Private Schools: The cost of choice

The recession and marginal financial assistance from successive governments has made things tougher for parents who choose to educate their children in private schools, say those involved with administering the sector.
“Private schools are becoming less affordable to many New Zealand families because of little government support and inequitable funding across the education spectrum,” says Deborah James, executive director of Independent Schools of New Zealand.
“Independent schools would reduce fees if they could but under the present subsidy they are not in position to do so without compromising the high quality staffing and curriculum delivery. Risk of diminished private school sector will only make the sector more elite and exclusive.
“The presence of private schools sector ultimately protects parental choice; under the Declaration of Human Rights parents have prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children. There must be choice in an education system. Without choice we run the risk of offering monopolistic education system, one that would produce mediocrity in education delivery and outcome.”
James says that particular mythologies about private schools have made funding issues political, rather than practical, and the economic sense of increasing subsidies is often overlooked. She says that there is misconception that “private schools are for the rich and wealthy, when in actual fact they’re not. We have ordinary families who’ve made education priority. Many have made huge sacrifices. Arguably, there are more wealthy families in public schools than in private schools.
“We’re not drain on the public purse. It would appear that political ideology prevents successive governments from seeing the economic sense in raising the subsidy to private schools so that they can continue as independent schools. The NZ Institute of Economic Research in its report on ‘Funding Arrangements of Independent Schools in New Zealand’ provides compelling economic argument for the Government to raise the subsidy to private schools and still remain net fiscal beneficiary of the presence of private schools sector,” James says.
Independent Schools New Zealand currently represents 43 of the 95 registered independent schools around the country and James says that the recession and inadequate funding has affected some schools, particularly those in the Central North Island where “population growth potential is not the same as other areas. Schools are not seeing the same level of enrolments and parents are facing economic and employment uncertainty. Some people who may have considered primary and secondary may now choose just one or the other,” says James.
Chief executive of Academic Colleges Group (ACG) Clarence van der Wel admits that while enrolments have been largely unaffected by the recession, he is aware that parents are finding it more difficult to pay tuition fees. “Many are making large financial sacrifices for their children to be able to attend independent schools,” he says.
ACG has range of schools and programmes in Auckland and overseas, with four schools in different areas of Auckland (ACG Parnell, ACG Senior College, ACG Sunderland and ACG Strathallan) that cater for mainly New Zealanders and three other schools for international students.
Like James, van der Wel finds it difficult to accept the case for less subsidies when the benefits of increasing them make sounder economic sense, he says. “There is fiscal benefit to the Government from the existence of private schools. Firstly there’s the net revenue gain – where the GST take on tuition fees is greater than the grants private schools receive from the Government. Secondly the Government doesn’t need to provide schools and teachers for approximately 3.8 percent of the NZ student population [those who attend private schools], which means significant savings for the Government. The reality is if the Government were to increase subsidies to private schools then more children would come, meaning large savings and less to pay for in state schools.”
Both James and van der Wel are further frustrated by the costs of integration of private schools into the public sphere. “Raising subsidies long term is more cost-effective than the school having to integrate – integration costs lot more. small school in Auckland recently integrated into the state sector. In doing so it has reduced its fees from $11,500 per annum to $500 per annum. The taxpayer is picking up the cost of that private school integrating into the state sector. The Minister of Education has recently announced she will enter into negotiations with Wanganui Collegiate School. Should the application to integrate be successful it will cost the Government millions of dollars more each year in operational funding,” says James.
While recessionary factors may be making conditions harder for number of parents who choose private education for their children, the reasons for the choice have remained the same, says van der Wel. “There’s the freedom to choose the type and style of education that suits their child. There is greater accountability from the school by paying for the education. Independent Schools do great job and create caring environment where kids are safe, happy and valued. They are service oriented, focusing on supporting children and families, with an emphasis on meeting the learning, social and emotional needs of the child.”
Academic factors are also important van de Wel says, especially when it comes to the qualification programmes offered. Since 2002 ACG schools have only offered the CIE (Cambridge International Examinations) secondary qualification. “CIE is the largest international secondary education qualification in the world and is highly regarded. Some parents dislike NCEA and seek out private schools for different qualifications – IB (International Baccalaureate) and Cambridge. Some families feel the academic standards in private schools are better.”
While the issue of funding to independent schools remains ever present for van der Wel and James, they are however, aware that higher funding levels will be unlikely in the short term. “We believe better funding would help significantly but we appreciate the reasons for no increase in funding in the current economic climate,” van der Wel says.

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