Public v private: Parents urged to consider children's needs rather than prestige when deciding on schools

Parents are being urged to consider their children's needs and wants when choosing a high school, rather than deciding based on how it's funded.

There are currently three options for high school in New Zealand - state, state-integrated and private - and they range from free to costing thousands of dollars per term.

But at those prices, fewer than 4 percent of Kiwi kids can even dream of going to private school, and the New Zealand education system has been ranked one of the least equal in the world.

"As much as New Zealand thinks it's an egalitarian society, it can still really matter where you go to school," NZ Initiative policy analyst Joel Hernandez told The Project.

"However, when we look at individual schools, we find high-performing schools - that's top 25 percent of all secondary schools in the country-  we find them at state, state-integrated and private schools." 

Hernandez penned a report in 2020 that showed kids at religious schools actually outperform private schools when it comes to getting university entrance. 

"Great facilities make learning a bit easier, but at the end of the day a fancy iPad isn't what causes great education outcomes - it's good teachers and high expectations from both parents and educators." 

The Thirkell sisters Emma and Georgia attended a private school in Christchurch together, before Emma asked her parents if she could switch to public.  

"I felt like the environment wasn't my speed and the academic pressures they put on me didn’t work with how I was feeling," she said. "Then I got to breaking point and I was like - I have to leave."

Their mum Kate said her initial response was: "yikes".

"My husband's [response] was 'no', but I could see she was not learning as well as I thought she could."

Kate said she was "pleasantly surprised" by the facilities and course options available at public school Wellington Girls High, and that helped to make the decision to move Emma there.

"When I started at [Wellington Girls] High, I started loving it, getting good grades and trying again," Emma told The Project. "[My parents] thought 'this actually works for her. Let's keep her there.'"

Her sister Georgia continues to study at Queen Margaret College, which is best for her.

"I like a smaller environment. If you want to push yourself, they'll push you along and that’s really great for me."

Kate is urging parents to consider all options when choosing schools for their kids.

"If you're lucky enough to have the choice then check out all the options and don't assume that because something suits one child it'll suit the next."

Head of Auckland University's Faculty of Education, Professor Peter O'Connor said academic achievement doesn't necessarily equate to success later in life.

"The Ministry of Education has been sidelined into thinking about achievement especially in a narrow band - literacy and numeracy - but we all know life is much bigger than that and schools are much bigger than that. 

"Kids who go to local school have lots of advantages doing that. They’re connected to the community in which they live.

"At the heart of it, it's a teacher-student or student-student relationship and you're just as likely to get that at a public school as you are at a private school."