Every parent wants to give their child the best start in life – but when it comes to schooling, can money buy success? In the first of a three-part series, education reporter Simon Collins examines how private, state-integrated and state schools prepare our kids, both academically and for the rest of their lives.
Should you spend an extra $20,000 a year to send your child to a private school instead of a state-integrated or state school?
That's a question many parents may be asking now that research by the NZ Initiative found your child's chances of leaving school with University Entrance are slightly higher in an integrated rather than a private school, after adjusting for every bit of data the Government holds on every family.
Both private and integrated schools scored better on average than state schools.
Annual fees at the 10 biggest private schools this year average $23,427, excluding boarding fees, compared with an average of just $3074 in fees and donations requested by the 10 biggest integrated schools.
In contrast, the 10 biggest state schools are requesting donations averaging just $532, ranging from $1350 at Auckland Grammar down to zero at Avondale College.
So is a private school worth the money? Over the next three days, this series will put that question to parents, teachers, principals, students and past students.
Private schooling is an outlier in the New Zealand education scene. Most Kiwi kids (85 per cent) attend state schools. Only 11.2 per cent attend integrated schools and a mere 3.7 per cent go to private schools.
But the author of the NZ Initiative study Joel Hernandez, a 27-year-old NZ-born economist whose Filipino parents saw education as their way out of poverty, says investigating why students do better at integrated and private schools is important if we want our state schools to do better.
"There is always going to be inequality in the society," he says.
"But education should be the equaliser. It shouldn't matter whether you were born in a one-bedroom house or a five-bedroom house, you should be able to get a good quality education no matter where you started."
How our system works
Hernandez attended a Catholic primary school, St Francis Xavier School in the Wellington suburb of Tawa, and then two state schools, Tawa Intermediate and Tawa College.
St Francis Xavier, like all other Catholic schools, is "state-integrated" - privately owned, but state-funded for everything except property at the same level as state schools, in return for following the state curriculum (plus agreed add-ons for religious education).
It can charge fees but only to cover the cost of privately-owned land and buildings. Its roll is limited by its integration agreement with the state, and non-Catholic students were limited initially to 5 per cent (now 10 per cent) of the total.
In contrast, "private" schools are free to determine their own curriculum and fees and to enrol any students they choose.
Since 1970 the state has given them a partial subsidy, initially set at 20 per cent of teacher salaries, recognising that it would cost taxpayers even more if the private schools closed down and their students ended up in state or integrated schools.
The Ardern Government has frozen that subsidy at $47.8 million a year, which is shared out to the schools based on their student numbers at each level of schooling. The highest level of subsidy last year was $2141 for every student in Years 11 to 13, which was 23 per cent of the corresponding average Years 11-13 funding for state and integrated schools ($9277 per student, excluding property).
Last year's total state funding for state and integrated schools across all year levels, including property, was $8187 per student. Fees alone charged by the 10 biggest private schools were almost three times higher.
Who goes where
New Zealand's private school sector is tiny by international standards, reflecting our relatively low subsidies and tight restrictions on integrated school rolls.
Across the Tasman, Australia pays subsidies on a sliding scale based on parents' incomes. In 2017, Catholic schools averaged 86 per cent of the state schools' funding rate per student, and independent (private) schools averaged 71 per cent of the state rates.
And many more students attend private schools there: 19.5 per cent go to Catholic schools and 14.8 per cent to independent schools.
In New Zealand, integrated schools have grown slightly from 9.5 per cent of students in 1996 to 11.2 per cent last year, but private schools have been static, fluctuating between 3.5 and 4 per cent partly because new schools have been offset by some private schools integrating into the state system - notably Whanganui Collegiate in 2013 and Hamilton Christian School last year.
Private schools are most important in Auckland, with 5.8 per cent of all students in the city.
Nationally, 5.9 per cent of Asian students, 4.7 per cent of Europeans, 1.2 per cent of Pasifika and just 1 per cent of Māori attend private schools, along with 15.9 per cent of international students.
in addition, Pasifika students are the most likely to attend integrated schools (15.5 per cent of all Pasifika), compared with 13.5 per cent of Asians, 11.9 per cent of Europeans and 6.6 per cent of Māori.
Before adjusting for the makeup of schools, fee-paying schools head the academic league tables. Thirteen of our top 25 schools measured by the students who leave with University Entrance are private schools, and 11 of the other 12 are integrated.
