A 2015 study by the University of Queensland’s health and behavioural sciences faculty has brought to light the surprising factors that really make a difference to how much a child learns. It’s not what you might think.
Many Australians today believe that a good education requires budgeting to send your child to a private school from a young age. According to the Australian Financial Review, around 35% of Australians still choose private school – a far higher proportion than most other countries in the world.
However, this latest study, as well as previous studies, show that sending a child to public or private primary school has almost no impact on how well they do in school. Instead, there are many simple things parents can do to help their kids get a head start, regardless of what school they choose.
Public trumps private in test results
Primary school results
The UQ study is the first one of its kind in Australia, and it indicates that going to a public or private primary school makes no difference in how well students do in Australia’s annual NAPLAN tests. In fact, many private schools actually showed worse academic results than public schools.
The study involved more than 4,000 Australian children in Year 3 and Year 5, who were observed in four waves. It confirms the results of similar studies performed in the USA and the UK.
Professor Luke Connelly said, “There’s actually some poorer outcomes for kids at private schools interestingly. That’s also been mirrored in the international literature.”
The only area of the study in which private schools performed better than public was peer-to-peer behaviour. But the difference was very slight, with evidence of only slightly fewer behavioural issues in private schools.
High school results
This is not just a principle that only applies to young children in primary school. Queensland’s Year 9 NAPLAN scores, analysed by advocacy group Save Our Schools, showed that schools in medium/high socioeconomic areas achieved similar results whether they were public or independent.
It’s not just about NAPLAN, though. In 2015 and 2014, NSW students in public schools actually got better HSC results than private school students. 38% of public schools received “good” HSC results overall, while only 26% of private schools received those results. The researchers found that the real link was between parents’ occupations and education and their children’s test results.
An impressive four studies in 2014 alone in Victoria have shown that middle-class students from well-resourced homes do well in school no matter where they attend. The study showed that for private schools where students did outrank public school students, the reason was the home benefits produced by these students’ higher socioeconomic status.
Interestingly, the study also showed that the effect of the quality of the school played less of a part than people might expect. Children performed well regardless of whether their school had amazing resources or facilities or provided the bare minimum.
There is even research to say that public high school students have a lower drop-out rate when they reach university.
What really affects how children learn
The study found that the factors that affect how well a child does in school are:
- Their birth weight
- The amount of time their mother spends with them
- The education level of both of their parents
- The number of books in the home
- The residential area they live in
Babies weighing less than 2.5kg at birth did significantly worse in testing, especially when it came to basic and necessary skills such as grammar and numeracy. The more time mums spent at home rather than at work, the better kids did in testing – and dads could work as much as they wanted without making an impact. Children whose parents both completed Year 12 did much better in testing across all subjects.
The bottom line for parents
When you factor in the cost of uniforms, textbooks, and musical instruments or sporting teams, every education comes at a price. The real choice is whether or not to add the fees of private school to the mix.
This choice is a judgement call that every parent needs to make for themselves after taking a serious look at the household’s finances and asking their child if they have a preference.
Pros of public school
It’s cheaper! Australian Scholarships Group, a not-for-profit provider of education savings plans, estimates that putting a child through a public primary and high school can cost $65,000 in total. Make that private and you’re looking at $428,000 (stats current in 2014).
Public school also has other benefits, such as exposing children to greater diversity in social, religious, cultural and ethnic terms. Because public school has a greater range of socioeconomic families, there are often fewer social cliques based on social standing. There is even (sometimes) less homework, meaning more “down time” and happier kids.
Pros of private school
Some children benefit socially from going to a private school, and some don’t. Smaller class sizes can mean they make more friends and get more attention from the teacher – or it can mean they get bullied more. There are no guarantees when it comes to coping socially. And private schools actually don’t automatically mean smaller class sizes anymore.
Academically, private schools still perform well. Independent Schools Queensland executive director David Robertson points out, “Published NAPLAN rankings consistently show that independent schools are among the top performing schools.”
Private schools have more funds to create and update their learning resources, school facilities, and extracurricular activities, if they choose to invest in these things. Parents should note, this doesn’t mean private schools have better teachers.
What you can do to help your child learn
What’s important is what you can do at home to help your children make the most of their time in both school and social situations. You can help your scholar reach their full potential by doing simple things:
- Feed them a good breakfast. It’s the most important meal to kick start the brain for morning classes and boot up the metabolism to keep healthy.
- Spend time with them, giving them love and attention. Students who feel loved have a higher sense of self-worth, giving them the confidence they need to study hard and play hard.
- Buy them lots of books to read. Children who have more books in the home and children who read more both are reported to perform better in school.
- Help them with their homework or get a tutor if they’re failing necessary subjects like Maths or English.
- Budget for extracurricular activities they are interested in. Students who do more than just study are more likely to make friends, get a job, and enjoy their life. But don’t load them down with extra work! Students who have no “down time” are too tired to do well.
- Teach them how to save money for themselves. This means your budget isn’t stretched trying to meet their social needs like going to the movies, on top of schooling and extracurricular costs.
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