While yesterday’s Shore School scandal made headlines, it also illuminated the divide between public and private education, and the conditioning it enables.
Yesterday there was yet another scandal around a high-fee, government-subsidised private school. This time it was Shore, a school with vast facilities (including a huge sports stadium next door to my local shopping centre which never fails to annoy me when I drive past) charging whacking great fees around the $30k mark and attracting millions in government subsidy. Some of the privileged boys who attend this institution had put together a list of tasks for their traditional Year 12 scavenger hunt to celebrate Muck Up Day. Items included things like randomly hit a stranger in the balls, sleep with a woman who weighs over 80 kilograms and – the nastiest of all to my mind – spit on a homeless person.
The last such scandal I recall was about boys from St Kevin’s in Melbourne who regaled passengers on a tram with a delightful little ditty about how they wished all the ladies were holes in the road…I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
There have been many such scandals over the years, almost all at high-fee boy’s schools, and the wealthy school caught up in the scandal of the moment immediately throws themselves into damage control, with the help of their marketing departments, no doubt.
One of the most common defences mounted is that not all the boys are cruel or entitled or sexist, just a few of them. The school often backs this perception by expelling the so-called rotten apples. All very well, except of course, that those seriously disturbed kids (because that is what they are) are then likely to finish their schooling at their local public school which has no choice but to accept them, and must work to clean up the mess with their barely adequate funding, staffing and resources. The high fee school then claims to have ‘solved’ the problem. Until the next time, of course. This is not Shore’s first time in the private school scandal limelight, by the way.
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Of course, I agree that not all the students are nasty. I am sure that, just like the rest of us, some of them are delightful, many of them are perfectly ordinary and most of them will grow up to be no more or less unpleasant than anyone else. In fact, once I have cooled down a little, I can even feel sorry for the boys who instigated this cruel little list. Contrary to the schools they attend, I can see how their behaviour may have, at least in part, been formed by the very institutions that now reject them.
After all, what message does an education system send to its students when it not only valorises but publicly subsidises segregation and exclusion? Yes, yes, I know, they run all sorts of programs about inclusion and facilitate all sorts of social tourism where the boys (and the girls, high fee girl’s schools do this stuff too) help the less fortunate. I daresay staff may encourage kids to consider the poor, and some of the students will be genuinely motivated to help others, but it all reminds me of the chain-smoking dad telling his kids not to smoke. Kids pay the most attention to what we do, not what we say. Adolescents, in particular, can sniff hypocrisy at ten paces.
And the hypocrisy around our publicly subsidised schools, where one system has all the rights (where they will open schools, what communities they will serve, who they will and will not enrol, what fees they will charge) and the other all the responsibilities (must take all comers, cannot enforce fees, must provide schools in every community, open to public scrutiny) stinks to high heaven.
The most common reason I have been given by parents who choose the fee-charging kind is all about privilege and exclusion, even though more acceptably phrased. I have heard that they enrol a ‘nicer class of kiddy’, that the old boy’s network is the attraction, that they will make better contacts, or simply be surrounded by ‘better’ influences. When I sent my own daughters to a co-ed comprehensive public high school I was lectured about ‘sacrificing my children for my principles’ because I was sending them to that den of iniquity Mosman High. Yes, you read that right, Mosman, one of the leafiest-green of the leafy-green suburbs. Somehow, despite being surrounded by any kid who turned up and many, of course, the privates did not want, my daughters survived without turning to crime, prostitution or addiction. So did most of their friends. A miracle, obviously.
Australia’s weird hybrid system of generously publicly funded, luxuriously resourced, high fee private schools and under-resourced public schools that must, like Oliver Twist, continually beg for more, is predicated on picking loser kids and winner kids.
In most comparable countries to Australia, education is seen as a way to close the inevitable opportunity gaps imposed upon children by the accident of their birth. It may not do so perfectly (Mosman High does much better than similar schools in poorer areas – both public and private – because kids with higher socioeconomic backgrounds do better generally than less fortunate kids the world over), but at least the system is not specifically designed to exaggerate and exacerbate those gaps.
Almost alone, Australia’s weird hybrid system of generously publicly funded, luxuriously resourced, high fee private schools and under-resourced public schools that must, like Oliver Twist, continually beg for more, is predicated on picking loser kids and winner kids. Including a handful of the deserving poor who may be plucked from obscurity via a scholarship and handed the keys to the kingdom in return for keeping their academic marks up (looks good on MySchool).
Can we honestly claim to be surprised when such a system, where absurd and frankly wasteful amounts of both public and private money and resources are invested in the education of a privileged few, encourages a mindset of entitlement and exclusion among the children who attend them? Poor little mites, for many of them the temptation to see themselves as ‘special’ and superior to others is just too hard to resist and such a belief in an immature adolescent is, in my view, a very bad influence indeed.