Youth Electoral Study (YES) - Report 5: Youth, schools and learning about politics

Updated: 18 July 2012

10. Government and Private Schools

The literature which has focused on differences in traditional academic achievement subjects between government and private schools has been considerable (Evans and Kelley 2002). However less attention has been directed to less tangible outcomes between the two types of schools, such as in the civic values and behaviours which result in politically engaged adults.

Since most private schools tend to be affiliated with a religious denomination, one debate has focused on real or potential incompatibilities between some aspects of religion and democratic civic socialisation. The argument is that the appropriate attitudes and values which are central to a democracy, for example the duties to one's civic community, political tolerance, and acceptance of non-traditional lifestyles, may conflict with some religious values. However in at least one study of fundamentalist schools, by Year 12 it was found that the students surpassed government school students in all desired attitudes and values, except the acceptance of alternative lifestyles (Godwin et al. 2004). Most arguments about differences in outcomes between government and private schools focus on different levels of home background, while others contend that the fact of school choice in attending private schools accounts for the difference (Wolf 2007). However in some European countries, the differences between government and private schools have been found to be less than in some other Western countries (Dronkers 2004).

While it is not our intention to conduct a thorough analysis for the differences that we find, we do intend to report on some of the basic findings that came out of our survey regarding government and private schools, and various outcomes relating to citizenship behaviours.

There are three major types of schools in Australia: government, Roman Catholic, and Independent, the latter being a mixture of denominational and secular. In Figure 10 we show the distribution of students in our survey between the three types of schools.

The YES sample slightly over-represents the independent school students, and slightly under-represents the government school students, which may reflect willingness to participate in the study. The 2004 statistics reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics is 12.5 per cent for independent, 19.9 per cent for Catholic schools, and 67.6 per cent for government schools (Australia) across both primary and secondary schools.

The figures for the YES sample are indicated in Figure 10.

Distribution of students in types of schools

Does the type of school a student attends make a difference in the extent to which students intend to vote, and the knowledge that they have about Parliament? The first item we looked at was whether there was a difference between the types of schools and the per cent of 17 year-old students who had already registered on the electoral roll. Overall, of the 3277 students we had who were over 17, and who responded to this question, 30.8 per cent had registered. However there was virtually no difference between type of school and registration, the per cent being 32.1, 26.4 and 31.5 per cent for independent, Catholic and government schools respectively. The correlation between type of school and registration was virtually zero. However this was not the case when we examined other civic related outputs, for example the per cent of students who could name the Houses of Parliament and who said they would vote at 18, even if they didn't have to.

Figure 11 presents the per cent of students in the three types of school who say they would vote when 18, even if not compulsory. It also shows the per cent of students who were able to name both Houses of Parliament, and thus to answer a knowledge item correctly.

These two criteria measure two types of civic outcomes – intended political behaviour, and political knowledge. It is clear that for both criteria, students in private independent schools come out on top, followed by the Catholic schools, with the Government schools on the bottom. The relationships, although somewhat small, are both statistically significant.

Type of school, voting intention and political knowledge

The issue regarding this pattern is whether there is some factor in the schools themselves that account for the difference, or are the differences a function of other characteristics in the students, for example their family background. In order to test this possibility, we conducted two small multiple regression analyses, one for voting and one for knowledge of the Houses of Parliament, in which we held constant the educational and occupational levels of the parents of the students. We also added the variable which measured how much information the student said he or she received from their parents.

For this analysis, type of school is coded into three categories, with values of 1 = government (least selective), 2 = Catholic (some schools selective, some not), and 3 = private independent (mostly selective). By selective, we mean that schools select or admit an elite group of students as a result of admission and fee structures. Thus, it might be argued that this variable measures the elite status of the three types of school.

The baseline regressions for the relationships between type of school, and the two dependent variables, are given in Table 4.

