In their distinctive striped blazers, a heaving mob of boys, from the expensive private Catholic school St Kevin’s, was seen loudly and proudly performing misogynist chants on a Melbourne tram. They were apparently psyching themselves up on their way to a sporting competition. Someone filmed them.
The film went viral and was passed to the ABC. In February 2020 the ABC’s Four Corners ran a story called Boys’ Club: Private school privilege and the culture of cover up. This stressed two things.
First Four Corners stressed the remorseless hyper-masculine, militaristic “band of warring brothers” culture of the school, particularly in relation to sport. Second, it highlighted the grooming of a young athlete by his coach. When the offending coach was on trial in court, the headmaster and dean of sport provided him with character references. The coach was convicted of grooming. Here Four Corners emphasised a further element of the school culture. Denial, secrecy about a criminal offence and its failure to exercise its duty of care to that boy and possibly others.
Boys’ Club provoked a media frenzy. And, since the program was aired further examples of grooming and coverup have been exposed. For example, in trying to exercise her mandatory reporting responsibilities, the school psychologist revealed attempts to silence her by the deputy principal. Resignations (the Head), stand downs (the dean of sport and the deputy principal) and apologies by the governing bodies have followed.
As I write, the media storm continues to rage. Much of it has focused on the grooming and its cover-up. This is particularly shocking given the Catholic church’s promises of reform in response to the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017).
So, it’s happened again. Another exposé about disgraceful activities at an expensive private school. Another revelation showing boys, and teachers, from such schools behaving in appalling ways.
These cruelties and criminal acts are not unusual. Examples abound in single-sex and coeducational private schools and university colleges – Catholic and non-Catholic. Time and again we hear about bigger and older boys from these schools violently abusing younger and weaker boys. We hear of these boys’ predatory and insulting behaviours online, and elsewhere, towards girls. We hear of the sexual abuse of boys within these schools by their teachers, coaches and priests. And we hear of the rape culture that pervades the university colleges that graduates from expensive private boys’ schools over-populate.
There is a usual chain of events that follows the public exposure of such behaviours. A media explosion of shock and outrage. Some parents, often mothers, and students publicly express their hurt and indignation and are rightly applauded for their bravery. There are adamant calls for heads to roll and for the school culture to change.
The school, with the help of hot-shot lawyers and media advisors, tries to avoid as much brand damage as possible. Key figures are encouraged to step down. The school disciplines the “few bad apples”, identifies the “isolated problems” and then makes cosmetic changes. Other schools in the expensive private school sector nervously check the adequacy of their policy settings. Some hastily introduce programs for boys that purport to challenge masculine stereotypes and for teachers about child protection. Eventually the storm dies down and the school settles down. Public interest in the issue subsides.
But there is always a next time in another similar school or university college. Always.
Many questions require answers. Why do such matters keep happening in these so-called “elite” private schools? Why do some of their boys and teachers continue to act in such vile, violent and criminal ways?
The usual answers involve the usual suspects – the few bad apples amongst students and staff. Sometimes the “school culture” is invoked. The focus here is often on how the school culture contributes to the toxic masculinities that the boys and staff exhibit. There is lots of merit to such arguments. But few explore what class wealth, power and privilege mean for the school’s culture and thus for the boys and staff. Few in the schools want to. Its touches a nerve.
In this instance, I’ll focus on the class culture of expensive private schools. In effect, although not in actuality, this involves the distribution of an unofficial Hierarchy Handbook. Unlike the official paraphernalia where the schools lay claim to higher virtues, this clarifies their real, hidden-in-plain-sight, values. It offers class lessons and their accompanying rules of entitlement. Here are some “extracts”. These help to explain how privileged private schools produce such monstrous behaviours.
The Hierarchy Handbook
This Handbook provides you with some lessons on class. It explains how hierarchy is our core value and how it pays many entitlement dividends.
Class lesson 1. Expensive private schools, in the main, service those of us in the upper echelons of the class system – the wealthy, powerful and privileged and those in our immediate orbit.
