The Price of Privilege

A Melbourne school principal responds to the school student from an elite private school who made derogatory slurs against students from public schools on social media.

If that icon of Australian satire, Barry Humphries was running around stage bagging the public school system, dressed up as an over-privileged private school student, we would all laugh. Some might even squirm at the closeness of the home-truth, but we would leave the theatre our need for humour satiated.

Today though, Barry Humphries was nowhere in sight. Rather it was the work of a Xavier College VCE student, on Facebook, with the immediate chorus of support from hundreds of online admirers.

There is much that can, and already has been said, about what started just two days ago on social media as a barrage of bile, prejudice and put-downs aimed at public school students by an 18-year old student at one of our most privileged private schools. Indeed, ‘the Povs’, to use the language of the VCE student in question, have themselves struck back, pointing out the lack of literacy skills displayed by the elite school student in his diatribe.

Some have glossed over the behaviour, describing the comments as the work of an immature teenager who will grow up to recant such views. Others have been appalled and levelled blame at the feet of parents or the school. Others still have nodded knowingly, acknowledging that snobbery and elitism has rubbed shoulders with the politics of envy between our public and private sector schools for as long as they can remember.

What then are we to make of it? It would be easy to sweep the comments under the carpet as the ill-informed bigotry of a young man who has much to learn or that the school is an innocent victim in all this, with the overwhelming influence of families being the culprit. That approach would serve very little long term purpose. It’s true that teenagers are prone to making mistakes, some of gigantic proportions. Most do grow up to regret those blunders and learn from them. We can only hope this young man and his band of online supporters do so.

Schools can, and should, make a difference to student behaviour. Blaming his behaviour on the family may well be most unfair in his case. Teenagers do have a habit of embarrassing their parents when least expected. Nonetheless, on the broader issue of family influence versus school influence, it would serve us all well to remember the issue of bullying behaviour by students. Woe betide any school principal who throws up his or her hands in despair and announces that it is beyond them to do much about it in the face of external influences such as the family.

The reality can be darned hard work over a long period of time, but the school has to show visible leadership in dealing with such societal issues. Reactionary behaviour after the event is exactly that – proactivity before the event is more powerful. Schools and workplaces are full of lovely sounding mission statements and anti-bullying policies and the like. They are just the beginning.

The matter of changing elitist and misplaced attitudes of entitlement will be no easy task. So much is working against such change. Our education system is based heavily on competition and choice – for some. We have one of the most taxpayer funded private school systems in the world and our elite private schools make no bones about offering fee-relief dressed up as scholarships to the ‘best and brightest’ in our public schools. There is very little evidence of these schools enticing the battling and challenging students to their premises. With parents paying premium fees for their children to attend our elite private schools, their children can be excused for believing that they entitled.

National testing programs and the consequent league table of ‘successful schools’ peddled in some sections of the media play their part too. It is unsurprising then that the ‘Povs’ hit back as they did today. Is this really the type of society that we wish to develop – one that can be traced back to an education system that distributes not only qualifications for jobs but also elitism and entitlement? I should hope not.

Henry Grossek
Berwick Lodge Primary School

This article was originally published in The Age on 30 October 2015

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