The independent school advantage: student engagement

From girls to Renaissance women … nurturing student engagement is central to Wenona School’s teaching practice.

Disruptive behaviour, talking back, schoolwork avoidance. These are some of the telltale signs of a disengaged student. Media headlines tend to highlight extreme misbehaviour in schools but low-intensity resistance to learning is far more common — and equally problematic.

A recent Grattan Institute report found that up to 40 per cent of Australian students are effectively tuned out in any given year. The consequences for their education and that of their fellow students are dire.

Disengaged students quickly fall behind with their performance trailing their peers by up to two years, on average. The difficulty of teaching children with insufficient base knowledge is stressful for teachers and hinders the progress of the entire class, the report found.

Study authors Peter Goss and Julie Sonnemann have called for urgent reforms. Their recommendations are two-fold: augmented teacher training that incorporates specific classroom management strategies and the development of techniques to establish a constructive learning environment in the classroom.

The overall aim of teaching should be learning — now and into the future, say the researchers.

“The teacher’s ambition should not necessarily be a quiet classroom, but a genuinely productive class. The broader aims are to help students feel comfortable, be confident in their own abilities, be willing to participate and make mistakes, and be keen to challenge themselves in learning.

And effective teaching goes further: creating an environment that not only makes learning possible now, but also teaches attitudes and behaviours that enhance learning and success in later life. Student skills in self-regulation, such as self-monitoring and self-evaluation, are vital for life-long learning,” the report states.

International research bears out these findings. The UK’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has assessed the impact of various components of the educational experience on learning outcomes based on worldwide evidence. Assessing everything from physical aspects such as the built environment and digital technology to parental involvement and teaching methods, the results show that teaching children meta-cognition skills such as reasoning and self-evaluation are the most effective strategies for improving engagement and lifting academic results.

As EEF chief executive Kevan Collins told Quartz, “Getting children to think and talk about their own learning more explicitly can be one of the most effective ways to improve academic outcomes.”

Independent schools are well aware of the benefits of this teaching style and have fully embraced it.

An exemplar is the Renaissance Woman educational framework found at North Sydney’s Wenona School. The school says this holistic practice is “modelled on the Socratic method of teaching, a form of cooperative dialogue and debate that encourages critical thinking; there are no ‘right answers’ in the course. The point is to consider, contemplate and question.

Strengthening student engagement is of primary importance at Wenona. “We explore ways to enhance our girls’ engagement and connectedness, including providing opportunities for them to learn to be present with themselves without distraction. Encouraging this capacity for reflection and self-awareness promotes self-confidence and a stronger sense of identity, building all-important resilience.”

The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) has found that independent schools have the most deeply engaged students and this is due to the nature of the schools themselves.

Family background and a student’s inherent motivation play a significant role but on the centrality of schools, ACER is unequivocal: “It does matter which school a student attends,” the organisation says. This, ACER explains, is because the highest levels of engagement are found in schools where “students believe that their school has a good school climate, that is one where they have high quality teachers, effective discipline, high levels of student learning and a positive school spirit.”

Research shows that academic achievement is closely correlated with student engagement. “There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between engagement, wellbeing and outcomes. Engaged students do better and doing better increases engagement,” says the NSW Government’s Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation.

The excellent HSC results attained by independent schools throughout the state are testament to the positive learning climate found in these schools and the deep engagement they cultivate in students.

To learn more about what makes independent schools so successful, visit the North Shore School Expo, August 5-6, at the Concourse in Chatswood.



Engaging Students: Creating Classrooms that Improve Learning — Peter Goss and Julie Sonneman, The Grattan Institute, February 2017

Teaching and Learning Toolkit — Education Endowment Foundation, 2017

We’re asking kids all the wrong questions in school — Jenny Anderson, Quartz, July 7, 2017

Student engagement with school: individual and school level influences — Sue Fullerton, ACER, July 2002

Student Wellbeing — Literature review, Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, NSW Education and Communities, May 2015.


Co-ed Or Single Sex: What Will Work Best For Your Child?

Australia has perhaps the widest range of schooling options in the English-speaking world, including a comparatively high proportion of single-sex schools in both the public and non-government sectors.

