Public and private schooling: How they stack up and choosing the right option for you.
Should parents send children to public school, which could mean taking a big chance with their education, or should parents do everything in their power to see their kids gain admission to a private school? This is one of the big questions many parents face, yet the public vs private school debate is still raging in Australia.
This article aims to help settle the issue by offering unbiased information to help you decide which type of school is right for your needs, and the needs of your child. We look at and explain the important factors you should consider to reach a decision, and walk through some of the steps involved in answering the big question of whether a private school or a public school is better suited to your needs. By the time you’ve finished reading this guide the answer should be clearer.
What’s the difference between private and public schools?
If you’ve been asking around then it might seem like everyone has an opinion on whether public or private schools are better. Instead of opinions, however, you should find the facts. A good place to start is by looking at the main differences between public and private schools.
At its core the only difference is that private schools, also called independent schools, are privately owned and operated while public schools are managed through the Australian government education system. However, this makes them very different in several ways.
How much they cost
This is the deciding factor for many parents. Private schools are much more expensive with tuition alone typically costing well over $10,000 per year at high school age. At public schools, however, tuition will generally only cost a few hundred dollars per year. Even the least exclusive private schools still cost several times as much as public schools. If you are unable or not prepared to spend this much on a private school then the decision is easy and you can start looking for the top scoring public schools in your area. If you’re still unsure, then you should also examine the other costs.Other than tuition, here are some of the other expenses to consider when deciding between public and private schools:
- School essentials: The cost of textbooks, stationery, laptops and other school supplies can add up. You will typically be spending more on these options at private schools, particularly when purchased through the institution, and more of them may be mandatory for students. Many private school parents are caught off guard by these costs and do not budget for them. At public schools there will still be school essentials expenses, but they are generally much more manageable.
- School uniforms: Some public schools do not require their students to wear uniforms. When they do, the uniforms are usually quite basic, practical and cost-effective.Meanwhile, at private schools there will almost always be uniforms and they may be much more expensive and elaborate. A single private school uniform blazer can cost upwards of $200, to say nothing of dry cleaning costs over the years.
- Tours and excursions: Private schools usually have many excursions and field trips for their students. both to local areas and more far-flung overseas destinations which involve airfare and accommodation costs. Public schools have excursions too, but they are usually inexpensive, optional and affordable.
When comparing the cost of education at private school vs public school, it is worth bearing in mind that tuition costs are just the beginning. Private schools usually involve more numerous and more expensive financial commitments in all areas for the entirety of your child’s education.
Facilities offered at the schools
Both public and private schools can have a wide range of differences in facilities available to students. There are no hard and fast rules here, and some public schools might have excellent facilities while some private schools might be found lacking., Overall though, private schools typically offer much better facilities, while public schools need to rely on limited government funding to provide for students. If your child has a particular interest or talent you might want to look for a school with the facilities to properly cultivate it.
- Libraries: Better school libraries may have more computers to use, stay open longer outside of school hours, and have a better range of books and more permanent staff to help your children
- Laboratory facilities: Is your child keen on science? Private schools are more likely to have modern laboratory facilities and additional equipment to allow a wider range of studies
- Sporting and athletic facilities: Private schools typically have more sporting facilities than public schools and can accommodate a wider range of athletic interests
- Music rooms: It’s a popular interest, but there often aren’t enough facilities to go around. Private schools are more likely to have multiple dedicated music rooms, more instruments and even specialised extracurriculars
- Art: Private schools are more likely to have a wider range of accessible art supplies and extracurricular activities to foster a student’s interest in art
- Classroom quality: Does the heating and air conditioning work? Do the desks rattle and the chairs fall apart? Private schools are generally more likely to have newer and nicer classrooms which may facilitate learning
The admissions process
The admission process in public schools is simple and straightforward. If you live within the vicinity of a particular public school, they may be required to grant admission to your child upon fulfillment of some basic entry criteria, such as proof of address, child’s age and their current level of education. Note that you're not automatically guaranteed a place at the nearest school to you, so apply early.
Private schools, on the other hand, are allowed to be much more demanding.
