I Attended An Elite Private School, And I Believe There’s No Place For Them In Australia

"We should be critical of these schools, their cultures, and the Australia that has allowed them to compete in an ever-escalating spending arms race -- while the rest get by on the bare minimum."

shore private school

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Mum, the daughter of immigrants, wanted the best education for her three sons. We were enrolled in Newington College — if not the best, the best that we lived closest to. When my parents split, and Dad shirked his court-dictated responsibility to pay the fees, we remained at Newington in large part because of the school’s generosity. I was offered a full scholarship to ease the burden.

But it was still a burden. Mum worked herself into the ground. One night, she collapsed walking up the stairs to her bedroom, and instead of working less, she sent us to live with our grandmother so that we wouldn’t see the toll it took on her. She wouldn’t deprive us of “the best” just because Dad wanted to.

Her experience illustrates the dangers of believing in private schools’ marketing — that the only way to armour Sydney’s young men for the future is to send them to one of nine GPS schools. What complicates this is, as horrible as the burden was on Mum, I am a Newington success story.

A string of primary teachers and then English teachers encouraged my creative writing. In year eight, the arrival of a specialist teacher for gifted students was my personal creative writing coach, pulling me out of classes every fortnight. In year twelve, I had begun discussions with a publisher that would eventuate in my first book deal at seventeen. I am very much a product of that school, and while I believe I would have found my passion for storytelling without it, would I have had this life if I attended a different school? Possibly not.

Knowing that, would I want to gamble with my hypothetical children’s futures? Hmm … Forget that most of my peers at university attended public schools and also got into the impossible-ATAR courses — here I am hesitating.

What further complicates my relationship with schools like Newington is that as a touring author, in non-pandemic years, they’re responsible for a large chunk of my income. So, as much as I want to say, “Maybe these schools shouldn’t be a thing,” I don’t want to say it too loudly.

But I should say it loudly, because touring Australian schools extensively for over a decade has made it crystal clear that there is a huge gulf between the haves and the have-nots. We should be critical of these schools, their cultures, and the Australia that has allowed them to compete in an ever-escalating spending arms race — while the rest get by on the bare minimum.

While no private school runs perfectly, no matter how good the advertising (the looming threat of an industrial relations dispute shrouded my final year at Newington), in the government system, time and time again, I meet teachers who are overextended and under-resourced. My high school hosted, and continues to host, a literature festival where authors descend on the campus to inspire students to read and write, while I regularly speak to librarians who say that there is often a choice between having an author come speak, and updating their collections.
I do what I can, offering reduced-fee or free visits, but that’s a band-aid on a gaping wound.

There are systemic problems that needed addressing decades ago that have only worsened. I go from speaking in amphitheatres with luxe seating and orchestra pits, to crammed demountables with failing aircon. At Newington, demountables were temporary inconveniences, while the windows were double-glazed or new complexes were built.

It’s not difficult to see how a holier-than-thou arrogance can infect students, even scholarship students like me. I went to a private school, others didn’t. I wore a tie and had three ovals. I remember the superiority I felt towards kids who attended other schools.

One of Mum’s wiser moves was insisting my brothers and I get jobs the moment we could. She wanted us to learn the value of money, but we learnt so much more. The kitchen of McDonald’s is a great equaliser, and I immediately forged life-long friendships with people who, had I remained in that Newington bubble, I would have believed were beneath me.

That attitude is on show in the recently leaked “Triwizard Shorenament” rule book. Full disclosure: I’ve never had a negative experience speaking at the Shore School, and the odds are, I delivered a speech to this very cohort. I probably made them laugh a lot. I’m also sure that many chuckles were had composing and sharing that muck-up day document too — base-level, worst instinct chuckles. When comedy is dangerous, even cruel, it feels all the funnier.

If somebody spoke up and said, “Ah, some of these tasks make me uncomfortable,” they weren’t taken seriously.

As much as I want to believe I would’ve been mature enough to speak up and say so at seventeen, I don’t think I would have.Hell, even cultivate that level of empathy, really think about others’ feelings when committing something to the page, and be brave enough to speak up.

There’s a very vocal portion of society whose whole shtick is whinging about political correctness going mad. “Oh, they weren’t actually going to sexually assault a random, spit on a homeless person, shit on a train, lighten up. It’s just a joke.” You know the drill.

Thing is, think about the “joke” for longer than a second and it isn’t funny.

What things like “Triwizard Shorenament” expose is that private school marketing is just that: marketing. There is no guarantee that if you drop your son in the machine, he’ll pop out perfect. In fact, the machine might result in imperfections — like the elitist apathy that might lead a young man to do any number of “Shorenament” tasks for sport.

In the long term, we need to take active steps to reform the Australian education system into something more equitable. Every opportunity I had, every teenager deserves. In the short term, schools that pride themselves on being the best might need to stamp out the elitist attitudes that belief causes. I foresee many difficult conversations at Shore, and schools like it.

But we’re kidding ourselves if we think this is just a GPS issue. Change the references, and a differently distasteful list could have originated from any kind of school in Australia. We need to have serious conversations with the young people of this country about how words and deeds affect others, and we need to have them often.

And when somebody has the courage to speak up, and some absolute nong whinges about political correctness, we need to tell them, as politely as possible, to piss off.

Will Kostakis is an award-winning author for young adults and an Australia Reads Ambassador. His novel Monuments deals with the inequality in the Australian education system, but is mostly just a fun fantasy adventure set in Sydney. He tweets at @willkostakis.