Private school appeal: the track to elite universities

By Aileen Kawagoe

In large states public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad.

Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher (1844-1900)

Many questions have been fielded this way about private schools recently. So I thought it about time to take a look at the private school situation and to put my finger on what constitutes the appeal of the private school system.

In 2002, private school attendance was 79% for kindergartens, 0,9% for elementary schools, 4% for junior high schools, 29% for high schools, 91% for junior colleges and 76% for universities.

It is common knowledge that besides earmarking astronomical sums of finances, many parents lie, cheat and walk on water to get their kids into private schools. 

The first obvious question to ask is:

1. What do private schools have to offer that public schools don’t?

In the following sections, I have posted an A-Z list of private schools in Japan along with their special features where those were knowable. A surface browse through the list and some of the advantages become apparent.

– New or well-established private schools for the privileged tend to offer a range of good to outstanding to fantastic physical facilities – e.g. fitness gyms, large swimming pools. Classrooms are likely state-of-the–art all plugged in with e-boards and students PCs (and sometimes not). Some schools tout spacious, architecturally pleasing, eco-friendly or outstanding buildings that house the classrooms – and the buildings are either found in breathtaking locations by the sea or on mountain tops or with the advantages of being at the centre of the business world or at the hub of the cosmopolitan urban centre.

– The crème de la crème schools can be seen to offer activities that are “finishing school-ish”, that require more resources than the public school would have the budget for, or that simply have more snob-appeal – such as kendo, kudo-archery, rock-climbing — certainly they are activities beyond your local public school norm of calligraphy, brass band, soccer and other “hamako” afterschool activities. Other PS offer ski schools; summer adventure camps to build leadership skills and the rugged spirit; and expensive trips (ranging from farmstays, homestays to one-year exchange programmes) to outpost sister schools in foreign countries (sometimes owned and run by the school itself) that are designed to enhance the English language skills of participating students. A few of the cream-of-the-crop private schools now boast of Eton-style boarding school accommodation with the expectation that Eton-like minds and discipline will be fostered and future leaders of the nation cultivated. A few schools have a long-arm history of distinguished alumni and their websites will reveal the illuminati associations with royalty, ancient samurai families, corporate magnates or political leaders of the day, and other earth-shakers.

Class size in private schools is invariably small and sometimes seminar-style teaching methods are used by some. Established private schools are often Christian mission schools with histories going back to the Meiji or at least Showa eras – they focus on their emphasis on tradition, discipline of mind and spirit, caring pastoral or family atmospheres. Some schools offer etiquette or moral education classes. Clearly, the message is “you will end up with a well-bred and well-cared for child given individual attention if you cared to send him or her here”. Statistics show that the number one concern among Japanese families who choose private schools for their kids is the school environment and concerns over bullying cases in public schools.

– School and curriculum philosophy The philosophy and curriculum of the private school in Japan is considered almost as an after-thought, probably because the majority of private school curricula look pretty much alike due to the requisite adherence to the national curriculum. (International schools, i.e. private schools catering for the foreign community have to work harder on their curriculum and philosophy statements due to pickier and more discerning requirements of the expatriate parent.) Internationalization is commonly a stated goal of private schools and the proof of this is proffered in the number of returnees the school is seen to accommodate – and this figure will be shown up on the school’s website. Academic quality though not necessarily rigor, is expected of the educational programme as a matter of course. Some private schools feature their extra hours of schooling, eg. Saturday classes added in stark contrast to public schools’ paring down of the national curriculum and schooling hours. Most private schools emphasize that their curriculum offers intensive English language instruction compared to public schools – nearly all private schools surveyed showed up between 6 or 7 hours of English instruction at high school level, more hours than are devoted to the learning of kokugo (Japanese which averages 5 hours). Other private schools may stress a less rigid and rigorous but more relaxed and creative individualized curriculum.

– Integrated schooling, exam prep, and academic excellence and college placement track record.

Nearly all comprehensive private schools or integrated high schools highlight the advantages of the integrated 6 or 12 year continuous school curriculum. The benefits include better results achieved, e.g., for English language learning with a consistent and incremental English language curriculum tailored just for the school.

The benefits of integrated-ness and continuity apply equally to other fields of learning other than English learning.

“After admitting their students by highly competitive exams at the end of their sixth-grade year (somewhat analogous to the fateful “eleven-plus” exams in Britain), these schools, in effect, combine the three years of junior high school and the three years of high school. They move their students through the Ministry of Education secondary curriculum in four and a half or five years, leaving the balance for specific preparation for university entrance exams.”… writes William Kelly.

Hence with integrated school years, many private schools will complete teaching of the national curriculum within the first four or four and a half years out of the six years of high-schooling in effect providing an accelerated education, and will then focus in the final years on examination entrance preparation. A few schools stress that the student will be able to focus on courses of his choosing or individual requirements in the last two years of high school.

This leads to the next advantage that many parents consider the key and main reason for choosing private schooling over public schooling.

