Parents make choices about education conscious of the fact that their parenting is on display and they are being judged.

When I wrote a paper about private schooling for The Conversation in August 2014, I received more than 300 comments mainly from parents outlining their reasons for choosing a private school for their children.

After careful contemplation, I came to the conclusion that for many parents, the act of choosing a school was more about how they, the parent, would be regarded than about education.  

Believing that one is a ‘good parent’ is integral to one’s identity, therefore, selecting the best school symbolises good parenting. So how do parents select the best school for their child?

Apart from having to consider the needs of their child, the family budget and other demands on their time, parents need information about school quality. So what is school quality and how is it measured?

The ubiquitous advertising of private schools seems to suggest that quality schooling has a price. Parents may believe that paying private school fees guarantees a better quality education.

To date, there is little evidence that attending a private school is associated with better outcomes at university or in the labour market.

Maybe, it’s more that by paying high fees, parents are able to select their child’s peer group, ensuring that they mix with ‘the right kind of people’. 

Some parents may believe that the quality of a school can be measured by its students’ average level of achievement in standardised tests, such as NAPLAN. All students sit the same tests at the same time under the same conditions, therefore, the results are comparable, or are they?

If Australian education systems were able to ensure that all schools had similar resources; were staffed with teachers of similar skills, training and ability; and provided similar learning experiences, then maybe NAPLAN results would be comparable.

The Gonski report provided clear examples of the level of inequality lamenting that the students with the most need are not able to access the schools with the most resources. 

Other parents may believe that a quality school is one that prepares their child for life after school. Rather than being concerned with tests scores or fees, some parents may focus on the diversity within the school.

Preparing children for the globalised economy may be easier within a school populated by students and teachers from a variety of countries, cultures, religions and socio-economic backgrounds. 

Another indicator of quality may be the amount of funding per student. Perhaps schools with higher levels of funding, achieve better academic results.

However, as Dr David Zyngier notes in the comments section of a piece I wrote for The Conversation, titled ‘Test scores aren’t good quality indicators for schools or students’, even though the top 20 private schools in Victoria spent, on average, more than double the amount per student as the top 20 government schools, they achieved similar results, suggesting that either government school teachers are able to achieve more with less or government school students are able to achieve more with less. 

The dilemma of having to select the best school, the fear of making the wrong choice and the increasing costs to both the family and the taxpayers are the outcomes of the rhetoric of parental choice which was used to justify the reallocation of taxpayer funding from building public schools to building private schools.

Yet as research conducted by Lyndsay Connors and Jim Mc Morrow cited in the Sydney Morning Herald shows, educating the 634,068 students in private schools cost taxpayers $9.5 billion in 2012, $2 billion more than it would have cost to educate them in government schools. Maybe it’s time to reframe the debate. 

Rather than trying to measure the quality of schools to provide comfort for fragile parents focused on choosing the best school for their child, perhaps we should focus on how we measure quality and how, as a nation, we can provide a good quality education for all.