My husband and I, both teachers, often get asked for advice about which school people should send their kids to. One of our closest couple friends are expecting their first child in 2 months and the father wanted to know whether they really needed to get their son’s name down at a school as soon as he’s born. We then started discussing the types of schools available in Perth and what their options were.

What I always assume is common knowledge is really not known or understood by most parents. Since we get asked this sort of thing so often I thought I’d write a series of posts that will hopefully help shed some light on your own decision. This first one will outline your options and choices.

Types of Schools

We all know that we can either go for the local government school or choose a private fee-paying school to send our kids to. But there’s more to consider and there’s a lot of variation in fee-structure and school culture amongst private schools. Here’s a little tour of what I think you need to know.

Government Schools

Most of the time, if choosing to send your child to a government secondary school, your choices are limited to the school(s) in your area and in which catchment zone your residential address resides. This is often why you hear, in Perth at least, that the real estate and rental markets boom in particular catchment zones.

We also have some schools that are selective. Perth Modern School is Perth’s only academic selective school, where all students attending have been identified as academically gifted and talented. This is identified through the entrance examination and testing that students wanting admission to the school must sit. If selected, students from all over Perth can attend Perth Modern. There is also John Curtin College of the Arts which is a selective school with a comprehensive arts programme.

In addition to these two schools, there are many schools that run special, selective programmes. While the school itself isn’t selective, they have a number of places to admit students to their special programmes (based on entrance examinations). For WA you can read more about these here.

Government schools are funded entirely by the state government and tax payers, with a small annual tuition fee (a few hundred dollars usually) asked of each family.

More and more government schools in WA are being granted “independent school” status. It is likely other states in Australia will adopt this model too. This means that principals have more autonomy to make their own decisions and hire their own staff. Schools not of this status don’t necessarily get a say in which teachers are employed in their school at any one time and are more constrained in their decisions about the running of their school. This independent status is not to be confused with independent private schools.

Non-Government Schools

If choosing to go the private route, then you are choosing a non-government school. This means that you will pay an annual tuition fee and the federal government (rather than the state government) will fund a proportion of the school’s financial needs.

Within the private school system you have a choice between Catholic schools and Independent schools. Within these choices you have further choices based on fee structure and religious denominations. Let’s start with Catholic schools.

Catholic Schools

The central organising body of Catholic schools is the Catholic Education Office (CEO) of your state. While each school is unique, just like each government school is unique, all teaching staff are on the same enterprise bargaining agreement in all schools and all decisions are made in conjunction with the CEO. Thus the level of autonomy of each school is not as flexible as many people assume.

Of course each school in this system is based on the faith and beliefs of the Catholic Church. What many parents fail to realise is that Religious Education (RE) is secondary schools is taught as a “proper” subject. Students are involved in RE as many times per week as they are every other core subject, like Maths. In addition to this they start the day with a prayer and attend religious services throughout the term. The Catholic faith is a large part of the everyday culture at the school. Staff are also held to very strict standards and are asked to agree to live by the tenements of the faith and uphold the Catholic ethos at school and in their lives.

Thus when choosing Catholic versus Government, it’s important to realise that you’re not just choosing private versus public. There is much more to a Catholic education than a uniform and a private schools status.

Generally speaking, Catholic schools offer the same subject choices as their public counterparts. Class sizes are usually around the 30 student mark. There are many co-curricular activities for students to be involved with including an after school competitive sporting programme, drama, music, debating and so on.

When it comes to fees for a Catholic school they can vary widely. There are many low-fee paying Catholic schools where annual fees are from $3000-$6000 per year. There are also higher fee paying Catholic schools, some of which offer a single-sex education.

Independent – High Fee Paying Schools

The other types of schools usually on the radar are the high-fee paying private schools, or what some people consider the elite private schools. In Perth, all of these schools are single-sex in nature. In the Eastern States they have some coeducation high fee paying schools as well as single-sex.