According to a survey of parents in 2 Tokyo wards in 2005, parents who place top priority on academic achievement tend to select a private junior high school while those who select public junior high make their choice on the basis of location, incidence of bullying, and personal guidance. Source: Child Research Net Cybrary The reputation of an academically excellent private school is judged in Japan – first and foremost – by its track record – of how many or how many per cent of its high school graduates have passed the notoriously difficult university entrance exams AND secured plum places at elite universities – and preferably of their first choice. The top most academically competitive private schools publish on their school websites the figures of success spanning the recent few years – and revealing specifically how many went to which university.

“Declining job opportunities and a shrinking college-age cohort have combined to exacerbate the competition for elite universities. The consequence may well be the collapse of the tense balance between public- and private-sector secondary education that has held for the last three decades. A complement to public high school education thought to be sufficient for elite university entrance was a heavy dose of after-school private cram academy, supplemented if necessary by a postsecondary year in a private exam prep school. Very quickly—that is, in the last five years or so—the more assured route has become an emerging tier of elite private high schools that offer six-year secondary programs. Symptomatically, in 1993 the percentage of applicants who were admitted to the various faculties of Tokyo University from private high schools reached 50 percent (1,984 of the 4,010 accepted). Of the top thirty placement high schools, twenty-one were private institutions, led as usual in recent years by 171 successful students from the elite Kaisei Academy.” – Social Contracts Under Stress: The Middle Classes of America, Europe, and Japan at the Turn of the Century” by William Kelly

Conclusion no. 1:

The leading statements above tend to my first conclusion for this tentative investigation into private schools: that there is a “tier of elite private schools” that offer you “the more assured route” to elite higher education.

Next, I want to examine some statements and facts that throw light on who gets to go to private schools, what it takes and what are the implications for the future of schooling and society in Japan.

Most of the mothers of children who enrolled in a private junior high school were full-time homemakers or self-employed and the children were often the only child. 90.8% of the parents send their children to a cram school, and those whose children attended cram school four or more days a week accounted for 65.2%.– 2005 survey of parents in 2 Tokyo wards.

Most troubling to many critics are the emerging inequalities in education. Private junior high schools, offering guaranteed access to a prestigious private high school and high chances of getting into a top university, have been attracting increasing numbers of students in the last five years. To get into such a junior high school, a child usually attends cram school for three years through the sixth grade, at a total cost of about $20,000. A magazine called President Family profiles families with children who have entered high quality junior high schools. Typically, the father is a high-earning professional, while the mother is a homemaker who concentrates on the child’s schooling.”Revival in Japan Brings Widening of Economic Gap By Norimitsu Onishi

ー ”Government policies, teachers’ union agitation, public opinion, and private expectations notwithstanding, children of advantaged parents were consistently overrepresented in elite universities. Moreover, private secondary graduates have disproportionately filled the postwar entering classes at Tokyo University at least since the early 1970s, an effect of the 1967 Tokyo metropolitan educational reforms.” William Kelly

Conclusion no. 2:

What it takes to join the “private school club”:

1) time – i.e. parents who have time to focus on their child’s education (in the context of Japan it means the fulltime kyoiku mama (or self-employed);

2)advantaged parents” witheconomic affluence”, ie. With money to pay for high costs of private school tuition and cram school fees.

If entry to the private school system is seen as “an assured route to elite higher education”, a guarantee to entry to the best colleges in Japan, then the implication is that failing to enter that system means relegating your children to second tier colleges and universities. There are more than 700 public and private universities in Japan. With falling birth rates, there are many universities that are already competing for students and many private colleges will accommodate children with less than perfect academic results at entrance examinations.

So why are parents so geared up about private schools for their children? To know why, one must understand the problem of the pyramid-shaped university ranking system (Daigaku-jorestu) and with theGakureki-Shakai problem.

“The first problem is the pyramid-shaped university ranking system(Daigaku-jorestu). All Japanese universities are ranked like a pyramid: the most famous university lies at the top of the pyramid, followed by a few famous ones, several less famous ones, and the rest underneath.

The second problem is the excessive regard for the rank and the class of universities. (Gakureki-Shakai) The students who enter famous universities tend to halt studying and spend their time in play and part-time jobs. Moreover, life after graduation greatly depends on which university a student graduates from.

Those two problems also result from the system where the Ministry of Education exclusively decides and controls the educational content at the high school level and below.

Ranking individuals is so fuzzy after graduation as well as the university level that student ranking at the high school level become prevalent. Corporations most emphasize that pyramid-like ranking in recruiting. Since they do not have the means to evaluate each individual’s performance, they emphasize ranking at the high school level, and use it to control employees through their life. This is the structure of Gakureki-Shakai, and promotes lifetime employment (shusin-koyo) in Japan.” quote taken from “What Causes Examination Wars?” – by Shuichi Fujimori

Conclusion no. 3:

Due to the built-in problems of the pyramid-shaped university ranking system (Daigaku-jorestu) and theGakureki-Shakai problem, the school graduate’s chances of employment with private companies are tied to his or her schooling rankings.