- Many private schools will interview both the prospective student and the parents for suitability and "fit" before accepting them.
- Private schools may require potential students to sit exams and tests prior to entry. Selective public schools will also do this.
- Private schools are allowed to differentiate between students on the basis of their ethnic and religious backgrounds, such as in the case of a dedicated French-speaking school, or a Catholic private school. Public schools are not allowed to do this and cannot turn away students on these grounds.
Being able to afford the high cost of a private school is no guarantee of admission.
What’s the average number of students per teacher? Private schools typically have significantly fewer students per class, and more teachers overall. Since public schools are often governed by state laws, they cannot generally refuse admission to students within their district, so over time they may have more students without any corresponding increase in funding. Private schools, however, may be as restrictive as they like to keep numbers down. This is one of the reasons many parents will put their children on private school "waiting lists" years in advance to secure a place.
- Smaller class sizes mean students tend to get more individual attention at private schools.
- Private school teachers generally get to know students better and can more easily identify particular areas of improvement.
- Private schools are generally more likely to have specialised teachers and coaches, such as singing teachers, football coaches and computing teachers, while public schools are more likely to have teachers working outside of their specialty area.
Teaching and curriculum
Public schools are required to follow specific state guidelines and the defined curriculum, while private schools have more freedom to create their own courses and curricula as long as it meets certain standards. Whether or not this results in a higher standard of education will differ from school to school.
- Certain studies have suggested that private school students typically score better than equivalent public school students for reading, but worse for maths.
- Some private schools may offer specialised curricula for students to excel at HSC or International Baccalaureate (IB) testing.
- Private schools may go beyond the state curriculum by offering extra classes such as religious education, multiple languages and similar programs, while public schools rarely will.
Special needs education
Most people would assume that a private school is better for special needs or disabled students who require special attention, but this is not necessarily the case. Most public schools in Australia now have an inclusion policy whereby they have to accommodate special needs children. Many also offer special education programs for such children, as well as qualified special-education teachers who are trained to teach these kids.
Private schools, meanwhile, are free to decline students with special needs. Some, however, will go out of their way to accommodate disabled students above and beyond what is required. The single highest level of special needs education will typically be found at a specialised private school, or one that has deliberately taken steps to provide a high standard of special needs education.
- Public schools are typically required to accept students with special needs, including developmental delays and physical or mental disabilities.
- Many public schools have qualified teachers for special needs students.
- Private schools are under no obligation to accept special needs students.
- Some private schools offer extremely good facilities and teachers for special needs students..
- It is possible to find specialised private schools for certain disabilities, such as private schools which only accept autistic students.
- It may be possible to find a private school whose education philosophy is a good fit for disruptive students or those with learning difficulties.
Some parents might like their children to get a religious education during their time at school. While this is not typically available as a core part of public school curricula, many private schools around Australia are affiliated with specific religions.
- Catholic private schools are relatively common in Australia.
- You can find private schools which have integrated varying levels of religiosity into their curricula. For example, some might have a chaplain and offer occasional optional church services, while others might have mandatory prayer sessions every day and intense religious instruction.
How to check the quality of a school’s education and NAPLAN results
If you’re homing in on a school in particular, then it can be a good idea to find some facts about it. In particular you may wish to compare the quality of education offered by different schools, or look at how results vary between public and private schools.
Fortunately, there is a very easy way to do this. Use the Australian government My School website to check the details of individual institutions. This website provides information about schools including:
- Number of students
- Number of teachers
- Its financial situation
- Student background
- Average attendance
- Graduation rate
It also provides detailed NAPLAN results for every school. This refers to the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy, an annual test taken by all students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9. It assesses essential core skills including reading, writing and mathematics. To compare public vs private schools by their NAPLAN results, simply select the institution you want to look at on the My Schools website, then select the NAPLAN option. This shows you exactly how well students at that school performed, and how much better or worse it is than the average results for similar schools, and all schools Australia-wide.
Private school vs public school average cost
The following table shows the average total cost of sending a child to public school from preschool to year 12 compared to the average cost of a private school in the same time period. These totals also include estimates by parents of the amount spent on extras like uniforms, field trips and school supplies. It shows how costs vary in different locations, both by state and by metropolitan vs regional areas.
It only includes data for the most populous states. To find the average cost of K-12 education in Tasmania, South Australia and the Northern Territory you may wish to use the My Schools website to compare options you’re considering, or look up annual fees on those schools’ websites.
This table was compiled from data provided to the Australian Scholarships Group in 2013, in a survey of 6,900 parents across Australia.
|State||Area||Average total public school cost from K-12||Average total private school cost from K-12|
Gaining admission to selective schools
Selective schools are institutions which require all students to pass entry exams before enrolment. Their goal is to cater to particularly gifted and talented students who achieve great outcomes in the classroom. Consequently, they typically achieve outstanding academic results. There are both public and private selective schools, each with their own entry requirements.
- Gaining admission to a selective school usually requires a student to be unusually gifted or hardworking.
- Public selective schools can be a good way to achieve a very high standard of education at standard public school prices.
- Private selective schools will generally have fees comparable to other private schools.
- Many selective schools will be outstanding in particular areas, such as mathematics or languages.
- Not all areas of Australia have public selective schools.
If your child is able to pass the entry exam for a selective private school, then there’s a good chance of that being a uniquely cost-effective way to secure a high quality education. Before accepting, however, it is good to make sure that the school is a good fit for your child. Attending a public or private selective school is no guarantee of good academic results, acceptable facilities or well supplied classrooms so consider these with as much care as you would any other institution.Back to top
Are there any ways to get cheap private school tuition?
It is possible to dramatically reduce the cost of a private school by securing discounts or if your child has been awarded a scholarship. But even then, this will still typically cost much more than a public school.
- Scholarships may be awarded to particularly outstanding students by various organisations. These might partially or entirely cover a certain number of years of tuition costs, and can also include funds for uniforms and school supplies. Usually they will partially cover tuition and not include any extras, as they are often intended to help parents and children decide on one private school over another.
- Private schools frequently offer tuition discounts for the children of parents who teach at or are otherwise employed by the school.
Because there is limited space at private schools, you should not necessarily expect any discounts or cost reductions to be available. In general, there is no such thing as cheap private school tuition, and it will always cost a lot.
Choosing the right school for your child
When deciding on public schools vs private schools, you can also consider the option of both. Changing schools can be a disruptive process, but it can also help secure an education that balances the costs and benefits of both. You may wish to consider:
- Sending a child to public school until they finish year 10, and then transitioning to a private school. Year 11 is when students are expected to get more academically serious, and they may be able to benefit from a private school at that time.
- Letting your child enrol in TAFE courses after year 10. If they are more interested in vocational pursuits than academic ones, TAFE can be a cost-effective and practical option.
- Starting your child off in public school, and then switching to private once you have a good sense of their strengths, interests and needs. Because private schools require a very significant financial investment, you may want to hold off until you are able to find an institution that’s an ideal fit for your child.
- If your child is self-motivated and a high academic achiever, then you might pay special attention to public schools which offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. This is a broader and more generally intensive alternative to the Higher School Certificate (HSC), and it is more likely to be available in private schools than public schools. For the right child, public school IB programs may be a good way to help them achieve placement at top international universities without spending big on private education.
- Carefully consider the costs and benefits of enrolling a child in a private school for kindergarten and in years 1 and 2. Private schools are usually considerably cheaper for younger ages, but will still be more expensive than public schools. Consider the classroom curriculum, which may include things like finger painting and identifying shapes and colours, and carefully consider whether or not a private school education is strictly necessary to helping a five or six year old achieve these learning outcomes.
If you are thinking of transitioning from a public to private school at some point, bear in mind that there may be a waiting list, the school might be full, or your child may be declined. It is a good idea to plan this transition ahead of time and to stay in touch with the private school of your choice to make sure you can secure a place.
Choosing the right school for your child can be a nerve-wracking experience, and you might have a lingering sense of doubt regardless of whether you end up choosing a public school or a private school. Hopefully this guide has made things easier and helped you reach a decision. If you’re still on the fence, you might wish to take another look at the key differences between public and private schools and reconsider whether or not it is worth the cost.