Over the past few days, media reports have exposed another sex scandal involving students at one of Sydney’s most prestigious private boys’ schools. Like the sexual violence that took place between boarding students at Trinity Grammar over a decade ago, these events raise important questions about the ways schools respond to parents and communities in times of crisis. They also call into question some commonplace assumptions about elite education in an era of school choice.
In the most recent incidents, eight Year 1 students are now reportedly being ‘counselled’ over their involvement in what is being referred to as ‘sexualised behaviour’ in playgrounds and toilet blocks that parents claim were inadequately supervised. Although these children are significantly younger than the senior school students involved in the earlier boarding house incidents, there are a number of notable parallels – the events took place between students and went on for a period of time without the school’s knowledge; the events or those preceding them were raised with the school by concerned parents, who reported being dissatisfied with their subsequent treatment by the school; the prestige of the school ‘brand’ and the high cost of tuition were regularly cited as entitling parents to expect better from the school.
Based on my doctoral study (completed in 2004) of the earlier scandal at Trinity, and subsequent research with parents in public, Catholic and independent sector schools across NSW, I would suggest that there are two critical lessons that can be learned from such incidents.
Lesson One: Parents are entitled to expect that their children will be safe and happy at school, and to contribute meaningfully to solutions when problems arise.
Perhaps it goes without saying that schools should provide a safe and happy learning environment for children, and many Australian schools across all three sectors do just that. However, many parents I’ve interviewed have commented that raising concerns with schools is not always welcomed, and lament that they in turn may not be contacted until a problem has escalated into a major issue. This contributes to negative and sometimes openly hostile exchanges between parents and school staff. It also prevents parents from intervening in a proactive way when their child’s behavior has become a problem at school, or when their child is experiencing difficulties of which the parents are unaware.
Similar complaints were made by parents in relation to the Trinity boarding house incidents, when they reported that instead of addressing their concerns, what they perceived as a culture of bullying had remained intact and eventually escalated into sexual violence. Parents of children in the most recent incidents similarly report anger at not being informed until after the Department of Family and Community Services investigation had taken place. Fear of jeopardising investigations was the same reason given by the school for not informing parents sooner about the boarding house incidents, too – claims that were later rejected by investigating authorities. What all this points to is the need for respectful engagement with parents who want to be treated as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, in times of crisis.
Lesson Two: What we expect from schools should have less to do with fees and reputation, and more to do with the kind of society we want to live in.
It should come as no surprise that while choosing to send a child to an elite school may provide access to certain opportunities and resources, it is no guarantee of success. Most of us can point to anecdotal examples of children who have thrived and excelled in disadvantaged schools, or children who have performed dismally or been miserable in expensive fee-paying schools. As an education researcher who specializes in ethnographic observation and interview, I have witnessed first-hand some of the very best and also the very worst of everyday, taken-for-granted schooling practices. I have seen children in beautiful new schools, surrounded by every material privilege, sob in desperation over their treatment by an unsympathetic teacher or an impossible set of expectations. I have seen children in under-resourced and struggling schools imagine futures that only determination, a decent education and the support of their teachers and families would enable them to realize.
Yet debates about the Trinity incidents both past and recent are all too often framed by a thinly veiled horror at the thought of parents spending so much money on such a prestigious school, only to find that the product failed to live up to expectations. Like driving a luxury car that keeps breaking down, or buying designer shoes that are too uncomfortable to wear, elite education is talked about as though it is a product that ought to come with inherent guarantees.
Perhaps we need to consider instead why it is that we have collectively bought into the idea that entitlement to quality of educational experience can or should be guaranteed by a price tag.
This is not merely an argument about the distribution of wealth or social equality, nor is it an attack on elite schools or parents who choose to send their children to them, nor is it to suggest that resources aren’t important for providing the best possible range of learning opportunities. Rather, it is an observation that presumptions of entitlement – as well as abuses of power and privilege based on everyday assumptions about who matters and who does not – make their way into school cultures, including those of elite schools. As my doctoral research argued, when children routinely see power exercised for the benefit of some and the detriment of others on the basis of privilege, status and worth, entitlement or unquestioned authority, it is hardly surprising that they experiment with the exercise and limits of that same power.
The second lesson to be learned from the Trinity Grammar incidents is therefore a broader social lesson that asks us to consider what kind of society we are envisaging when we see some children as more entitled to a safe and happy school environment than others, solely on the basis of how much their parents pay in fees. If we are to learn anything from the Trinity incidents, let us hope that it involves collectively setting and maintaining expectations of happy and safe learning environments for all children, and schools working respectfully and productively with parents to achieve those expectations.
Sue Saltmarsh is Associate Professor of Educational Studies in the Faculty of Education and Arts at the Australian Catholic University. She works in the interdisciplinary areas of social and cultural studies of education, childhood studies and policy studies, and has undertaken research in early childhood, primary, secondary and tertiary educational settings, as well as in community and organisational contexts. Her research focuses on how everyday practices, policies and texts shape who we are, what we do, and how society operates. Her research on parent-school engagement and on school-related violence is concerned with the intersection of economic discourse, education policy and everyday cultural practices. She has served on a number of national and international research committees, and is a founding Co-editor of the journal Global Studies of Childhood.