– “Private schools or independent schools are schools not administered by local or national government, which retain the right to select their student body and are funded in whole or in part by charging their students tuition rather than with public (state) funds.” – the definition given by the Kyoiku Inkai (Education Board).

Conclusion no. 4:

Private schools carry their brand of “exclusivity” – “privilege” and of course “snob appeal”. The implication of that definition is that the right of a private school to select the student body instantly gives rise to exclusivity and the funding issue tied to it means that only the privileged kids from wealthy households enter those schools. Sending your child to a private school immediately sets your child apart from the general public schooling masses as a member of the privileged few.

Most Japanese have believed and many still believe that they belong to a meritocratic society where hard work and merit through the egalitarian public school system was enough to ensure social mobility – to determine one’s future and life chances. Statistics show that the public school system as a meritocratic route to elite universities may be an illusion. The truth is that widening economic gaps and the growth of the elite groups are now observable facts of Japanese society. Critics and observers on the educational scene are exploding that belief and declaring it a myth.

CAVEAT: While the numbers are good assurances, the private school route is no guarantee to entry to elite universities. Kaisei Academy boasts phenomenal numbers, Hibiya High School and Tokyo Musashikoyama say 75% of their graduates get into the university of their choice. The rest of the private high schools average out about 50%. So there’s still a risk, what if your kid falls into the 50% category that didn’t get into the university of his or her choice… would you consider your money well spent?


The next and final question (which is one in which I have a personal interest) is, is the private school advantage one a real one? What about kids in public schools, can they never excel academically and are their academic futures permanently dashed?

According to a recent study, when certain factors are accounted for, there is no real private school edge. Source San Antonio Express Wire news: Public vs. private not seen as key to learning


2005 results of a survey questionnaire to schools in 2 Tokyo wards. Child Research Net Cybrary

In Japan Even Tots Must Make the Grade!” By Keiko Katsumata

Japan’s Private-School Mania Isn’t All Crazy

Revival in Japan Brings Widening of Economic Gap” By Norimitsu Onishi

Social Contracts Under Stress: The Middle Classes of America, Europe, and Japan at the Turn of the Century.” By William Kelly. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002.

Private vs. public not seen as key to learning

What Causes Examination Wars?” by Shuichi Fujimori, quotations

For more info: Contact the Association of Private Junior and Senior High Schools in Tokyo, Tel:  03-3263-0541

This is a very interesting report on the results of a new study on how much of an advantage is the private school advantage over public school environment. It contradicts the findings of older studies on the private school’s advantage by “evening” out other factors such as parental involvement. The study however is not based on the Japanese scene but I suspect similar studies would produce similar results here.

The new study concludes that there is no difference between private vs. public schools upon the outcome of learning – the key elements that do make a difference are parental involvement; parental expectations; whether parents discuss things with kids. (The study did show however that higher income did positively impact reading and in science scores. One inexplicable exception to the finding was that the Catholic private school environment appeared to provide an academic edge compared to other private school environments).

“Among the study’s findings:

Reading: Family income, parental discussion, parental expectations, parental involvement and eighth-grade scores positively affected 12th-grade reading scores. Scores weren’t affected by the type of school a student attended unless it was a Catholic order school.

Math: Parental discussions and involvement had no effect on achievement scores. Parental expectations and family income did have an impact. Prior eighth-grade test scores were heavily correlated to achievement on the 12th-grade test. Again, attending a Catholic religious order school had a positive effect on the math scores.

Science: Income affected test scores but the other family characteristics did not. Prior test scores had the strongest impact. None of the school types had an edge over public high schools in boosting scores.

History: Parental expectations and parental discussion had an impact on scores, as did achievement on eighth-grade tests. The only kind of school that had a positive impact on scores was a Catholic religious order school.

The students in the study were poor and fit the demographics of those who would be eligible for the kind of private-school voucher programs or other school-choice initiatives generally favored by political conservatives.

However, the study shows that family involvement matters more than whether a student goes to public or private school, said Jack Jennings, the center’s president.

“People commonly believe private schools are just inherently better,” Jennings said. “We’re forgetting that families are key to how well kids do. Maybe we ought to start to spend more time on families.”

This is good news for those interested in knowing whether there is a level playing field (educationally speaking) for our kids.


Update and further resource reading:

 Feeding the Elite: The Evolution of Elite Pathways from Star High Schools to Elite Universities Higher Education Policy (2006) 19, 7–30. doi:10.1057/palgrave.hep.8300108 by Gerald K LeTendre, Roger Geertz Gonzalez and Takako Nomi


During the last 50 years, private ‘feeder’ schools in Japan came to dominate entry into elite colleges. Intense organizational competition shaped the organizational environment and changed the pathways available to social elites. Compared to Japan, elite private feeders in the US have failed to dominate pathways into elite colleges Access the full text pdf version here.


4 thoughts on “Private school appeal: the track to elite universities”

    1. Usually, the word attached as part of an educational institution signifies a highly academic school, i.e. one with a rigorous curriculum. It is often attached to cramschools and a few schools with top rankings.

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