Table 4: Baseline regression coefficients for two dependent variables: knowledge of the Houses of Parliament, and commitment to vote (even if not compulsory).
Type of School Knowledge of Parliament Commitment to Vote
B beta B beta
(Private=3) .085* .075 .108* .081
R2 .006 .007

The baseline regressions show that the elite status of the school is directly related to both the knowledge of the Houses of Parliament and the commitment to voting when 18. Although the variances explained are very low (less than one per cent), the relationships are statistically significant.

The question now is whether this relationship between type of school and the two outcome variables is due to the type of school, or to the characteristics of the students. To answer this question, we ran the two multiple regressions again, but included four control variables, namely the education of mother and father, the occupational prestige of mother and father, and whether a student felt that he or she received much political information at home.

The results of the two regression analyses are given in Figure 12 which displays the standardized regression coefficients for each variable which theoretically might determine the student's knowledge of the Houses of Parliament and commitment to voting. Because the standardized regressions are measured in standard deviation units, they are comparable; the larger the value, the more impact the variable has on the variable being explained. The asterisks indicate which variables are statistically significant. In this case all the significant variables have probabilities more than .01.

The first observation concerns the power of the two models. The model which explains commitment to voting is much more powerful, in that it explains 11.5 per cent of the variance, whereas the model which explains knowledge of the Houses of Parliament only explains a little over 4.2 per cent. This means that the factors that explain knowledge of the houses of Parliament lie outside the variables included in these models. These differences are visually apparent by the generally longer top bars, indicating stronger relationships.

The second important observation concerns the significance of whether the type of school makes a difference in both knowledge and voting commitment, net of the other home background and school variables. Overall, the type of school coefficients is small relative to all other variables, with the exception of Mother's Occupation, which is the only variable to be unimportant in both models. The effect of the other variables can be seen by comparing the coefficients in the base model (See Table 4), with the coefficients for Type of School in Figure 12. The coefficient for explaining the ability to name the Houses of Parliament in the base model is .075 and statistically significant, whereas in the multiple regression it declines to .039, but remains significant. This means that the family background and the school variables actually explain about half of the base coefficient. However, since Type of School remains significant (although small), it means that the private schools still have an independent effect on students' knowledge about Parliament, over and above the effects of parents and other school variables.

Does school matter net of other factors

*These beta coefficients are statistically significant at .01 or more.
R2 for Naming Houses of Parliament = .039
R2 for Commitment to Voting = .113

When we turn our attention to commitment to voting, we find a completely different picture. The base coefficient was .081 (See Table 3), but in the multiple regression, shown in Figure 12, the coefficient was reduced to .022 and was not statistically significant. This means that the original relationship between private schools and voting commitment was explained away by the background and school variables (the top bars). When we examine Figure 12, we find that although all other variables are significantly related to voting, the largest and most important, by far, are getting information from parents about politics (.19), and acknowledging the influence of parents about voting (.161). These are closely followed by the education of the father (.12) and education of the mother (.057). In effect, this analysis tells us that the characteristics of the family are more important in determining whether the student intends to vote, rather than the type of school the student attends.

Thus, from these analyses we can see that the apparent association of private schooling with student political knowledge and the commitment to vote is very much interrelated with student family home background characteristics. In effect, when we take into account both attendance in private school and family characteristics, the influence of private schools on voting commitment disappears, whereas with respect to political knowledge, it is diminished, but remains important.


  1. Students in private independent schools show the highest level of political knowledge (naming the Houses of Parliament) and commitment to voting (will vote even if not compulsory), followed by students in Catholic schools and finally by students in government schools. (See Figure 11.)
  2. The effect of private school attendance on commitment to voting disappears when home background characteristics are taken into account; the fact that a higher proportion of private school students say they will vote is due to the fact that they get more political information and influence from their parents, and their parents are generally better educated. (See Table 4 and Figure 12.)
  3. The effect of private school attendance on political knowledge (naming the Houses of Parliament) is diminished when family background (as defined in #2 above), but it doesn't disappear. Attending private schools, both independent and Catholic, does add to the effect of home background, in the acquisition of political knowledge. (See Table 4 and Figure 12.)