Violetta Thomson and her husband Andrew had been navigating a minefield familiar to many Australian parents: the high school waiting list.
"If you don't put them on a waiting list from the age of six months you have no chance," Ms Thomson, whose family lives in the Melbourne suburb of Templestowe, told Lateline.
"But there is no structure given as to how the waiting list works or what number your child might be."
So, rather than face the "ambiguous" process on their own — and considering the financial investment of putting their three sons through school — the Thomsons enlisted the help of Paul O'Shannassy, a kind of education consultant becoming more common across the country.
The Thomsons paid Mr O'Shannassy $850 to help narrow down a list of private school options for their oldest son, Jonah, from 20 to three.
Other families have paid up to $3,000 for further advice about which private schools to apply for and how to increase their chances of getting a place.
"Part of what we do is de-mystify it for them," Mr O'Shannassy said.
"Most parents I deal with are overwhelmed when they come to me. Some come with piles of brochures and documents and can't make head or tail of it and don't know what to believe."
Parents 'confused' by schools' marketing materials
Melbourne company schoolplaces.com.au deals with 3,000 parents a year seeking a place in a private school.
Company CEO Natalie Mactier said she, too, found many were confused about the process.
"It's frustrating because there's no guarantee they will get into the school that they put their name down on," Ms Mactier said.
"As a consequence of that they tend to multi-list at different schools."
School.com.au also deals with parents who have become confused with marketing materials from private schools.
"Many schools' marketing messages, imagery and communication pieces look very similar ... and that makes it a little frustrating for the parents," Ms Mactier said.
"It's hard for a parent to make a decision about a school message that tends to get repeated at other schools."
Questions about scholarship transparency, expert says
However, Beth Blackwood, the CEO of The Association for Heads of Independent Schools of Australia, said the vast majority of parents did not need to use education consultants to find a private school for their child.
"Parents taking their children particularly to secondary school open days, parents visiting schools and being involved in the hands-on processes of selecting the right school for their child is to me the most effective means of making these decisions," Ms Blackwood said.
"I've never been aware of any secrecy around waiting lists. All schools have enrolment polices that articulate the policy for that school and priorities that might be given to siblings or perhaps children of alumni."
Education consultants also give parents advice about how to win a scholarship to a private school.
Dr Christina Ho from the University of Technology Sydney said not all private school scholarships were publicly advertised and some parents did not know how to apply for one.
"Some schools will go through sports coaches or music teachers to basically headhunt kids who are high achievers, who will add to the school's record of achievement," Dr Ho said.
"In that process, where parents are not even applying through a public process, you have to ask questions about transparency."
Despite claims that some parents are confused about how to get into a private school, Mr O'Shannassy said demand for independent schools was strong, particularly private high schools.
"Parents perceive there is better behaviour at private schools and they have better resources and support staff and access to computers, which is probably true. Those private schools can access resources better because they've got fee-paying customers," he said.
For Ms Thomson, an education consultant was worth the cost, having reduced the number of school applications the family made, and helping them find a school they felt suited Jonah.
"I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders," she said.
"Just in a short time I've been able to do my research and book my tours so I feel like I am on the go with it now."