You have to go down to 22nd on the list to find the first state school, Wellington Girls' College, a school in the wealthiest tenth of communities (decile 10).
But of course that is an unfair comparison, not only because private schools have more money per student, but also because most of their students start with a big advantage.
If their parents can afford $23,000 for a private school or even $3000 for an integrated school, they can probably also afford to give each child their own bedroom and quiet study space.
They are probably not sole parents or low-paid shift workers, so two adults are available to help with the children's homework and take them to sports and music lessons and outings.
And they clearly value education highly, because these well-off families could spend their thousands on a boat or an overseas trip or a nicer house, but choose to pay school fees instead. Their children are likely to absorb those values.
Hernandez's report for the NZ Initiative adjusts for all known factors to see how much "value-added" the schools give each student, given the advantages or disadvantages that each student brings.
He doesn't know the names of each student or school. But he has used Statistics NZ's "integrated data infrastructure" which contains anonymised details on every student and their parents across the whole government, including income records from Inland Revenue, benefit records from Work and Income, criminal records from the justice system - and of course education records from early childhood centres, schools, tertiary institutes and exam authorities.
He has taken this data for all 398,961 students who attended any of our 480 secondary schools in the years 2008 to 2017, coded each school as state, integrated or private, and worked out which background factors and school types were most strongly correlated with the students leaving school with University Entrance (UE).
"It's really only in New Zealand that you can do this level of analysis," Hernandez says.
"The model that we have built is a world-first in that we were able to use such a large suite of family background characteristics."
On average, in an initial study, all the family background characteristics explained 38 per cent of the variance in student achievement, and school factors including ownership explained 14.5 per cent.
That first study found that adjusting for all the background characteristics almost completely eliminated the variance in student achievement by decile.
"On average, decile 1 schools contribute similar 'value-add' to their students as decile 10 schools," it concluded.
But Hernandez's new report shows that, even after adjusting for all the known data on each family, school ownership still makes a difference.
An average student in a state secondary school between 2008 and 2017 had just a 30.5 per cent chance of leaving school with UE.
That same student, after allowing for all their family characteristics, would have had a 37.4 per cent chance of achieving UE in a private school, and a 38.8 per cent chance in an integrated school.
Private schools have by far the highest proportion among the top quarter of all NZ schools for students achieving UE adjusted for family characteristics - 24 of the 36 private schools (67 per cent) are in that top quartile, compared with 45 per cent of integrated schools and just 15 per cent of state schools.
But private schools also have a slightly higher proportion than integrated schools in the bottom quartile: three out of 36 (8 per cent), compared with 6 per cent of integrated schools and 32 per cent of state schools.
Massey University Professor John O'Neill suggests this may be partly because 94 out of 99 integrated schools with at least 30 students including Years 11-13 are religious, compared with only two-thirds of the 36 private schools meeting the same criteria.
"We know from other research that faith/kaupapa community schools tend to perform better than heterogeneous secular community schools, so it's no surprise if NZ state-integrated schools on average outperform state schools on average," he says.
"It is interesting, though, that they also have a slight advantage over private schools. Faith trumps dosh?"
The differences are statistically significant, but of course they only measure one outcome: UE. Only 31 per cent of NZ school-leavers actually go on to university the next year.
But we can't use the broader National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) because many private schools use Cambridge and International Baccalaureate exams instead.
And Auckland University Professor Peter O'Connor notes that we have no measures at all of other things that may matter more in the long term.
"There is nothing to suggest that going to a private school means you will be happier, lead a more purposeful life, contribute more to the world, have better relationships with your partner or your children," he says.
So why go private?
The most obvious advantage in going private is the money. As we have seen, private school fees alone are almost three times state funding per student in state schools, and the money pays for good teachers.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) shows that NZ private schools had one teacher for every 11.2 students aged 15 in 2018, compared with one for every 14.1 students in state schools.
A sixth of state school principals in the Pisa survey, but none of the private school principals, said they were hindered by "inadequate or poorly qualified teaching staff".
Matthew Fitzsimons, who runs the private school teachers' union the Independent Schools Education Association, says private schools pay between 3 and 12 per cent above the state pay rates.
So private schools can buy the best teachers - and the teachers respond.
"Anything is possible. If you want a guest speaker in, you can do that. If you want resources, you are able to get them," says former St Kentigern English and drama teacher Katrina Larsen, who now teaches in a state school.
