School Improvement and Governance Network

Great Schools

Key questions

We’re often asked questons such as: ‘Should I send my children to a public school?’ and ‘Aren’t non-government schools better by way of their academic results and access to better resources?’

How, then, do these schools really measure up? Are there major advantages to having a public education? What are the practical benefits for students? Read this article to find out.

We also wish to thank the many principals, teachers, parents, students and stakeholder groups for commenting on earlier drafts of this article.


Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. John F. Kennedy

At the outset, we want to make it clear that we’re impressed with the professionalism of teachers and educational innovation that can be found in all schools. (The author of this article has also closely worked with many principals, teachers and parents in the government, Catholic and independent sectors). It is thus important to avoid making sweeping statements about government and non-government schools. Stereotyping any one sector is obviously superficial and also does not assist educators across all three sectors to work with and learn from each other in the interests of all students.

Not only do many non-government schools have many laudable qualities but  are among the foremost pioneers in key areas of educational innovation such as the use of technology and educational inclusion such as leadership programs for girls.

Why public education?

Having acknowledged all of this and notwithstanding the on-going resource - and, for that matter, educational - challenges facing public education, there are several powerful reasons in favour of public schools and a strong public education sector.

These reasons - although they can be weakened by inadequate resources for public schools - are important to fully understand. These factors supporting public education are even the key to personal and social futures - the basis on which to progress the all-round development of young people of diverse backgrounds and to build better workplaces, communities and even nations. Reflecting a mix of current realities and aspirations in public schools, these factors in favour of public education are:

  1. Value for money and value adding
  2. Steps toward a truly 21st century education
  3. Being part of the ‘real world’/a global citizen
  4. Learning to become a 21st century leader
  5. Democratic school governance
  6. The power of collaboration
  7. Shared school-family-community goals.

Each is discussed in what follows.

1. Value for money and value adding

Many parents will go to any length to afford the fees charged by non-government schools. The folklore is that a child who goes to such a school gets better facilities and even ‘better’ teachers. But is an expensive private education really worth it?

The National Report on Schooling shows that for 2007-08 the average total expenditure for government schools was $12,639 per student, compared with $10,826 per student in Catholic schools, $15,576 in independent schools and an average of $12,745 for all private schools. The comparable figures for 2007-08 in Victoria were per capita spending on government schools $9,858, Catholic schools $10,031 and independent schools $16,605.

These inequities may reduce the incentive to change educational practices to add value to student achievement beyond that which could be predicted given the social class backgrounds and prior attainments of students. Inequities thus serve to fuel competition between schools that is won more through marketing and securing students as ‘inputs’ than adding value to all students’ learning. As distinct from filtering student intake via fees, streaming, scholarships, and selective entry, the main question for all schools is this: is a school really adding value? 

Attracting the most 'desirable' - and least expensive-to-educate - students may boost - and market - a school's results. But the obvious risk for such schools is that they may be more focused on attracting students from particular backgrounds as ‘inputs’ than on what needs to really change in education to improve learning outcomes for all students (i.e., a value adding model).

In a school which is ostensibly ‘successful’ and where educational change is perhaps unneeded in the shorter-term, value adding still occurs. But some 'high-performing' schools may produce what they do partly by way of the family backgrounds of students than through a singular focus on 21st century teaching and learning practices that meet the needs of all students from all social backgrounds.

What you may need to know - and ask

A school that trumpets its ‘great success’ should provide you with:

  • Information about its performance (obviously not just glossy promotional materials and grand claims that the school is mainly responsible for its outstanding results)
  • Sufficiently credible indicators of how it specifically adds value to student achievement
  • Ideally, an independent evaluation of its value adding.

Without such information, one is obviously vulnerable to making a decision on the basis of hunches instead of hard evidence. As an independent school principal put it to the author:

"We are aware of how some parents who are hard-headed in their professional and business lives may not necessarily apply the same rigorous standards when selecting a school".

Public schools have comprehensive performance data systems (including student outcome data, opinion data and a range of demographic data) that, importantly, take into account the impact of student background through ‘like-school’ assessments. Such assessments can help to reveal the real added value.