While co-education is the predominant mode of schooling in the US and Canada, and is rapidly becoming so in the UK as well, gender-specific education remains a popular choice for Australian families.

Greater than the sum of its parts … consider all the elements to find the right school for your child.

This is especially true in NSW, where there are more than 130 single-sex schools throughout the independent, public and Catholic school systems.

Sydney-based parents have many excellent schools of either type to choose from and deciding between the two can present a real dilemma for many.

With a wealth of research on the topic available, there is a strong case to be made for the merits of each. Excellent academic results can be seen in both types of schools and there are no distinct drawbacks to either schooling style.

However, they do differ in terms of environment and social factors.

Research shows that girls are more likely to excel in music, maths, and science subjects when they attend single-sex schools. It is presupposed that the absence of boys may help girls to develop greater self-confidence in their abilities as well as making them more willing to speak out and perform for an audience.

Meanwhile, boys are said to benefit from male-centric teaching methods, which are more readily delivered in boys-only schools.

Dr Tim Hawkes, former headmaster of The King’s School in Parramatta, is a vocal advocate of gender-specific teaching methods.

“We must allow boys to be boys, we must allow them run in the playground and learn according to their learning style and not try to force them to adopt learning behaviours that are antithetical to the way they discover and learn new information,” he says.

On the co-ed side of the ledger, Barker College head Phillip Heath makes the point that the contemporary workplace is a mixed-gender environment and that schools need to prepare students for adult reality. Last year he announced that Barker College would be transitioning to a fully co-ed school by 2022 because “life is co-ed.”

“Barker College aims to prepare young people for much more than an ATAR or even for life at university. The real purpose of a school is to support students to reach their full potential in the workplace and in their communities, and in building strong relationships and families,” Mr Heath told the Hornsby Advocate.

Proponents of single-sex schooling counter this view with the argument that schools aren’t employment training centres but are instead, as MamaMia contributor Zoe Rochford wrote in defence of girls’ schools, “a safe place where developing brains can learn about things, both conceptually and practically, from a distance. They’re a recognition that our adolescents aren’t ready for the “real world” yet – that they still have learning and growing to do… If that means that single-sex education suits some brains better, the way it did mine, then so be it.”

That said, international research demonstrates that teacher quality is the most decisive factor in academic outcomes. Breaking down the various influences on education attainment including individual capability, family background, teachers, principal, peers and school, the data shows that 50 per cent of achievement can be attributed to a student’s academic potential and 30 per cent to teacher ability, with the other elements making up the balance.

It’s probably fair to say that a school is greater than the sum of its parts. No single institutional component will make or break a student’s education but the overall mix will have a huge impact.

In a column for the Manly Daily, Greg Whitby, executive director of schools for the Parramatta Catholic diocese, counsels parents against focussing solely on the single sex vs co-ed issue, advising them to look at the bigger picture.

“To put it simply, there are good single-sex schools but also some pretty poor ones. The same applies to co-educational schools.

“The best learning environments for young people are the ones that respond to their social, emotional and learning needs, that allow for diverse opinions, encourage healthy and positive relationships­ and ultimately reflect the diversity of the communities in which they live,” he writes.

When it comes to deciding between a single sex or coed school, there is no clear winner. Like many complex questions, the honest answer is: it depends. There are distinct advantages to each type of school but, ultimately, the best option is the one that suits your child the best.


Research versus the media: Mixed or single-gender settings? — Helen J Forgasz, Gilah C Leder and Calvin Taylor, Monash University, 2007

Teachers Make a Difference: What is the research evidence? — John Hattie, University of Auckland, Australian Council for Educational Research, October 2003

Barker College becomes Sydney’s first private boys’ school to welcome girls across all grades — Jake McCallum, Hornsby Advocate, November 4, 2016

A prestigious school goes co-ed and suddenly everyone’s saying how evil single sex schools are. Rubbish. — Zoe Rochford, MamaMia, November 8, 2016

Dividing line not key to success – Greg Whitby, Manly Daily, February 18, 2017

Why school choice matters

Head start … Parents value the opportunity to choose the best school for their child.

Australia has one of the highest rates of private schooling in the OECD. Approximately 35 per cent of students attend a non-government school, either a Catholic systemic institution — 20 per cent — or an independent school — 15 per cent.

