In Summary

Attending an elite private school can be a conspicuous display of wealth. But not always. I attended one of Melbourne’s most prohibitively expensive girls’ schools because my extended family banded together to pay its fees. Following their penniless arrival to Australia in 1950, my grandparents toiled for decades to amass savings. They handed these to a school.

This was a mistake. My grandparents thought they were buying a ticket to social mobility, a well-rounded education, and above all nurturing of good character. They had no idea what a damaging experience the culture of such schooling can be for kids from the wrong side of the tracks.

In the 1980s, students like me were conspicuously lower-status minorities. They remain so. According to a 2013 report by Canberra researcher Barbara Preston, social segregation in Australia’s schools has increased over the past 25 years. Derived from ABS data, Preston’s research shows private schools have increased the proportion of enrolments from high-income families, and decreased the proportion from low-income families.

To families like mine, the belief that private schooling equals better academic performance was so powerfully persuasive that they invested their hopes and savings into it. This myth persists despite decades of empirical research that consistently confirms the biggest influences of academic performance are home and parental regimes, coupled with socio-economic background.

In her Conversation article last month, Monash University’s Jane Kenway, a Professorial Fellow at the Australian Research Council, explained the ways elite schools “claim merit mainly on the basis of their elevated exit results”.

Exit results are inflated “because of the links between elite schools, socio-economic advantage, private tutoring and hot-housing”. So these results are “not a good predictor of university success. Research evidence shows that, once left to their own devices, elite school students perform no better and often less well than their comparable government schools peers.”

“The data is quite clear,” says Dr Sue Thomson, director of educational monitoring and research at the Australian Council for Educational Research. She recently told The New Daily that “there is no added benefit in sending a child to an independent school, unless for the sake of exposing them to a different social milieu”.

Yet immersion in this social milieu can have damaging impacts. This is masterfully portrayed in Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (2013). Its protagonist Danny shows us that beneath the propaganda of merit and choices, and amid all our anxieties about Gonski reforms and who’s-your-daddy-scholarship issues, lies a moral question that dare not speak its name - at least outside of fiction.

This is the question of character. What kind of character is fostered within the culture of a private education? To many of us who attended private schools, the ABC’s Ja’mie: Private School Girl isn’t satire, but realism. Chris Lilley’s character Ja’mie King isn’t funny, because she isn’t caricature: she’s portraiture.

Not every private school kid emerges as a Ja’mie, a Danny, nor any of the other bitches and bullies portrayed in these fictions. But these fictions tell a certain truth: there’s much more to education than what’s taught in the classroom. If public schools are values-neutral, as John Howard (who attended one) famously suggested, private schools can only aspire to such neutrality.

In my own experience, the values of status and gender segregation were indoctrinated daily in a million subtle and explicit ways. Being judged for your downmarket clothes at school camp. Being ridiculed because your haircut was by mum, not a celebrity hairdresser. Turning down birthday invitations because your budget gift would insult. The humiliation of wearing your classmates’ offcasts bought from the second-hand uniform shop. Feeling too ashamed to invite eastern suburbs girls to your brick veneer in the ex-urbs. Cringing at being collected in an old Datsun amid a fleet of new Mercs and Beemers. Avoiding dancing class because you couldn’t afford the dresses, nor relate to boys. Wagging sport because your swimsuit and racquet were unfashionable no-name brands. Inventing excuses to avoid excursions you couldn’t afford. Lying about your holidays because you didn’t ski in Europe, nor have a holiday home in Portsea, nor the means to go to horse-riding camp.

My parents worked hard to pay off their mortgage, accumulate wealth, and give me loving support. But instead of pride and gratitude for my privileged first-world life, I carried shame and embarrassment, having been schooled to discern the values of old money from those of the nouveau riche. Such indoctrination made me an outsider at school and alienated me from my own family. The negative psychological impacts of such experiences are well documented in "in-group" and "out-group" studies.

One of these impacts is guilt. Lower-status families toil to pay for the intolerant values their kids learn in elite school culture and then inflict on their own families. These values and the consequent middle-class guilt can take years to deprogram. To this day, I catch myself cringing when broadcasters say "haitch" instead of "aitch" on air, as if such pronunciations are a measure of good character, rather than a cultural vernacular to be celebrated.

So my hardworking family was ripped off. A private school was eager to take our money, but treated us with disdain. To generalise from my experience would be foolish, but other lower-status students also share the kinds of experiences characterised in Barracuda and Ja’mie. This is why these fictions have drawn such cultural traction. Such figures as Danny and Ja’mie should be invoked in current debates around equitable education, because if private schools were held accountable in the ways other consumer products are, there would be a case for class action. Their false advertising of better educational outcomes is one thing, but an equal moral failure, in my experience, is the culture they foster, and its failure to encourage good characters.

Written by Katherine Wilson, PhD candidate, Swinburne Universityof Technology. This opinion piece was originally published in The Age.