Added value is revealed over time

Added value for individual students in public schools may also take time to be revealed. Indeed, longitudinal studies of educational achievement (beyond Year 12) provide interesting results. For example, a report from the Group of Eight (Go8) universities finds that, while participation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds is lower at Go8 than other universities, these students at all course levels have better outcomes in terms of:

  • Attrition (the percentage of students who commence a course, who neither complete nor return in the following year)
  • Retention (the percentage of continuing students out of all students enrolled the previous year who did not complete their course in that year)
  • Success (the Effective Full Time Student Load (EFTSL) of units passed, as a percentage of all units attempted, for a particular group of students).

It is obviously not the case that all of these students come from public schools or that schools are the only casual factor. However, there will be increasing interest in how public schools (and the very nature of public education) may make a significant difference, longer-term, to the life chances of their students. This is all the more important given that this generation will deal with mobility across jobs and occupations (a career for life is a thing of the past) and the reality of lifelong learning.

2. Toward a truly 21st century education

Among the most fundamental questions in education are:

  • How do we best prepare young people to succeed in the 21st century?
  • What are the elements - minus the clichés - of a 21st century education?

Every school - across all three sectors - is faced with these challenges. Apparent success with Year 12 results can simply serve to conceal the magnitude of these challenges. There are various frameworks for ‘new’ learning but, as yet, no broad agreement as to which factors add the most value. Yet we know much about what adds value to all students' learning.

As distinct from the old academic-vocational and theory-practice divides (a 1950s academic elite selection model of education which still persists), 21st century students seek to seamlessly combine deep academic knowledge, understanding, concepts, theories and principles with applied and practical learning and 'real world' community problem solving.

They want their own personal learning pathways into and out of education, training and work. This means really ‘personalised learning’ that does not shoehorn students into old pigeon-holes (such as 'academic' and 'vocational' learning) that reflect old educational divides such as 'high' and 'technical' schooling, etc.

Students may freely mix and match subjects - favouring their own personal blend of both deep academic knowledge and practical and applied learning - in ways that are challenging the old vocational, occupational and academic study pathways. New, truly personal pathways improve learning for all students and increase access to ‘academic’ learning for students whose learning may be initially more ‘concrete’ than ‘conceptual’.

What, then, is emerging? Unified learning pathways that consider senior school and vocational and higher education and degrees and diplomas as part of a coherent learning framework. Despite the obstacles (via the curriculum, etc.) to doing this, many schools seek to develop the best ways to support students who are striving to create their own blend of:

  • Academic and conceptual knowledge
  • Practical and applied learning and skills.

Many more students are also creating their own pathways into and out of education and work. Some may begin with university and then attend a TAFE college, and vice versa. Likewise, periods of work (including students' part-time jobs) and learning are spread increasingly throughout life rather than being concentrated in discrete and separated periods.

All of this comprises the future of education and schooling that is emerging now - and many public schools are at the forefront of this shift poised to transform education! Some schools, however, persist with an old, narrowly academic model. This is not a bad thing, but it is not a truly 21st century education. A 21st century education cuts across the old divides, with the effect of also enriching and enabling what is deemed to be 'academic' learning.

3. The 'real world'/a global citizen

Victorians originate from over 230 nations, speak approximately 180 different languages and follow at least 116 different religions. Students can learn apart from their peers of diverse social, cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds! Or students from very diverse backgrounds can learn together. A basic choice.

Public schools are, as a rule, the most diverse - which is one of the greatest advantages of a strong public system of education. Many non-government schools simply cannot achieve the degree of cultural and social inclusiveness - which can powerfully contribute to a child's all-round personalised development - inherent in the public education system.

Students in a public school may thus routinely learn with and from a wide range of students with social, cultural and religious backgrounds very different from their own. The value of this in the 21st century cannot be overstated! As Professor Alan Reid puts it:

"Developing an appreciation and empathy for people from different backgrounds and cultures is best achieved through the experience of interacting and mixing on a regular basis. It is not something that is learned by one removed from the action".

Providing the melting pot of all races, cultures, religions and social class backgrounds, in such schools students can increasingly communicate and collaborate with others using intercultural and cross-class understandings and, moreover, be especially well-placed to become future leaders and global citizens.