In NSW, the figure is slightly higher. More than 16 per cent of students attended an independent school in 2016 and in the high school years, this number jumped to 22 per cent. The OECD average for all students is 4 per cent, according to the latest available figures (2014).

Australian parents clearly value school choice but considering our comparatively good public education system, it’s reasonable to wonder why.

The Independent Schools Council of Australia (ISCA) argues that school choice gives parents the opportunity to find a school that best suits their children’s needs while supporting their values and academic preferences. “Independent schools reflect Australia’s social and ethnic diversity, offering choice for young Australians to be educated in schools with different cultural, religious and educational philosophies,” ISCA says.

With more than 300 independent schools in the Sydney metropolitan area alone, the sector is incredibly variegated, both culturally and academically.

The intensity of competition within the education sector incentivises better performance resulting in higher student achievement, ISCA says. “The freedom of students and their families to exercise choice in schooling is one of the most demanding forms of accountability for independent schools. Schools need to remain competitive to survive and consistently meet high parental expectations for the development of students.”

This effect is seen in the excellent HSC results attained by independent school students and in their greater take-up of higher education post-school.

A recent report by the Australian National University (ANU) reveals that students who complete Year 12 at an independent school are far more likely to attend university than their counterparts at Catholic and state schools.

The study found that 68.7 per cent of school leavers in the independent sector went onto university in 2016, whereas only 53.9 per cent of Catholic system and 45 per cent of public school graduates enrolled in a bachelor degree. This trend accelerated over the three-year period of the study with the rate of university attendance by private school students increasing while corresponding Catholic and public school figures fell or remained static.

Perhaps as a consequence of their greater propensity to attend university, private school kids grow into adults who earn more and live in wealthier suburbs. A 2016 Curtin University study of 17,000 Australians found that independent schooling results in an average wage premium of 15 per cent. Study author Mike Dockery concluded: “Overall, the results suggest that private schooling continues to be an important mechanism by which socio-economic advantage is transmitted between Australian generations, largely due to enhanced access to higher education.”

Another inducement for parents, especially those whose children hope to attend university overseas, is the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma.

Available in NSW only through accredited independent schools, the IB has seen rapid growth since its introduction to Australia in 1978. In 2016, more than 2000 students from around the country received an IB diploma.

The key attraction of the IB is its international recognition and the academic rigour of the program. For scholarly students, the IB offers an unsurpassed opportunity to explore a broad range of subject matter in a course structure that promotes independent learning.

The IB’s global perspective and emphasis on critical thinking provides an excellent grounding for university and research has shown that IB students are more likely to attain entry to university and to complete a degree.

University isn’t for everyone though. Independent schools cater to children of all abilities and inclinations with a view to helping every child realise their full potential.

Private schools are well-known for nurturing gifted and talented students but many readers might be surprised to discover the range and depth of vocational education and training (VET) programs taught at these schools.

The Association for Independent Schools NSW website lists 16 Stage 5 VET courses offered at the HSC level ranging from Business Services and Information Technology to Construction and Sports Coaching.

These certificate courses are employment-oriented with students undertaking mandatory work experience to gain industry-recognised skills. School leavers are able to transition into the workplace directly after graduation giving them a valuable head start in their careers. Additionally, independent schools typically provide purpose-built facilities for VET students allowing them to complete their studies on campus with their peers instead of attending TAFE.

There are many reasons to choose an independent school and the greater the choice of schools, the better the options. It’s little wonder that so many Australian parents seize the opportunity to choose the best school for their child.


School statistics – Independent Schools Council of Australia website

School statistics – Association of Independent Schools NSW website

Datablog: Private schools are winning over Australian parents — Nick Evershed, The Guardian, March 11, 2014

Parents and School Choice — Independent Schools Council of Australia website

NSW Secondary Students Post-School Expectations and Destinations, 2016 Annual Report — Dr Paul Myers, Alexandra Parkes, Natasha Vickers, Andrew Ward, Esther Corcoran, ANU Social Research Centre, April 2017

Does private schooling pay? Evidence and equity implications for Australia — Associate Professor Mike Dockery, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University, October 27, 2016

International Baccalaureate (Australia) — International Baccalaureate website

VET Courses, Association of Independent Schools NSW website