The rapid growth in private school fees has slowed in 2021, but socio- economic status remains a big factor in educational outcomes.
Private schools are hitting pause on fee increases in 2021, after a five-year period of above-inflation growth in Western Australia.
Nine of 17 private schools selected from the Business News Data & Insights portal have kept tuition fees for year 12 students unchanged from last year, while one has cut fees.
In part, these decisions indicate the ongoing economic concerns flowing from COVID-19.
Nonetheless, the data shows fees are, on average, 10.7 per cent higher in 2021 than five years ago. This compares with Perth’s inflation rate of 4.1 per cent over the period.
Bunbury Cathedral Grammar School has gone against the grain, cutting tuition fees by 23.5 per cent, year on year, to be $15,500 for year 12.
That followed a review by the school’s board, after which it shifted strategy in order to be more accessible to families in the South West, the school said.
All Saints’ College principal Belinda Provis said that school was committed to keeping costs as low as practically possible for families and had not increased fees for 2021.
“This was possible thanks to the collective efforts and innovations of college staff in reducing overheads whilst still delivering a world-class education for our students,” Ms Provis said.
Statewide, data from startup Edstart found the average school fee increase was 0.4 per cent in WA in 2021, the lowest in the country.
It compared to an average rise of 2.1 per cent in 2020.
Edstart said about 43 per cent of WA schools chose not to increase fees in 2021.
Association of Independent Schools of Western Australia executive director Valerie Gould said many schools had tried hard this year to restrict fee increases.
For the smaller independent schools, finances were already tight.
Ms Gould said she knew of some smaller schools where cleaning was done in-house in response to COVID-19, with principals and teachers cleaning classrooms multiple times a day.
“A large school has greater capacity to absorb additional costs,” she said.
Other schools had scaled back on extracurricular activities to lower expenses.
For all schools, staff remains the biggest cost.
Across 14 private schools where data was available, Business News found the proportion of spending allocated to employee costs in 2019 ranged from 58 per cent to 79 per cent, averaging about 66 per cent. For comparison, 75.8 per cent of the Department of Education’s
$5.4 billion budget in 2020 was spent on staff, which would include both teachers and central office staff. Penrhos College’s annual report indicated a staff reduction of 10.5 full-time equivalents in 2020, as a result of student elective choices and enrolments.
In a sample group of 17 schools, about 62 per cent of full-time equivalent positions were teaching employees (on average), with the remainder employed in a non-teaching capacity.
The highest proportion of teaching staff was at Santa Maria College, 72.9 per cent; that school is part of a broader national network of Mercy Education.
AISWA’s Ms Gould said some independent schools paid higher salaries than the public sector, and generally higher than the Independent School Teachers award.
“One of the biggest costs of any school is staff,” Ms Gould said.
“In the independent sector, a lot of schools have enterprise bargaining agreements.
“Quite a few of the independent school EBAs are linked to the Department [of Education WA] salary, some pay quite a bit higher.”
A third-year teacher at Christ Church Grammar School was paid about $100,000 before superannuation last year, about 17 per cent more than a similarly qualified teacher in the public system.
Principals agreed that staffing was their main cost.
St Stephen’s School principal Donella Beare said wages were the biggest driver of costs for schools.
“The school froze its fees in 2018 and 2019 and only passed on slight increases in 2020 and 2021,” she said.
Increasing compliance and reporting requirements led to a growing number of non-teaching roles to handle those needs, Mrs Beare said.
Ms Gould agreed, and said registration requirements and compliance costs were growing.
Business News understands a local consultancy completed a report for the state government on non-government school compliance requirements last year, but it is yet to be released.
Who gets results?
There were five government schools in WA’s top 20 schools ranked by median ATAR in 2020, according to Department of Education data.
Perth Modern School was the leader, perhaps to be expected given the government school is selective and only takes academically gifted students who pass a rigorous selection test.
All of the 20 schools, with the exception of Penrhos, were ranked in the top 20 per cent of schools by socio-economic status (SES) nationally.
That’s based on the federal government’s Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage calculations, with 2019 the most recent data.
Penrhos was in the 69th percentile of socioeconomic advantage, down from the 91st percentile five years prior.
At the same time, the school’s cohort of students in the lowest quarter of families by socio-economic advantage lifted from 3 per cent to 13 per cent.
No students from Perth Modern, by contrast, were in the bottom quarter of socio-economic advantage, while 87 per cent were in the top quarter.
That was a higher portion of advantaged students than St Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls, Christ Church and Methodist Ladies’ College, while only 19 per cent of Penrhos students came from families in the top quarter.
University of Western Australia associate professor Glenn Savage said socio-economic status was possibly the biggest contributor to performance, although school leadership and a student’s capabilities were also important.
Private and public schools with similar socio-economic status would often perform to the same standard, Dr Savage said.
This had prompted some parents to move to an area in a high SES public school catchment to support their children.
Effectively they pay a higher mortgage rather than paying higher private school fees, but still get an improved educational outcome for the kids.
“There’s a really big trend people often miss,” Dr Savage told Business News.
To that end, schools like Rossmoyne Senior High School, Willetton Senior High School and Shenton College generally perform strongly in ATAR results and are in reasonably high SES areas.
“Middle class parents who might have gone to public schools themselves, who believe in the [value] of public schools … will make a moral choice … to support the public education system,” Dr Savage said.
Socio-economic status is also linked to performance on standardised tests.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development uses its Programme for International Student Assessment testing to judge reading, maths and science skills between countries.
“Socio-economic status was a strong predictor of performance in mathematics and science in all PISA-participating countries,” the OECD said of its most recent testing.
“It explained 11 per cent of the variation in mathematics performance in PISA 2018 in Australia (compared to 14 per cent on average across OECD countries), and 10 per cent of the variation in science performance (compared to the OECD average of 13 per cent of the variation).”
The OECD’s data also shows Australia’s education system has a heavier tilt towards private funding than most, with private funding for schooling about 0.74 per cent of GDP.
That was third in the developed world.
About 3.2 per cent of GDP was public funding allocated to schools, ranking in the middle of the OECD nations.
A portion of that public funding flows to independent schools, however, and Dr Savage said it had initially been intended to keep the Catholic school system afloat and stop pressure potentially flowing onto the public system.
The federal government’s two rounds of Gonski reforms have been intended to ensure public funding targets schools most in need, regardless of whether they are public or private.
Dr Savage said it was important to distinguish between different types of private schools.
Many Catholic schools served lower SES communities, he said.
“There’s only so much those schools can raise their fees before it becomes unaffordable [for parents],” Dr Savage said.
Aside from ATAR and testing results, schools can bring a range of other benefits to students, including extracurricular activities.
Penrhos College, for example, markets itself as STEM education for girls, while Wesley College highlights its Katitjin program, where students are taken out of the classroom to improve teamwork and community focus.
Many private schools have associations linking students to former graduates and giving them a big boost over others when seeking employment and career opportunities.
Then there are programs for the arts or sport.
“Often this is why parents want their children to go to private schools, all the opportunities they have in music, sport, the arts,” Dr Savage said.
St Hilda’s built a performing arts centre with more seating capacity than the state’s Heath Ledger Theatre.
Others allocated funding to basketball centres.
“Some people say that’s outrageous,” Dr Savage said.
“The other side is if parents want their money to go into this extra stuff, that’s their choice.
“[People] get into an unwinnable argument, two sides with competing views about it.”