"The fact that there are no restrictions to being perfect means that time and effort cannot be the restriction. Thus staff work long hours."
Students are well behaved, so the teachers can get through more of the curriculum.
Students with special learning needs are diagnosed and get support.
"A number of kids in the state system are not diagnosed and therefore are not eligible for extra support," Larsen says.
Naomi Milner, who taught at Queen Margaret College in Wellington before moving to state schools in the South Island, says the main difference is the level of care that each student gets in small classes.
"All the Year 11 students at Queen Margaret would gather for a meeting once a week, so if there is any student who is flagging or something is wrong - maybe it's a pastoral thing, maybe it's a curriculum thing - it's much more likely to be picked up early," she says.
"Nowhere have I seen the level of care that I saw at Queen Margaret."
Some of the private schools also offer international qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Cambridge. Nine of the 12 NZ schools offering IB are private, as are 20 of the 37 Cambridge schools.
So why wouldn't you?
The downside of international qualifications is that they lack local content. Only five of the 10 biggest private schools, but all of the 10 biggest state schools, offer te reo Māori at Year 13.
O'Connor, who grew up in a state house after his father had a stroke, says his advice is to "send your child to the local state school".
"It's an important commitment to the local community in which you live," he says.
"The purpose of education is engaging children in a life-long passion for learning and a fuller realisation of their potential, and that is not measured by UE.
"For Pasifika, a notion of successful schools which Dr Michelle Johansson in South Auckland talks about is creating servants to communities, so the value of a school in South Auckland might be measured by how many of their students become servants to the communities in which they live."
He says a "high-pressure academic environment" suits some, but not others.
"For some children, putting them in those highly competitive academic environments brings the best out of them," he says.
"For some children, private schools are really good for them. For others, they're not. You don't measure that solely on whether they have got UE."
State for boys, private for girls
Remuera's Pennington family has chosen a state school for its boys and private for its girls - and is happy with both.
Admittedly the state school is Auckland Grammar, the school that brought Cambridge exams to New Zealand and is about as close to the character of a private school as a state school can be.
"I'm a really ardent believer in Grammar," says lawyer Ross Pennington.
"It's a rule-based system. If you go along with that, you'll succeed. Boys are naturally disorganised, and running a system like that is pragmatically really smart."
Eldest son Oliver, 17, is in his last year at Grammar. The youngest, Fabian, 9, who is now at King's School, will also go there.
But their sisters Bianca, 13, and Isobel, 11, attend St Cuthbert's College, a private school where the fees are $24,232 a year plus a building levy of $300 per family.
The family is in the zone for state school Epsom Girls' Grammar, but mum Nicky Pennington, also a lawyer, attended St Cuthbert's herself.
"It's a strong bond being an old girl," she says. "I still have friends whose daughters are going there now. It's a full circle."
"It's more about values," Nicky says.
"They seem to have an ethos of empowering women," adds Ross. "The connections to the older girls is part of that. You are actually engaged personally for a lifetime. They support each other and help each other."
All the children started at a state primary school, Victoria Avenue, but the family moved Oliver to King's School in Year 7 and started Fabian there this year in Year 5.
"At King's there are more subjects," Fabian says. "We have science and music and maths classes instead of just one, and French - it's the easiest subject."
Oliver remembers: "It's more formal at King's, a big emphasis on rules for sure, and clearer standards. For sure, I think it's good, it's good formative years to have those skills, and it's a good time to have clear expectations."
Oliver has friends who have gone on to King's College and believes that it suits some boys, while Grammar suits others.
"I'd say that King's value more getting everyone into being well rounded, pushing forward as a collective," he says.
"Grammar focuses more on individual excellence and letting people do what they are good at, and offers facilities to help people extend themselves to the highest level."
He says Grammar's strict academic streaming is "motivating". Frequent tests "help to compare against yourself and others to know what you're falling behind in".
"Grammar would have a larger variance in success because the school is just too large, they can't afford to push everyone like King's does," he says.
"But if you are motivated, there are definitely great paths that help you achieve. At King's I think there is more of a push on getting everyone over the line regardless of your motivation."
Similarly at St Cuthbert's, Bianca is in a "tutor group" with other girls from Year 8 to Year 13 which stays with the same tutor teacher for six years.
Bianca plays water polo at St Cuthbert's and has "other opportunities that I probably couldn't do in a different school".
"I can do Shakespeare, and we go on cool trips, and there is camp and Kahunui, a one-month camp in Year 10."