The waiting game for private school enrolments
So they put him on several more to increase their options.
Waiting lists are a private school thing. Mainstream government schools must accept school-aged children in their zone and selective-entry schools accept students who perform well on an entrance exam.
The lists are also a balancing act: a school wants the list to be long but not so long it puts parents off, and the process is murky enough to enable them to fast-track children who are academic, athletic or come from appealing families. Families, on the other hand, might expect a first-in, first-served process and to pay a reasonable amount for a spot they stand a good chance of getting.
Boys’ schools, which account for just seven of the city’s 50 most expensive schools, have the longest waiting lists in Victoria, according to people with knowledge of the process.
The boys’ schools are St Kevin’s College in Toorak, Scotch College in Hawthorn, Xavier College in Kew, Trinity Grammar in Kew, Camberwell Grammar, Melbourne Grammar and Brighton Grammar.
They are followed by high-fee co-educational schools Carey Grammar (the last big co-ed private school in the inner east), Haileybury’s Brighton campus and Caulfield Grammar. The only girls’ school to round out the list is believed to be Loreto Mandeville Hall, in Toorak.
Education consultant Paul O’Shannassy said the waiting lists reflected the small number of boys’ schools in Melbourne and the confidence of many parents in their offering.
Mr O’Shannassy added that many good schools, particularly girls’ schools, had no waiting lists: “It’s just economics; it doesn’t necessarily reflect superior quality”.
It follows that schools with the longest waiting lists have higher waiting list fees than other schools, charging an average $154. (St Kevin’s charges $500, and has more than 5000 children on its list).
An Age analysis of more than 50 Victorian private schools – Catholic, independent, single sex and co-ed – found an average waiting list fee of $144.
The waiting list fees might sound a tidy money-earner for schools, but Carey said its $100 fee did “not cover the cost of processing the application and regularly providing information to each family”.
The Age sent questions to the 11 most-sought-after schools asking them to detail how student places were allocated. None would say how long their waiting list was, how the price had been set or how long people tended to wait on the list before being accepted. Carey said information about its waiting list “changes frequently and varies according to each year level”.
A spokesman for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said businesses were required to be clear on “how the waiting list will operate, including under what circumstances consumers are able to get their money back”.
But he said they were not required to reveal the size of their waiting lists or to cap their fees to the rate of administration.
Paul Sheahan, one-time headmaster at Melbourne Grammar and former chair of Melbourne Cricket Club, knows all about waiting lists.
In recent years he chaired an online private-school marketplace that offered parents the chance to make a last-minute enrolment at schools including Wesley College, Ivanhoe Grammar and Shelford Girls’ at discounts for the year ranging from 10 to 30 per cent.
Mr Sheahan said the business failed because the “big boys” – “the Melbourne Grammars and the Scotch Colleges, that lot” – gave the site a miss and less-expensive schools took their cue.
Mr Sheahan said parents needed to “play a bit of a game” to get their child into their school of choice.
“At some of the schools, put it this way, it doesn’t do you any harm [to enrol a child at birth],” he said.
“I do know that, say, at the really high-level tier 1 schools, just because you’re an alumnus doesn’t mean you’ll get your child in. It’s a tough market. I don’t envy parents trying to negotiate it. You need to have a few irons in a few fires.”
Mr Sheahan said waiting lists were complicated.
“Often schools will say, yes, we’ve got 1000 on the waiting list but they go back to that waiting list after the year has started and it’s disappeared, vapourised,” he said. “People have gone elsewhere.”
Stephen Holmes, a former teacher who now helps schools such as Catholic boys’ school Xavier College and Catholic girls’ school Genazzano market themselves, agreed a long list did not guarantee demand.
“My sense would be, and obviously it varies from school to school, but waiting lists are not what they were in real terms … a lot of them are not really on the waiting list, [they’re] just hedging their bets, they’ve made another arrangement or moved.
“Generally among parents the psychology is not whether it is a good school still, but is it a good school for my child? Parents are awake to the fact that they’ve got wide choice.”
Ms Mitchell and Mr Nott said their desire to enrol Harrison in a good private school was driven by their own experiences.
Ms Mitchell attended a Catholic school in Coffs Harbour, NSW, and benefited from its discipline, academic support and resources. Mr Nott went to a state school in Melbourne’s north-west that was not academic, and believes he could have taken his education much further if he had been encouraged.
Madeleine Heffernan edits The Age’s Monday education page
Adam Carey is Education Editor. He joined The Age in 2007 and has previously covered state politics, transport, general news, the arts and food.