Is private school a good investment?
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 economic.
Apart from a uniform, stationery and an (arguably) optional school donation, families will probably only have to budget for travel and incidental costs like a camp during 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 $4,000 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 over.
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," says principal Kathleen Parker.
The cost of attending ACG Senior College is about $16,000 a year but its academic record is strong - 95 per cent of its students met the University Entrance minimum in 2009/10.
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," she said.
"We've got fantastic public schools in New Zealand ... but it's still a big job managing those schools."
A key difference for 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.
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 most of our successful students, by sheer fact of the numbers," he said.
But it is also clear that a lot of that success comes from high-decile schools. So while it's possible to have a high-performing student in a state school, they're more likely to have come out of homes where expectations and support for their education is high, and they're well-prepared to hit high school.
But what about those high pass rates? Is it possible schools select only the brightest or even only allow some students to sit exams, skewing their results?
Middleton says that's possible but unlikely.
"If you've got the money you go." he said.
"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's also the undeniable fact that private school can enrich their students with resources that state schools can only dream off.
Arts and sports programmes are often extensive, and then there are the schools that base themselves on 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 say," she 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 to 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's Christian, a girls' school, and largely for boarders. Its fees vary from $4600 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 does have some compulsory activities but parents should know about them in advance.
"We try to be pretty clear about what costs are involved," she said.
"There shouldn't be hidden costs."
And while boarding school is not the cheapest option, she points out there are some financial savings to be had.
"Things like electricity, meals, are taken care of," she said.
"There's also a time factor in that for our students, we take them to sports events ... things like that."
Finances aside, both Parker and Rogerson say that choosing a school largely comes down to where you think your child will fit in best.
"If I was a parent, I'd be saying what's in my area? Am I happy with the public school in my area? Am I happy with the personalised work my child gets? And if I'm not, I'll look around," says Parker.
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 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) per year. Average board (on top of tuition): $11,876 (weekly boarder), $15,320 (full-boarder) per year. Other costs: About $350 per 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) per year
The Dominion Post