Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Accounting for School-Sector Differences in University Entrance Performance

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Accounting for School-Sector Differences in University Entrance Performance

Article excerpt


In Australia, the distinction between government, Catholic and independent (non-Catholic non-government) schools is an enduring characteristic of the nation's education system. Among developed nations, Australia has one of the largest non-government school sectors with, depending on the year level and jurisdiction, between 25 and 50 per cent of students attending non-government schools. It is one of the most contentious issues in Australian education (Thomson & Reid, 2003). The issue has been on the political agenda since the 1960s with the 'state aid' debate; in recent years it has received greater prominence due to the former Howard (Liberal) government's increase in funding to non-government schools, and the 2004 election campaign during which the Labor party's education policy included a reduction in funding to elite independent schools (since discarded). Critics of Australia's non-government sector argue that independent schools contribute to the reproduction of privilege and social inequality in Australian society and consume resources that could be better directed at government schools. Supporters of non-government schools argue that they deliver better educational outcomes at a cheaper cost, allow parental choice, improve overall student performance through competition and cater for a diversity of social groups.

One issue that often emerges in debates on school-sector differences is whether student performance in non-government schools is superior to that of government school students. There are two general responses to this question. The first is that sector differences in some student outcomes should not be attributed to the effectiveness of non-government schools or to the failings of government schools but largely to the social backgrounds and other intake characteristics of students. Students in independent schools tend to come from more highly educated and highly resourced families. Often these schools offer scholarships to high-ability students and, anecdotally, dissuade low-achieving students from applying for tertiary entrance. (These arguments do not apply so well to Catholic schools or low- and middle-fee independent schools.) It can be argued that, unlike government schools, these schools do not have to accept all comers, so can reduce the number of difficult-to-teach students. In addition, school-sector differences in student performance may be attributed to social capital, peer effects, student aspirations and other factors unrelated to the provision of teaching and learning.

The opposing argument is that non-government schools 'add value': that is, enhance student performance to a greater extent than government schools through better schooling. In other words they are 'more effective' schools. There is little consensus on how they achieve this, although a number of factors have been proposed, such as higher standards, better teachers, stronger discipline, a school culture promoting academic excellence, more frequent assessment and feedback, more flexibility in the hiring and firing of teachers, greater autonomy in school governance, stronger parent-school relations, better academic leadership--the list of possible factors is quite extensive.

The purpose of this paper is to contribute to this debate by focusing on possible factors that account for sector differences in university entrance performance. This paper investigates to what extent school-sector differences in university entrance performance can be attributed to students' socio-economic background, prior achievement and aspects of the teaching and learning provided by schools.

Previous studies

Despite the prominence of the issue in Australian education, there is relatively little empirical work on school-sector differences in student performance. The item report for the 1975 Australian Studies in School (later Student) Performance (ASSP) found that students in independent and Catholic schools tended to perform better than government school students on individual test items (Bourke & Lewis, 1976). …

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