihood and success of tertiary study. The data at the senior end of schooling is clear. While not proven, an attractive hypothesis is that the added value gained through an independent school is cumulative and grows over the years spent in the school.

A good education cannot be measured by NAPLAN alone, especially in the formative years of primary school education. The sense of trust, partnership and quality communication between home and school; the quality of the teacher in the room; the alignment of values between home and school; and the high expectations of parents (mentioned above) all contribute to student outcomes. Children thrive in a positive community.

Independent Schools Queensland’s (ISQ) 2014 survey of parents published as What Parents Want (ISQ: 2014), listed the following as the most important factors parents identified in their choice of an independent school, reflecting the results of previous surveys. What parents are looking for in a school has not changed and given the list, nor should it!

Preparation for student to fulfil their potential in later life
Good discipline
Encouragement of a responsible attitude to school work
High quality of teachers
Teaching methods/philosophy
School seemed right for child’s individual needs
Emphasis placed by school on developing student’s sense of community responsibility
Reputation of school
Strong academic performance
Range of subjects offered

The same ISQ survey asked parents from whom and where they drew advice in making their decisions. The results show that parents seek advice from those around them and from those whom they trust. The findings showed parents ranked NAPLAN results published on the My School site behind other more often cited sources of information, which were, in order of mention:

Family, friends and colleagues
Other parents with children at the school
The school website
The school open day (in our case that would be a tour)
Family members attending school
Pamphlets, brochures and prospectuses

Possibly the views of parents in Queensland will resonate with Knox School parents.

There is no doubt that the topic of school choice draws strong responses from many people. Having worked in all three sectors (government, catholic and independent) in my career, my perspective draws on a range of experiences. My current position sends a clear message about which sector I see as offering most to children and young adults. But what is more important than sector is whether the individual school is a good school, meeting the needs of its students and their parents, building a strong and vibrant community.

Chesters. J. (2014) Available at:
Gemici, S., Lim, P. & Karmel, T. (2013) The impact of schools on young people’s transition to university. LSAY Research Report No. 61 Adelaide. NCVER. Available at:
Independent Schools Queensland. (2014) What Parents Want. Available at:
Marks, G. N. (2004) School sector difference sin tertiary entrance: Improving the educational outcomes of government school students. Australian Social Monitor, 7(2):43-47. Available at:
Marks, G. N. (2009) Accounting for school sector differences in university entrance performance. Australian Journal of Education, 53(1):19-38
Marks, G. N. (2010) What aspects of schooling are important? School effects on tertiary entrance performance. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 21(3):267-287
Marks, G. N. (2010b) Socioeconomic and school sector inequalities in university entrance in Australia. The role of the stratified curriculum. Educational Research and Evaluation, 16(1):23-37
Marks, G. N., McMillan, J. & Hillman, K. (2001) Tertiary entrance performance: The role of student background and school factors. LSAY Research Report No. 22. Melbourne: ACER. Available at:
Ryan, C. & Watson, L. (2009) The impact of school choice on student’s university entrance rank scores in Australia.