This is not to suggest there is a clear divide between certain 'exclusive' non-government schools, on the one side, and 'inclusive' public schools, on the other. The situation is more complex than that. As well, some public schools have been negatively affected by a narrowing of their student demographics - when some parents of 'advantaged' background opt out of public schools in favour of non-government schools. The appeal of the social and cultural inclusiveness of public schooling is thus diminished in these schools.

But some non-government schools by way of their exclusiveness tend to create enclaves, due to the cost of fees or based on testing or as a result of ethnic and religious foci or because a single world view is favoured. Such exclusivity may constrain a student’s knowledge, understanding and perception of people who are not like them.

If many students are learning in silos segregated by ethnicity, social class and religion (instead of public education systems), there is reduced space for young people to discuss, argue, talk, learn and work across old divides, making it difficult for many members of a new generation to advance the common good. Key questions that all parents may thus want to ask are:

  • Will my child have a personal life story of mixing with diverse ‘others’? From all social, cultural and religious backgrounds!
  • How is this mix is creating a new ‘identity’ for such children?
  • How does this mix support my child in becoming an effective lifelong learner, an active and informed citizen, a problem-solver, a community-builder, and a leader?

4. Learning to become a 21st century leader

Our communities, our workplaces, our schools and our society are changing rapidly and are faced with all kinds of challenges. The challenges - such as innovation in workplaces and community problem-solving, creating high-quality education and health care and tackling social, economic and environmental issues - need new solutions and a new kind of collaborative leadership that engages people of all backgrounds to work together for real change.

In many public schools, young people from diverse backgrounds learn and work together for well over a decade of their lives. In so doing, they may acquire (even informally) incredible leadership skills that stand them in good stead. The next generation of leaders in all fields of endeavour will:

  • Be much more representative of culturally and socially diverse school communities
  • Have the knowledge and skills to connect across diverse cultures and social groups.

Such leaders will build the best, broadest and most sustainable partnerships in communities, workplaces and societies. And such leaders can obviously come from all schools and all education sectors. However, students in those public schools that are particularly inclusive (and who thus may be well-placed to routinely learn from cultural and social diversity) will come increasingly to the fore as leaders and global citizens.

These leaders will bring with them collaborative and inclusive values that are not confined to, but can come to the fore in, public schools. And such values will drive future problem-solving, workplace redesign, community-building, even nation-building! Indeed, some parents who send their own children to private schools will make the point that their own public schooling experiences helped them to become effective, collaborative, inclusive leaders in their workplaces and community organisations.

Although collaborative leadership practices are obviously not unique to people educated in public schools, there will no doubt be increased interest among parents - and researchers - in how a good public education provides for young people the skills for:

  • Visioning. The capacity to identify common interests and engage people of diverse backgrounds in joint work and activities
  • Sharing power. The ability to develop partnerships among people, organisations and communities to accomplish shared goals
  • Developing people. The capacity to bring out the best in others and to build the synergy of people of diverse backgrounds.

These leadership skills emerge in both public and private school settings, but it is much easier for young people to acquire these all-important skills in inclusive school communities.

5. Democratic school governance

Public education systems are a mix of centralised powers and policies and decentralised school decision making. Getting this mix right is always a 'work in progress'!

School governance refers to school councils and boards, student bodies (e.g., SRCs and JSCs), parents and friends forums, staff committees and other local decision-making bodies. If school governance is truly democratic, it is based on the empowerment, participation and collaboration of students, staff, parents and other stakeholders in major decisions in the school.

Some non-government schools have developed democratic governance. However, the opportunity and the right (which is embedded in government legislation) to have a say in the direction and decisions of the school are still more common in public schools.

Although the actual practice varies markedly, of course, from school to school, public schools have a long and rich tradition of locally elected school councils/boards and other forms of staff and community participation in substantive decision-making.

Why is this important?

There are least two key reasons for championing high standards of democratic governance, as developed by many public schools. First, having elected school council or board members obviously helps to increase downwards democratic accountability and transparency of information and decision-making. Some non-government schools are yet to develop good practices with either of these. Second, decisions made by a democratic school council are those of a broad, diverse group of people rather than of any one individual or any one section of the school community or, for that matter, of any one group in the wider community and society.

