Demand for ‘more enriched’ education puts pressure on state system

Increasing numbers of Australian families are choosing to have their children educated in independent schools, potentially indicating a loss of confidence in the chronically under-resourced state school system. Demand for places at Reddam House independent school in Sydney is the highest since the school was established in 2001, says principal Dave Pitcairn. “We have never seen a bigger upsurge in waiting lists and parents wanting to get their children into our school, and I believe that is common across all the independent schools in Sydney,” he says.

“We motivate kids to work to the best of their potential. That’s what you get in independent private schools.”

One of the few schools of any kind that takes no government funding, Reddam House has a junior school in Woollahra and a senior school in Bondi. A new school in Sydney’s north is set to open next year. Reddam is co-educational, non-denominational and progressive, Pitcairn says, adding “it’s a breath of fresh air for a lot of parents; it aligns with their values”.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, just over four million students were enrolled in schools across Australia in 2023, 64 per cent in government schools, 19.7 per cent in Catholic schools and 16.3 per cent in independent schools.

Over the five years to 2023, total student enrolments across Australia increased by 3.5 per cent, the ABS found. Independent schools recorded the largest increase (14.1 per cent), followed by Catholic schools (4.8 per cent) and government schools (0.7 per cent).

This surge in independent school enrolments is primarily in lower-fee schools that charge less than $5000 a year and are located mostly in the growth corridors of Sydney and Melbourne, says Dr Chris Duncan, chief executive of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA).

“There’s a strong perception in the community, particularly among less affluent but very aspirant parents, that independent schools are much more likely to deliver on those aspirations,” he says.

Parents understand that independent schools provide “much more enriched schooling”, Duncan says, and a “way of life, way beyond the classroom”. Long-term continuity of education is also often considered desirable. A child can begin school in kindergarten in an independent school and remain at the school until graduation.

Most independent schools (63 per cent) offer primary and secondary education, eliminating the dislocation between primary and high school – the norm in state-funded education.

The older the students, the more likely it is they will attend independent schools, he adds. Duncan estimates about 11 per cent of primary school-aged Australian children attend an independent primary school, which doubles to 22 per cent of students in Years 7, 8 and 9 attending an independent junior high school and 23 per cent of students in Years 10, 11 and 12 enrolled at an independent senior high school.

“Parents have more confidence in government primary schools, but their confidence really erodes when it comes to secondary education,” he says.

Religious faith can motivate parents to send their children to independent schools, and it has resulted in a boom in Islamic schools, he adds, but perhaps more important is a widespread loss of confidence in state schools. Parents might not be particularly religious, but they are willing to accept religion in schools if it means their children receive an education they regard as superior to the teaching available in comprehensive state schools.

Duncan says many government schools have been “residualised”, particularly in NSW where there has been an explosion of selective government secondary schools since the late 1990s.

Popular with parents (unless their children don’t succeed in winning a place) these selective schools corral the brightest and most creative students, leaving local comprehensive schools with larger concentrations of high-need students, and parents in those areas are less likely to settle for comprehensive state school education for their children.

Many of these state schools are chronically underfunded, Duncan says, because state governments haven’t stepped up to their Gonski commitment, which arose from the comprehensive report commissioned by the Gillard government in 2010 to find ways to arrest the slide of Australian schools down the global education rankings. School funding is notoriously complex. The government funding of independent schools depends on parents’ “capacity to contribute”, known as CTC, Duncan says.

Wealthy schools might get $3000-$4000 annually in state and Commonwealth funding, independent schools in poorer areas might get $15,000 annually per student in government funding.

A student in a government school costs the government about $21,000 annually. “Every child who goes to an independent school saves the government a fortune,” Duncan says. “So in some ways, state governments, state treasuries at least, are not that fussed about kids leaving government schools and going to independent schools, because the Commonwealth is picking up the tab.”

Dr Anna Hogan, associate professor in the school of teacher education and leadership at Queensland University of Technology, says the reasons for the ongoing drift of students from government schools to schools in the private sector are often complex and multi-faceted, but research suggests the quality of facilities and pastoral care are two of the main reasons for families choosing private schooling.

“It often comes down to the idea of where they (parents) think their children will be safest or most supported from a pastoral care point of view,” Hogan says, adding that families are often willing to make a financial sacrifice and take out loans to give their children a boost.

“Middle-income earners might stretch to find that $5000 to $10,000 in school fees each year,” she says, “but they think ‘well, I’m giving my child something better’.”

The Australian