The cost of private education: what are parents really paying for?

Education Ministry will not publish school tables

A private school is a hefty investment for parents seeking out the benefits of the independent school network, but what about the educational outcome or return on the thousands of euros spent on educating their children?

That may well be an unknown quantity, as the Ministry for Education is resisting publishing comprehensive data showing how private, public and church school pupils fare in ‘O’ level exams.

The ministry has definitively ruled out publishing a ‘league’ standing of each school’s success in MATSEC examination results, twice refusing a Freedom of Information request by MaltaToday.

But parents who opt for private school education – on average spending €3,666 every year over a 12-year span for each child – may wish to know whether the overall €40,000 spent over a lifetime is achieving comparable performances by students educated at church and state schools; or whether that money could have been better spent for private university education abroad, a property acquisition, or a retirement fund instead.

The education ministry is claiming that publishing schools’ individual MATSEC results is “sensitive information [that] is not in the interest of the schools, the professional community, students and consequently the localities, since the creation of league tables has a negative impact and labelling on them.”

The ministry already publishes statistical reports breaking down results according to locality, gender, and according to school type, but not by school.

“Non-disclosure of such detail outweighs the public interest in disclosing it, and the disclosure of such data may prejudice the objective of these examinations, that is to gauge students’ abilities and not to create competition,” the ministry said.

The ministry’s view is that creating league tables would only serve to label schools, teachers and students. “It may lead to competition among the private and independent schools which may unreasonably affect the commercial and financial affairs of this sector.”

MaltaToday’s infographic clearly shows the range of prices that private schools command, although the perception that the independent school network is profit-making can be misleading.

The Independent Schools Association has successfully lobbied for tax breaks for parents who send their children to private schools, in a bid to render private education more affordable as school costs rise.

In 2010, an internal ISA report by PricewaterhouseCoopers warned that declining birth rates, and rising salaries for teaching staff, were threatening the schools’ very survival. The report found that the schools would need some €17 million over the next ten years, in the form of tax credits so that parents could keep financing their children’s private education.

Independent schools argue that they are more efficient at operating schools (in 2010, the ISA report compared costs per student at €1,655 a year, compared to €2,217 for State school students), and that if they were to close down, the cost to absorb these students into the Church and State schools would be as high as €3,000 per head.

Private independent schools are already in ‘competition’ with state and church schools, after the phasing-out of the Junior Lyceum entrance exam, and a €20 million church school expansion that created 2,000 new places. On the other hand, the ISA predicted that in 2013 it would see schools losing €1.6 million altogether per annum.

The ISA had already ruled out raising school fees, and in 2010 said that recent increases had taken fees “to the limits of affordability.”

Performance driver or dampener?

The UK’s own obsession with school league tables has been a mixed bag. The National Union of Teachers says international evidence shows that collaboration between schools is more successful than competition, and that this can be inhibited by a ‘league table mentality’.

The UK’s league tables label as “underperforming” those secondary schools where fewer than 40% of their pupils get five GCSEs at grade A*-C, including English and maths.

Supporters argue that the tables help drive up standards by increasing the accountability of schools and providing valuable information for parents. Proponents will say that parents willing to spend hard-earned money for their children’s education should have the freedom to choose how to spend it, according to school performance.

But as recently as April 2015, research commissioned by the UK’s National Union of Teachers and carried out by London Metropolitan University academics, found that such accountability measures failed to reduce gaps in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers, and instead result in higher levels of stress.

90% of teachers surveyed for the study reported more frequent incidents of stress and anxiety suffered by pupils as a result of the intense focus on testing – perhaps something that Maltese schools are already accustomed to.

In the last MATSEC examinations Church schools clearly outperformed pupils in both state schools and independent schools, in nearly all subjects except for English Language, English Literature and Physical Education, where candidates from independent schools appear to have the upper hand.  

18% of boys attending church schools obtained the highest grade in maths compared to just 0.4% of boys attending state schools and 10% of males attending independent schools.

Girls from church schools outperform all other categories in Maltese, while those attending independent schools were the most likely to get the highest grade in English.

Ministry against school leagues

“Reporting individual school results as a measure of school quality is unreliable, misleading, and damaging to schools and the quality of education they deliver.

“League tables are likely to exacerbate the problems of misleading and inaccurate information about school performance. Tables lead to a public debasement of schools with very poor results and a low ranking, and to public labelling of their students and families as ‘failures’, and undermine effective school improvement.

“League tables designate schools as successes and failures with the consequence that some schools will be stigmatised regardless of the actual quality of education delivered or the commitment of their teachers.

“The labelling of some schools as ‘failing’ or ‘underperforming’ creates a climate of recrimination and retribution which may undermine teaching and learning. Under such a process students become very much aware of the status of their school, and that this has negative consequences for their own self-image and commitment to education.

“When schools are labelled, teachers in such schools run increased risks of being stigmatised as failures regardless of their commitment or capabilities. Due to the increased stigma and stress, as well as the potential damage to their careers in a blame-based accountability system, teachers are likely to become increasingly unwilling to work in disadvantaged schools.”

Source: Refusal to MaltaToday FOI request