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The public–private debate: school sector differences in academic achievement from Year 3 to Year 9?


A higher proportion of students are privately educated in Australia, compared with many other nations. In this paper, we tested the assumption that private schools offer better quality education than public schools. We examined differences in student achievement on the National Assessment Programme: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) between public, independent, and catholic schools. Cross-sectional regressions using large samples of students (n = 1583–1810 ) at Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 showed few sector differences in NAPLAN scores in any domain. No differences were evident after controlling for socioeconomic status and prior NAPLAN achievement. Using longitudinal modelling, we also found no sector differences in the rate of growth for reading and numeracy between Year 3 and Year 9. Results indicate that already higher achieving students are more likely to attend private schools, but private school attendance does not alter academic trajectories, thus undermining conceptions of private schools adding value to student outcomes.

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Correspondence to Sally A. Larsen.

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This research was supported by two Australian Research Council Discovery Project Grants: DP 120102414 (2012–2014) and DP 150102441 (2015–2018). This research was also facilitated through access to Twins Research Australia, a national resource supported by a Centre of Research Excellence Grant (ID: 1079102), from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

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The data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author. The data are not publicly available due to privacy or ethical restrictions. Ethical approval for the study was granted by the Human Research Ethics Committee at the University of New England (Approval # HE12-150 and HE18-163).

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Larsen, S., Forbes, A.Q., Little, C.W. et al. The public–private debate: school sector differences in academic achievement from Year 3 to Year 9?. Aust. Educ. Res. 50, 275–306 (2023).

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