Private school education doesn't help kids later in life

Evidence suggests that private school students fare no better later in life.
Evidence suggests that private school students fare no better later in life. Photo: Getty

Mounting evidence suggests that investing in a private school education for your child is a waste of money.

New work by University of Canberra research fellow Jennifer Chesters shows that the employment success after university of private-school students was no better than that of students from government schools with equivalent tertiary entry scores.

This follows research by the University of Canberra’s Barbara Preston showing that students from government schools out-performed students from private schools with similar tertiary entry scores at university.

Together, the research shows that a private-school education may help you get to university, but is of no help once you are there and of no help later once you try to enter the workforce.

Chesters’ research showed that there was no difference in employment rates and no difference in income levels between the two sorts of schooling.

“Paying private school fees is no guarantee of securing full-time employment,” she wrote “Next, I examined the earnings of those employed full-time according to type of school attended, controlling for the effects of sex, age and level of education. When it comes to weekly earnings, having attended a private school rather than a government school has no effect. So there would seem to be no return on the parents’ investment in terms of the earnings of their offspring.”

That must be fairly dispiriting for parents who make huge financial sacrifices to send their children to private schools.

Chesters found, however, that having attended a Catholic school led to higher levels of occupational prestige than if a student attended a government school. But, on average, attendance at an independent school is not associated with higher levels of occupational prestige than attendance at a government school.

Her data source was the most recent wave of data from the Melbourne Institute’s Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia.


In the earlier study, Preston cited five other Australian and British studies which drew the same conclusion as her: that private-school education is only useful for getting in to university, not in getting good university results. Indeed, British research suggests that the drop off in university attainment of private-school students becomes more pronounced the higher the level of their secondary attainment.

Of course, we should not expect a great exodus from the private system as a result of this research. Far from it. The trend looks to be going the other way. The main reason for this is that people are very often not very rational in their spending, despite what economists think.

People buy bottled water, for example, at thousands of times the cost of water from the public water systems.

Prestige and perception are far more important than value for money. Besides, no amount of research and evidence will convince some people, presuming they even are aware of it.

Of course, some parents send their children to private schools for religious reasons or because they believe these schools inculcate a value system they want their children to assume.

If that is the case, there is also something their children will miss out on: exposure to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and exposure to troublesome, disruptive people. That might make them less able to cope and deal with these people later in life.

Obviously, not all parents of private school students are immensely rich, but all but a precious few scholarship students, come from families who have a spare $20,000 or $30,000 a year after tax for education. So those families have to be at least well-off, even if they think of themselves as struggling.

There has been a fair amount of speculation and guessing as to why private schooling has such unexpectedly poor outcomes, but no convincing research.

One suggestion is that private schools concentrate heavily on increasing university entrance scores, and so students do better at that than they otherwise would. Once the private-school environment is removed, they fall back to their natural level. Another reason is that once the discipline of private school and parental oversight are taken away, the former private-school students at university have less capacity for self-motivated study.

The fact that students from same-sex private schools do even worse at university suggests that some private school students spend more time socialising once they get to university – to make up for lost ground and for the novelty of it.

Private schools tend to be deliberately selective or self-selective to attract students who want to go to university. Troublesome and poor students are excluded and thus the task of teaching for university entrance is made easier.

Chesters’ research is ground-breaking. Hitherto, it seems to have been generally assumed that a private education would help immensely in the job market – old school tie and jolly hockey sticks, and all that. But it seems that is no longer the case, even if it ever was. Because more people are going to private schools, the exclusively factor is waning.

A further point is that employers since, say, the mid-1980s have taken far more account of the interview and their own testing than school or university background. And after employment, action at work bespeaks far more than what school you went to.

Perhaps it is a nature v. nurture thing. Despite all the extra money, time and effort that goes in to a private education, nature will out.

I pity the parents who spend so much money on their children’s education for such a demonstrably poor outcome.

Perhaps, given the way it is getting harder and harder for young people to break into the property market, the parents would be better off sending their kids to government schools and using the fee money to set them up in their first home.