Why school choice matters

Head start … Parents value the opportunity to choose the best school for their child.

Australia has one of the highest rates of private schooling in the OECD. Approximately 35 per cent of students attend a non-government school, either a Catholic systemic institution — 20 per cent — or an independent school — 15 per cent.

In NSW, the figure is slightly higher. More than 16 per cent of students attended an independent school in 2016 and in the high school years, this number jumped to 22 per cent. The OECD average for all students is 4 per cent, according to the latest available figures (2014).

Australian parents clearly value school choice but considering our comparatively good public education system, it’s reasonable to wonder why.

The Independent Schools Council of Australia (ISCA) argues that school choice gives parents the opportunity to find a school that best suits their children’s needs while supporting their values and academic preferences. “Independent schools reflect Australia’s social and ethnic diversity, offering choice for young Australians to be educated in schools with different cultural, religious and educational philosophies,” ISCA says.

With more than 300 independent schools in the Sydney metropolitan area alone, the sector is incredibly variegated, both culturally and academically.

The intensity of competition within the education sector incentivises better performance resulting in higher student achievement, ISCA says. “The freedom of students and their families to exercise choice in schooling is one of the most demanding forms of accountability for independent schools. Schools need to remain competitive to survive and consistently meet high parental expectations for the development of students.”

This effect is seen in the excellent HSC results attained by independent school students and in their greater take-up of higher education post-school.

A recent report by the Australian National University (ANU) reveals that students who complete Year 12 at an independent school are far more likely to attend university than their counterparts at Catholic and state schools.

The study found that 68.7 per cent of school leavers in the independent sector went onto university in 2016, whereas only 53.9 per cent of Catholic system and 45 per cent of public school graduates enrolled in a bachelor degree. This trend accelerated over the three-year period of the study with the rate of university attendance by private school students increasing while corresponding Catholic and public school figures fell or remained static.

Perhaps as a consequence of their greater propensity to attend university, private school kids grow into adults who earn more and live in wealthier suburbs. A 2016 Curtin University study of 17,000 Australians found that independent schooling results in an average wage premium of 15 per cent. Study author Mike Dockery concluded: “Overall, the results suggest that private schooling continues to be an important mechanism by which socio-economic advantage is transmitted between Australian generations, largely due to enhanced access to higher education.”

Another inducement for parents, especially those whose children hope to attend university overseas, is the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma.

Available in NSW only through accredited independent schools, the IB has seen rapid growth since its introduction to Australia in 1978. In 2016, more than 2000 students from around the country received an IB diploma.

The key attraction of the IB is its international recognition and the academic rigour of the program. For scholarly students, the IB offers an unsurpassed opportunity to explore a broad range of subject matter in a course structure that promotes independent learning.

The IB’s global perspective and emphasis on critical thinking provides an excellent grounding for university and research has shown that IB students are more likely to attain entry to university and to complete a degree.

University isn’t for everyone though. Independent schools cater to children of all abilities and inclinations with a view to helping every child realise their full potential.

Private schools are well-known for nurturing gifted and talented students but many readers might be surprised to discover the range and depth of vocational education and training (VET) programs taught at these schools.

The Association for Independent Schools NSW website lists 16 Stage 5 VET courses offered at the HSC level ranging from Business Services and Information Technology to Construction and Sports Coaching.

These certificate courses are employment-oriented with students undertaking mandatory work experience to gain industry-recognised skills. School leavers are able to transition into the workplace directly after graduation giving them a valuable head start in their careers. Additionally, independent schools typically provide purpose-built facilities for VET students allowing them to complete their studies on campus with their peers instead of attending TAFE.

There are many reasons to choose an independent school and the greater the choice of schools, the better the options. It’s little wonder that so many Australian parents seize the opportunity to choose the best school for their child.


School statistics – Independent Schools Council of Australia website

School statistics – Association of Independent Schools NSW website

Datablog: Private schools are winning over Australian parents — Nick Evershed, The Guardian, March 11, 2014

Parents and School Choice — Independent Schools Council of Australia website

NSW Secondary Students Post-School Expectations and Destinations, 2016 Annual Report — Dr Paul Myers, Alexandra Parkes, Natasha Vickers, Andrew Ward, Esther Corcoran, ANU Social Research Centre, April 2017

Does private schooling pay? Evidence and equity implications for Australia — Associate Professor Mike Dockery, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University, October 27, 2016

International Baccalaureate (Australia) — International Baccalaureate website

VET Courses, Association of Independent Schools NSW website

To IB or not to IB: Understanding the International Baccalaureate

Last year, Melbourne’s Preshil Independent School announced that it will no longer offer the VCE, Victoria’s equivalent to the HSC. Instead, the school will teach only the syllabus for the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma from 2018 onward.

Preshil is the first school in Victoria to abandon the VCE in favour of the IB but it may not be the last. Take-up of the IB is growing rapidly throughout Australia and around the world. More than 63,000 students at 4000 schools internationally attained an IB diploma in 2015, representing an increase of almost 50 per cent in the last five years.

In Australia, the numbers are growing even more strongly. Since 2000, participation has tripled with almost 1900 students at 63 schools throughout Australia earning their IB diplomas last year.

So what is the IB and why is its popularity surging?

The IB program was established in 1968 in Geneva, Switzerland, with a pedagogical mission to “develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.”

Its academically rigorous curriculum stresses critical reasoning and breadth of knowledge over specialisation and rote learning. All diploma students must study literature and a second language, as well as an experimental science, mathematics, and a humanities subject. A sixth subject of their choosing – either from the creative arts or a second academic subject – is also required.

The unique aspect of the IB is seen in its three “core” elements: the Theory of Knowledge component, in which students study the nature of knowledge and its acquisition; the Extended Essay, a self-directed 4000-word research paper; and the Creativity, Activity, Service project, a learn-through-experience assignment in which students set themselves a significant personal challenge to surmount under the guidance of a supervisor.

In the IB organisation’s view, self-regulated, lifelong learning is the key to success at university and in the world of work, business and enterprise. As such, it aims to produce students “who can learn in any situation, at any time, in any place, from any person, using any media or technology – without the support of teachers.”

The high level of independence promoted by the IB is not for everyone though. When it comes to choosing between the HSC and the IB diploma, Redlands school, the first in NSW to offer the IB diploma in 1988, advises that parents take into account their child’s natural inclinations. The IB is better suited to students of a generalist bent due to the second language, maths and science requirements, Redlands cautions. As well, students will need to develop excellent time management and organisational skills to succeed to the best of their ability, the school says.

Trinity Grammar offers similar advice, saying that “between the HSC or IB there is no wrong answer. The decision should take into account a student’s interests and which course is better suited to them. Both courses offer rich opportunities for learning.”

In NSW, the IB diploma is only offered at select independent schools. For more information on the International Baccalaureate and participating Australian schools see the organisation’s website: http://www.ibo.org/

Read more:

Melbourne private school scraps VCE in favour of International Baccalaureate – Kellie Lazzaro, the World Today, ABC radio, November 2, 2015

How to help your son decide between the HSC and IB courses – Trinity Grammar website

International Baccalaureate information page – Redlands school website

International Baccalaureate website: http://www.ibo.org/

Association of Australasian IB Schools website: http://www.aaibs.org/