Elitism & Education In Australia

Words by: Mandy Moe Pwint Tu

About a week ago, the school captain of Ravenswood High School in Sydney, Sarah Haynes, delivered a farewell speech in which she criticized the school’s elitist image, saying that its dedication to preserving this perfect image was proving detrimental to the students’ education. She continues to say that earlier in the year, a speech she wrote for open day had to be edited to reflect this general impression; her statement that the school was not perfect, she claims, had to be changed because ‘no parent wants to hear that the school isn’t perfect’.

The question that is then posed, is of course: how is the school supposed to make room for the improvement that it clearly needs if it refuses to accept that it needs change?

The speech received a standing ovation from the students, and support poured in through social media. However, the chair of the school council, Mark Webb, has sent out a letter to parents, in which he claims that the speech was a result of alleged bullying, and that the media coverage only detracted from the Year 12 celebrations.

First of all, what makes an elite school?

Is it the teaching staff, the cost of attendance, the name, the age, or the results achieved by the students (the success rate, if we may)? All of these factors for the most part coexist with each other, but according to Christopher Bantick, in an article he wrote for the Australian, elite schools equal those with consistently high results on measurable indicators such as the ATAR and the NAPLAN. Then why is the word ‘elite’ mainly used to describe private schools?

The usual argument is that private schools are awash in funds, influence and exclusivity, and that they also pick and choose their staff.

Another point that Sarah Haynes put forward was: “I don’t know how to run a school but it seems to me that today’s schools are being run more and more like businesses where everything becomes financially motivated, where more value is placed on those who provide good publicity or financial benefits.”

This is a fair point, since private school tuition fees range from $20,000 to $34,000 a year – and while that accounts for the facilities and the education a student may require to obtain excellent Year 12 results, it is still a huge sum for an education one might be able to attain at a state school, at a smaller price. It doesn’t help that Australian Scholarships Group chief executive John Velegrinis has said the cost of education in Australia had risen by more than double the rate of inflation in the past decade.

This brings me to a topic – well, a school – close to my heart, and much closer to home: Canning College. Canning is a public school. Last year I wrote an article on the effects of the rising costs of education on international students, and managed to get an interview with the Director of the International Student Office at Canning, Mr Tony de Gruchy. We discussed the fact that elite subjects such as English literature and Modern History being taken off the curriculum due to lack of students taking them; and I was told, “When you have students with literacy issues, it seems unfair to make them take English literature or modern history. They aren’t prerequisites for any university course.

“The bottom line is that colleges like Canning have to have full cost recovery. We have to consider the cost of the teaching staff as well as the annual economical increases, all the while competing with institutions offshore. … Canning isn’t as expensive as its private equivalents, and we like to think that you get good value for your money.”

And as a former student of Canning College, I can vouch for that, since the Canning College package includes airport pickup, orientation, student support, and the graduation dinner at the end of the year.

Most institutions are lacking in what Mr de Gruchy calls ‘academic rigour’. The level of literacy in students coming through – and consequently, the grades required to gain university entry – have declined. Universities have been separated into two categories: the recruiting and the selective – Curtin University being an example of the former and the University of Western Australia being an example of the latter.

“Most recruiting universities are of the idea that the exit standard is more important than the entry standard,” says Mr de Gruchy; “when in fact the entry standard drives the exit standard.”

Australian education’s anti-elite tone is so powerful that even clearly elite institutions refuse to claim that title. Christopher Bantick appropriately mentions that the University of Melbourne, recently voted No. 1 in Australia and No. 44 in the world, deserves in every sense of the word the ‘elite’ title. However, it is interesting to note that the UniMelb itself shies away from that very description, to avoid criticism.

A recent dispute that broke out between Melbourne’s elite Xavier College students and their public school counterparts do not aid this problem. On a Facebook forum for the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE), students from both sides of the coin started hurling abuse at one another. One post read, “Just remember your parents work for me, so don’t go complaining to them.” Another forced any female students who stepped up to the defense to “let the men handle business”.

Does it then follow that elitism equals entitlement? It should not.

Ravenswood’s Sarah Haynes wrote two speeches; one to show to the staff, and the other she ultimately ended up giving. She states: “If the school can’t admit it isn’t perfect how can they expect adolescent girls to realise perfection is unattainable? I am far from the model student. I have been kicked out of geography class, I’ve had a detention and I’ve said things that have hurt people. The person who doesn’t make mistakes is unlikely to make anything.”

Upon hearing her speech, I was strongly reminded of my own valedictory speech when I graduated from Canning College. I did not have to write two speeches. Throughout the year I was encouraged to speak out against whatever I thought was wrong with the college (frankly, I found very little to complain about). In my own speech I encouraged my fellow graduates to make mistakes, and to learn from them. I spoke about the college and the staff with love.

And I walked away with an education I am certain was elite.