The long-running exodus from public schools to the non-government sector has halted, with the proportion of Australian students in public schools increasing for the first time in decades.
Save Our Schools national convenor Trevor Cobbold says results at private schools are often no better than public schools, allowing for socio-economic factors.
According to new data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics released on Thursday, 65.2 per cent of Australian students attended public schools, up from 65.1 per cent the previous year. The proportion of students in non-government schools dropped from 34.9 per cent in 2014 to 34.8 per cent.
In Victoria, 63 per cent of students attended public schools in 2015, up from 62.8 per cent the previous year.
In NSW, 65.3 per cent of students attended public schools in 2015, up from 65.1 in 2014. NSW public school enrolments grew by 1.1 per cent over the year, on par with the 1.2 per cent growth in the non-government sector.
This is a shift from the long-term trend, which saw enrolments in independent and Catholic schools surge by almost 10 per cent from 2004 to 2013 while public school enrolments grew by just one per cent over the same period.
Trevor Cobbold, national convenor of the public school lobby group Save our Schools, said the drift towards the non-government sector began in the late 1970s and has continued ever since.
He said the recent shift could be explained by historically low wage growth and media coverage given to studies questioning the educational benefits of private schooling.
"Several recent studies have shown the results at private schools are often no better than public schools when socio-economic factors are taken into account," he said.
"Increased awareness of this could be influencing the decisions people are making."
The growth in public schooling has driven by an increase in enrolments in government primary schools. Non-government schools continued to gain market share in the high school years.
A separate report released by the Productivity Commission showed that NSW schools received $16,449 per student in federal and state funding in 2013-14, up from $15,608 the previous year. This was just above the national average of $16,177, up on $15,910 the year before.
The Productivity Commission report also found that childcare costs continue to rise, with the weekly cost for long-day care increasing by five per cent from 2014 to 2015.
Nationally, the median cost for 50 hours of care a week was $400, but costs varied between states and metropolitan and regional areas.
The ACT had the highest weekly cost, nearing the $500 mark, while Queensland had the lowest, at around $350. Both NSW and Victoria sit around the national median at $400 a week.
And from the Guardian, a similar story from the UK
State schools have improved “massively”, according to the founder of the Good Schools Guide, who says their growing popularity with parents is threatening to drive weaker private schools out of business.
Ralph Lucas, editor-in-chief of the guide regarded as the bible for middle-class school choice, said that as results and behaviour improved even those families who could afford private school fees were increasingly choosing the state sector.
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“We are getting parents approaching us saying: ‘We want to know more, we’re really taking state schools seriously, don’t just tell us about independent schools,’” Lord Lucas said, adding that the number of private schools was likely to shrink as a result.
“You are seeing a pattern in the country as a whole – outside London – of independent schools becoming free schools or academies, or closing, and I think that will continue.”
Lucas’s view received unusual support from representatives of the elite of the independent school sector, who said that the image of state schools had been rejuvenated among parents.
William Richardson, the general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents leading independent schools, said he was surprised by Lucas’s comments because pupil numbers were currently at record levels in private schools.
“At the same time, he is correct to say that, overall, state schools have also never been better. In particular, the expectations of parents and pupils across the country have been transformed over the past two generations,” Richardson said.
Lucas – an Eton-educated hereditary peer – based his remarks on responses from parents who find schools through the guide’s service. While the first edition of the Good Schools Guide in 1986 listed just 10 state schools – 4% of the total – the 2016 edition features more than 300, a quarter of the 1,200 named.
Last year David Cameron became the first Conservative prime minister to send his daughter to a state comprehensive, when she took up a place at Grey Coat Hospital school in London, while Michael Gove did the same as education secretary. Cameron’s son currently attends a state primary school, but it has been reported that the family is exploring whether to send him to an independent school.
Lucas said on Friday: “When I first came into education politics, you would have people saying: ‘What do you expect from these kids?’ and excusing low performance on the basis that people were just not capable of a greater level of education.
“Then it became apparent that some schools were succeeding in difficult circumstances, and that individual heads became capable of making changes, and it built from there.”
Lucas named Tom Sherrington, the headteacher of Highbury Grove secondary school in Islington, as an example of the new model head in the state sector who expected high standards of discipline in their schools and had high ambitions for their pupils.
A source close to the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, said: “These comments are a ringing endorsement of our efforts to raise standards, restore rigour and tackle the soft bigotry of low expectations.
“They send out a clear message to the nay-sayers that – far from taking our foot off the pedal – now is the time to turbo-charge our reforms, ensuring England’s state schools are seen as the gold standard in excellence throughout the world.”
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Lucas said he had been put off sending his own children to state schools in the 1980s after seeing pupils using drugs and fighting at state schools in west London, such as Holland Park comprehensive – a school now rated “outstanding” by Ofsted inspectors and heavily oversubscribed.
“If I had my time again, I’m sure my children would go through the state system in London,” he said.
The change in preference would add to the pressure on the private sector, with fees to attend an independent day school now reaching an average of £12,000 a year.
“If we carry on as we are, there will be a much smaller independent sector,” Lucas said. “I think it will just happen slowly but the option of having all that money to spend on something else is very attractive.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our reforms have been underpinned by a commitment to social justice and fairness – that means achieving educational excellence for everyone, everywhere, regardless of their background.
“Thanks to our reforms, 1.4 million more pupils and counting are being taught in good or outstanding schools than in 2010, so it’s no wonder more parents are choosing for their children to be educated in the state sector."