Choosing right school not an exact science

Private schooling can stretch the purse strings, but is it a valid investment? CATHERINE HARRIS takes a look at the costs and benefits of opting out of the state school system.


As another school year grinds into gear, many parents are faced with some big decisions. Co-ed or single sex? State, integrated or private? Boarding or day student?

No option is cheap but going to a state school is certainly the most economical.

Apart from a uniform, stationery and an (arguably) optional school donation, families will probably have to budget only for travel and incidental costs like a camp over the year.

However, for a small percentage of the student population, school will be a private or "special character" institution.

Fees at these schools range widely from $4000 to $18,000 a year, and more for boarders. So what do you get for your dollar?

The most regularly given reasons for private education are smaller classes and good teachers, which usually coincide with better exam pass rates.

Auckland's ACG Senior College is a case in point. The school is one of six owned by a private company and is geared specifically to students aged 15 and above.

It is an urban, non-boarding school, deliberately based close to Auckland University.

"We have students who are finishing their A-levels here and doing university at the same time," principal Kathleen Parker says.

The cost of attending ACG Senior College is about $16,000 a year but its academic record is strong. Ninety-five per cent of its students met the University Entrance minimum in 2009-2010.

Parker acknowledges that high expectations are a "huge part" of that pass rate, but she believes it also has a lot to do with the school's pastoral approach.

Smaller numbers mean teachers can catch those lagging behind and bullying is harder to hide.

"There's very few students who'd slip through the cracks and lots of individual attention available.

"We've got fantastic public schools in New Zealand . . . but it's still a big job managing those schools."

A key difference about independent schools is that because they receive a minimal amount of state funding, they can choose whether to follow the state curriculum.

Instead of the state's NCEA exam system, Parker's school uses the Cambridge International Exam, and also recently began offering the International Baccalaureate programme to accommodate students wanting to go to university in the northern hemisphere.

"Two of our students were accepted into Cambridge last year and then they sat around until September waiting," Parker says.

Fans of private schools argue that they are better resourced to turn out the problem-solving, independent thinkers who will be needed in the future.

But don't write off the state system yet.

Research shows that even in our public schools, New Zealand students are outperforming other countries.

Stuart Middleton, an education expert at Manukau Institute of Technology, says the state sector stacks up pretty well. "It provides our successful students, by sheer fact of the numbers."

But it is also clear that a lot of that success comes from high decile schools.

So although it is possible to have a high-performing student in a state school, they are more likely to have come out of homes where expectations and support for their education is high, so they are well prepared to hit high school.

But what about those high pass rates? Is it possible schools select only the brightest or even allow only some students to sit exams, skewing their results?

Middleton says that is possible but unlikely.

"If you've got the money you go. The selection that's done on that sort of group is done outside the school. It's done by a lot of home circumstances, the wealth of the parents, a whole lot of other factors."

There is also the undeniable fact that private school can enrich their students with resources that state schools can only dream of.

Arts and sports programmes are often extensive, and then there are the schools that base themselves around certain values.

So it would be a shame if parents based their decision solely on academic pass rates, says Beth Rogerson, principal of Solway College in Masterton.

"For me, if I was choosing a school for my child, I would look at the NCEA results, I would look at the Education Review Office report, I would listen to what other people said.

"A lot of people send their children to our school because other families tell them that their children do well here or, probably just as important, that they're happy here."

She would also visit the school to get a "feel" for the relationships between teachers and their students.

"But it's certainly not an exact science."

Solway, like many religious or alternative schools, is not strictly "private" because it has integrated with the state system.

That means it teaches the state curriculum, gets more state funding but retains the features that make it distinctive.

Solway's point of difference is that it is Christian, a girls' school and largely for boarders. Its fees vary from $4600 a year for a day girl to $12,116 for a weekly boarder and $15,648 for a full boarder.

The school does well academically, but, like Parker, Rogerson believes parents are drawn to her school for other reasons, namely its values - and the supervised homework that boarders are expected to do every night.

A surprise to many parents is that like any school, there are always the extra incidental costs on top of fees.

One private school advises parents to set aside $3500 a year for stationery, school trips and sports costs.

Rogerson says her school has some compulsory activities but parents should know about them in advance.

"We try to be pretty clear about what costs are involved. There shouldn't be hidden costs."

And while boarding school is not the cheapest option, she says there are some financial savings.

"Things like electricity, meals, are taken care of. There's also a time factor in that for our students we take them to sports events . . . things like that."


The price of a good education — a representative sample

STATE SCHOOL Burnside High, Christchurch. Uniform: Girls from $340, boys from $301. Voluntary donation: $170 for the first child, to $88.50 each for four. Other costs: $30 PTA donation, $7.50 student ID, $8 student planner, incidentals like school trips unknown. Total: From $516.50 a year, upwards for one child. INTEGRATED Solway College, Masterton. (Costs exclude uniform). Fees: From $4600 a year for a day girl, to $15,648 for full board. (Includes attendance fees, donation and other fees). Other costs: Dependent on child. Tax credit available on donation segments of the fee. Discount: Available for sisters.

PRIVATE Scots College, Wellington (Costs exclude uniform). Tuition: $14,676 (year 1-2) to $19,228 (year 11-13) a year. Average board (on top of tuition): $11,876 (weekly boarder), $15,320 (full boarder) a year. Other costs: About $350 a month for incidentals such as stationery, sports trips, cultural activities). Discount: 10 per cent on third child. Total: For a year 11-13 pupil, from $22,728 (for a day pupil) to $38,048 (full boarder) a year.

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