If you search for St. Kevin on the internet, you will find that the references to this Irish saint are vastly outnumbered by references to the Australian boys school that bears his name and that has been dragging that name through the mud in recent times.
In my experience, a sense of irony is not a feature of the culture of well-heeled independent schools.
This may explain how it is that the name of a saint who has been described as an ascetic and can therefore be presumed to have led a frugal and reclusive life came to be taken on by a boys school with 2000 or so enrolments, with high private admission fees, a garnish from government of around $6,000 for each boy and facilities beyond the dreams of avarice.
To be fair to St. Kevin’s, it is common for private schools in this country to be named after saints whose virtues find little or no reflection in the operation of the school except in some cases in a motto on the school blazer. The most recent media coverage of St. Kevin’s revealed sins of commission and omission on the part of staff and the leadership – relating to sexual abuse of students.
This came hard on the heels of gross misconduct by a group of students on a Melbourne tram. Our TV screens were filled with images of boys from this same Melbourne college, sporting its gaudy striped blazers. These images were supplied by one of the passengers on a packed tram, who were subjected to the shouting by these students of an indecent and misogynistic ditty.
At first it was their vulgar and obscene words that caught my attention. Their chant belonged to the genre where women and girls are depicted as barely human receptacles for male sexual acts. I am still trying to cope with the blow to my sensitivity from the argument advanced against same-sex marriage by some religious spokesperson that women should think of ourselves as one end of a car seatbelt!
But as the days went by, I surprised myself by thinking that the behaviour of these students would have been disgusting enough had they been chanting the words of Mother Machree on the tram. Such was their arrogance, their aggressiveness and their sense of their own entitlement to assault the senses of their fellow passengers.
Was I over-reacting? I started to remind myself that I may be peculiarly over-sensitive to this kind of display in public as a result of my own upbringing.
From my earliest years, my caring Methodist mother was wont to remind me during outings or at public events that “nobody is coming here to look at you”.
But as I read newspapers and blogs and engaged in conversations with close friends it became clear that revulsion at the behaviour of the lads from St Kevin’s extended well beyond those of us who – as children – had the blessing or curse of this crushing yet truthful parental advice.
It has been the image of those blazers that has stayed in my mind and led me back to the fascinating subject of school uniform.
School uniform has a range of varied and even conflicting purposes, complicated by the influence of class and gender.
Now the school uniform I wore to my public high school, like that worn by girls in the 1950s right across the state, was a leveller. The wearer was just one of the students in a school identified by a particular tie or hatband, a girl who understood that no one was on public transport to look at her. Modest, pleated and durable, this kind of uniform said to the world “Nothing to see here”.
By contrast, the uniform of many of the high-fee, private boys schools, then and now, says “Look at me, look at me”.
So what were the blazers worn by the St. Kevin’s on that Melbourne tram all about?
As one who has raised teenage boys and now has grandsons of this age, I am almost in awe of the kind of parent who can persuade their offspring to venture out in public in blazers that make them look like actors in an old 1950s BBC skit; or to wear a uniform that would suggest a fresh outbreak of the Boer War. Years ago, while working in Melbourne, I saw an apparition emerging from the early morning mist. What looked like a Hoadley’s Violet Crumble bar with a head and legs heading towards me turned out to be a tall schoolboy in a purple and gold blazer.
It is not as if the parents who supply these uniforms dress in period costumes themselves, at least not in public. And this would almost certainly have been pointed out to me by my own sons had I suggest they go to school in these bizarre kinds of uniform while I dressed quite normally, if dully, myself.
So, what does it all mean? What is the significance of the kind of blazer that brought the name of poor old St. Kevin into disrepute on that Melbourne tram?
It is all, in my view, part and parcel of the education provided by such schools. Their uniform is designed to evoke a proud past, a sense of an important heritage – real or imagined. Being required to venture forth each day in a ludicrous outfit that they would never wear on the weekend is a way to inure boys from socially privileged backgrounds to embarrassment or to sensitivity at the reactions of those outside their own circle. Others may think they look ridiculous, but they know they are superior. Their sense of their own entitlement and their indifference to others is hardened. When outsiders look at them with bemusement or even contempt, they learn that this can be construed as ‘envy’.
From the publicity generated by the scandals at St. Kevin’s and from our wider experience we know that there are boys who have the strength of character – as a result of nature or nurture or both – to avoid this form of conditioning by their ‘prestigious’ schools.
But too many of their students acquire a sense of entitlement that moves with them from the Melbourne tram in to university residential colleges, to the upper echelons of business and the professions and to our parliaments, where graduates of these ‘leading, exclusive’ schools continue to be over-represented.
Some would argue that what these schools do is their own business.
But that ignores the fact that what schools teach their students, including through the informal curriculum, affects society as a whole.
It also ignores the fact that, in this country, the sense of entitlement generated by these schools has impressed itself on our governments. These schools attract a significant amount of direct public funding; and a range of other concessions. They can be characterised as charities. All this – despite the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, not a single one of their religious sponsors, their boards of governors or their highly paid principals has ever put forward an educational justification for their acceptance of this funding…even though they must be well aware that it should be going to more deserving schools.
What the blazes!
Lyndsay Connors AO has held senior positions in education at both the national level and in NSW. In 2015, she was the co-author with Jim McMorrow of the report Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research.