Entitlement 1. This means that members of our schools are pretty much entitled to operate according to our own rules. We can largely ignore the rules that apply to others. Of course, given our graduates’ social position, we are also entitled to set the rules for others.
Class lesson 2. There is a pecking order amongst expensive private schools. We all know where we fit and we know that those further down will emulate, and try to outdo, those further up.
Entitlement 2 Wherever your school is placed in the pecking order you are entitled to use any means at your disposal to try to protect or advance its place. Keep in mind, though, that as a band of warring brothers we have a shared interest in protecting and advancing our schools’ collective interests.
Class lesson 3. Because we serve the wealthy, our schools are wealthy. We have many educational luxuries that other schools don’t have.
Entitlement 3. Luxury is normal in our worlds. We are entitled to have it and to hoard it. Others’ needs are fundamentally irrelevant to us.
Class lesson 4. We are superior schools. Elite. Untouchable almost. It is your responsibility, while at school and subsequently, to make sure that we stay that way. You must therefore aim to be on top of all the power and status hierarchies that matter – educational hierarchies, career hierarchies, cultural, economic, political and sporting hierarchies. You must adopt a hyper-competitive, hyper-ambitious mindset.
Entitlement 4. When you adopt this mindset, and if you rank highly in all that you do, you will be entitled to all the power and all the signifiers of success that our class justifiably enjoys. You too will become untouchable.
Class lesson 5. We believe in success at all costs. Thus, the school will hot-house and mollycoddle you. We will teach you how outstanding you are and will meet your every need. We will cultivate a culture of well warranted narcissism wherein your own splendid image will always be reflected back to you at twice its normal size.
Entitlement 5. This gives you the right to feel superior, to expect admiration, to be self-absorbed and indulged. You are entitled to be needy and greedy and to have others feed your needs and greed.
Class lesson 6. Our reputation is sacred and must never be put at risk. We must protect it at all costs. We expect your unwavering conformity, loyalty, and, when necessary, your silence. Our secrets are ours to keep, to deal with in our own ways.
Entitlement 6. You are entitled to attend a school with an unsullied reputation. The quid pro quo is that you do not speak publicly about anything that may damage our reputation. We would regard that as disloyal. Many of us would shun you.
Class lesson 7. Because we strongly believe in hierarchy we will implicitly instruct you in the finely graded art of “looking down” at those “below us” – those whose bodies, values and feelings don’t matter. Those below us are usually outside our private school sector. Naturally you would not mix with them. But, sadly, there are also those inside our schools who are at the bottom of our status hierarchies. These are our lesser, weaker beings, the less wealthy, less well-connected, less talented, less successful, less ambitious, less attractive, less masculine. And yes, they also include our less loyal, less conforming, less compliant students.
Entitlement 7. You are entitled to give those below you, those weaker than you, those less perfect and powerful than you, a hard time. Individually and collectively, you can tease them, troll them, attack them, hurt them, groom them. You are also entitled to watch on while others do such things. It’s a good spectator sport. And we love sport.
Back to St Kevin’s. What class lessons has it exhibited and how do they intersect with gender? What entitlements have been claimed?
Its culture of conformity, its extraction of undeserved loyalty, its dirty little secrets and its oppressive silence in relation to them have all been laid bare. It is now likely that it will become a pariah school amongst its privileged peers, at least for a while.
Clearly the boys who chanted on the tram felt entitled to flout the rules of civility in a public place. Untouchable, they were well within their rights to show contempt for other travellers. Their contempt for women in particular was also palpable. Clearly using misogyny to pump themselves up before a sporting event made them feel formidable.
St Kevin’s currently prides itself on its sporting achievements. Lower down in the expensive private school hierarchy, it has long tried to use sport to elevate itself. Hot-housing its sporting elite, issuing lots of sporting scholarships, funding lavish sporting facilities and employing top coaches has been part of its advancement strategy. But perhaps such hot-housing and luxury has not been enough. Perhaps its sporting success has also been built on the mobilisation of misogyny and abuse. It has certainly been built on harbouring a sex-offending coach who preyed on the young. But anything goes in the ruthless quest for success, right? Check the Handbook. Just keep it secret.