These schools are of various religious denominations. Some are Catholic and operate separately from the CEO. Many are of the Protestant tradition, including Anglican and Uniting Church. In Perth we don’t have any high-fee paying independent schools that are non-denominational (that is, secular and of no religious tradition).

When we talk high-fee paying, we’re talking $20 000 per year in tuition plus. Of course there’s uniform and other expenses to be paid in addition to these fees, depending on the co-curricular involvements of your child.

Class sizes tend to be much smaller in these schools, and in lower school hover around the 20-24 students. Subject selection is similar to all other schools and are constrained by the number who choose a subject. Your child won’t be guaranteed the opportunity to study whatever they like if it won’t fit the timetable or not enough students have chosen a subject. This is just like in any school.

The co-curricular opportunities are extensive and usually of a higher standard and more rigorous competition than in other sectors. In fact, in the boys’ schools in Perth, all students are expected to play an after school sport all year round, in competition with the other boys’ schools.

One myth is that the high fees pay for better teachers, who in turn receive higher salaries. It’s true that a large proportion of the school’s revenue goes towards salaries, as with all schools. It’s also true that teachers in these schools are on higher salaries than other schools, just not significantly more. We’re talking a few thousand dollars difference between a government school and one of these “elite” schools. Parents expect a lot more for their fees, and the teachers often work very hard, but aren’t financially rewarded as it is often assumed. The teachers also come from the same universities, with the same training, and are constrained as all teachers are in any special attention and services they can offer individual students.

Independent  – Moderate and Low Fee Paying Schools

There are many other private schools that don’t fall into the above two categories. There are a number of Anglican schools in Perth that raise funds through the Anglican Schools’ Commission, tuition fees and the federal government. They are co-educational and range from low fees to moderate fees ($4000 to $16000). Their class sizes also differ in size as do the opportunities for co-curricular involvement. They are often a popular choice with parents choosing private schools. The Anglican tradition and ethos is part of the culture of these schools and students attend religious services. Students also attend Religious Education classes, but not usually as often as they’d attend classes in a Catholic school. Often these classes are based more on comparative religious studies than on the particular teachings of the Anglican faith.

There are of course Jewish and Islamic private schools. In Perth we only have one Jewish school and a few Islamic schools, all considered to be Independent private schools. Generally speaking, most families would choose a Jewish or Islamic school because they wish for their child to be educated in the religious faith and cultural tradition of their family. The fee structures, academic programmes and co-curricular activities reflect those of other private schools, and the Jewish school in Perth is certainly very academically competitive. The major difference is the religious instruction and religious traditions the take place each day as part of the culture of the school.

We then have other Christian private schools. These usually have “Christian College” or something similar in their school name and have various Christian denominational backgrounds. Many of these denominations are of the more “evangelical” tradition where spreading the Christian faith is a major part of the cultural structure of the school. Fees in these schools vary with many low fee options, to some schools charging at the higher end of the spectrum. As with other schools, class sizes, subject selections and co-curricular opportunities vary as does the time spent on RE.

What is important to note about some of these Christian private schools is that teachers are required to be practising Christians, with active involvement in their local Church. Most often teaching staff are employed based on their faith and belief first, and their teaching experience second. This culture is then also reflected in the day to day running of the school and sometimes where the school places its emphasis.

Finally we have non-denominational private schools – schools that are private and fee paying with no religious affiliation, like a government school. In Perth, to the best of my knowledge, we now only have two such schools. There are many more in the Eastern States. Each one is unique, as all schools are, and have the same varying structure in school fees, subject selection and co-curricular activities.

For a more comprehensive listing of private schools in any state, this guide might be useful.

Next time I’ll write about what questions and considerations are useful in deciding which school might be best for you and your child.

In the meantime, I’ve attempted to provide the information that most people seem to ask me and expose some of the incorrect assumptions or pieces of information that most people don’t know. Please leave a comment with any questions you’d like answered and I’ll be happy to give you my 2 cents!

Photo credit: Old Shoe Woman / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA