The private school arms race
Splurging on rowing tanks, pilates studios and sky decks, Melbourne's private schools are outspending their public counterparts four to one.
What does it take to land a scholarship in the country's most prestigious private school schools?
It's not simply a matter of academic ability or sporting prowess. Many of today's successful scholarship applicants are the golden all-rounders who have that elusive 'X factor'.
As fees continue to climb at a rate higher than inflation (school fees rose by up to 4.5 per cent this year), a sample of 400 scholarships on a new online tool created by School Places shows that many scholarships fall under the elusive category of 'general excellence'.
Schools are hunting for students who can prove they are leaders by volunteering in aged care homes or fundraising for impoverished communities overseas.
They are also hunting for students who have so-called "soft skills'" wanted for future jobs - entrepreneurship scholarships are sometimes offered to children who can provide a portfolio proving they are innovative and creative thinkers.
Loreto Mandeville Hall's principal, Dr Susan Stevens, who receives up to 150 scholarship applications a year, said she was hunting for a positive role model.
"What impresses me is when young people demonstrate something that they haven't done for any reward," she said.
Father of three Rod Brooks studied the criteria for several elite schools' scholarships to ensure his 12-year-old daughter would get in.
He spent $1500 on tutoring, hired a professional videographer to capture her sporting prowess and set aside seven hours a day on his daughter's summer holiday to prepare her for a private school scholarship application.
"We didn't have to force her or bribe her," he said, noting his daughter had always been diligent.
Madison was offered scholarships at Shelford Girls' Grammar, Firbank Grammar and St Leonard's College, but took up Caulfield Grammar's offer of a "general excellence" scholarship this year, which meant a partial discount on fees.
This is what it takes to nail down a discounted enrolment in a competitive market, where hundreds of high-achieving families devote up to 18 months to prepare their children for the cut-throat application process.
Natalie Mactier, chief executive of School Places, created an interactive tool to help parents search a scholarship database.
So how can children get an edge in the competition?
It takes more than paying for tutors and practice exams, said Ms Mactier.
Networking is a key priority. Parents must forge connections with well-connected people in sport or music. Some schools don't advertise certain scholarships, preferring to leave it up to sports coaches or music teachers to scout for talent, she said.
Parents should also apply for scholarships early on, from grade five (before the rush of applications in year seven).
Savvy parents find out where schools have gaps in the range of student ability, or whether they need more students playing a certain instrument, and will tailor their child's training to plug the gap, said Ms Mactier.
The principal of The Scots School in New South Wales, David Gates, said the Presbyterian school offers scholarships to students who have experience in agriculture, farming, highland dancing and pipes and drums, so they can maintain a high calibre of students participating in local competitions and events.
But ultimately, exceptional academic ability is the key ingredient.
Of the 400 examples of scholarships gathered so far by School Places, nearly 200 scholarships are aimed at academic excellence, 60 are for "general excellence" and about 70 are in the arts. Just 15 offers are for low-income families, and just five for excellence in sports.