In a diverse school community, this potentially means that the school is more likely to arrive at informed, objective decisions in the best interests of the school and its student body as a whole.

For a school to really meet the needs of all students and add value, stakeholders (including parents, students and teachers) of diverse backgrounds need to be active participants in shared decision making. Such democratic school governance can:

  • Help to develop learning that is culturally and socially inclusive
  • Add educational value to student achievement beyond that which may be predicted given the social class backgrounds and prior attainments of students
  • Develop a school as a place where teachers, parents and students interact as co-learners and leaders
  • Ensure that young people are prepared and equipped to be active citizens - in their schools, communities and wider society.

Good governance practices

A good governing body in a school, based on strong partnerships and staff and parent participation in its own internal work, supports the development throughout the school of:

  • Accountability, i.e., performing effectively, efficiently and ethically in the best interests of all stakeholders, and in accordance with the law, regulations, probity, accountability and openness
  • Performance, i.e., setting a school community vision, developing plans, policies and strategies focused on outcomes and adding value, and helping to build strong and productive partnerships between all of its stakeholders
  • Transparency, i.e., providing to parents and the wider community as much information as possible as well as financial disclosure of all sources of income (fees, subsidies, business interests, private trusts, bequests, etc.)
  • Independent appraisal, i.e., ensuring that all information about school performance including about how a school adds real value to student achievement is validated by independent and frequent school reviews.

6. The power of collaboration

School improvement efforts increasingly emphasise a more collaborative approach to education. This means a shift from a narrow focus on the performance of any one school to the performance of a cluster and network of schools working with each other and with pre-school and post-secondary partners to create a learning and development system.

In place of a 'stand-alone' school in a 'win/lose' competition with other schools is an emphasis on strong clusters and networks of schools that seek (via a new generation of partnerships) to add value to the educational experiences of all students. As has been led by many public schools, a more collaborative approach means building stronger links between:

  • The vertical ‘parts’ of education (e.g., school clusters, several primary and secondary schools working together to develop P-12 schooling or a learning community involving a TAFE college, university or kindergarten)
  • The horizontal links with the wider community (e.g., health agencies, workplaces, businesses, community organisations, and groups such as sporting clubs)
  • Sharing resources such as sport and performing arts facilities.

This is not to suggest that non-government schools are not building these kinds of partnerships. But some of the most pioneering, community-based and inclusive work with partnerships has been led by public schools. This is associated with the advantage of being a part of a public education system. In this respect, with adequate resources and support, the development of clusters of schools provides new opportunities for building 'next practice' educational partnerships.

As well, school community hubs are the community centres of the future. Many will be based at public schools or be associated with a cluster of public schools. They include community meeting spaces, access to community information, evening learning and co-located services such as a pre-school.

7. Shared school-family-community goals

Although the practice varies enormously, many public schools have strategic plans that:

  • Involve school community members in a joint planning process that brings together diverse perspectives
  • Build unity of purpose between the principal, staff, parents, students, school council and community groups
  • Establish priorities around truly shared school-family-community goals that can drive educational renewal.

Good practices that we have seen in public schools include:

  • Assessing community needs and issues through a community survey that can involve all parents, teachers and students
  • A series of facilitated forums to maximise teacher, parent and student participation in the planning process
  • Developing broad agreement about the goals and strategies that are most likely to improve learning outcomes and optimise life opportunities for all students.

Examples of shared school-family-community goals, around which school community members work together toward, include:

  • Powerful learning for all students in the classroom, at home and in the community
  • Collaborative P-12 schooling
  • New technologies
  • Student participation and leadership
  • Health and well-being.

Developing shared goals around such issues is not unique to public schools. But there is an expectation in many public schools that families will have significant input into the goals of the school.


There is no absolute divide between public and non-government schools. But it is obviously important to think through the advantages of public education - advantages that are not always apparent.

Some of these advantages belong to the 'here and now'. They are inherent in the very nature of public schooling. Others reflect the potential of public schools to shape the future of education.