Is your school motivated mostly by effective teaching and learning, or by financial concerns?
One outgoing school captain – Sarah Haynes of Ravenswood School for Girls – made waves by bluntly accusing her school of being more concerned about the latter of these two during her scathing end-of-year speech.
Haynes said the pressure on schools to be run as financially viable businesses was distracting them from the bigger picture of education and learning.
“I don't know how to run a school but it seems to me that today's schools are being run more and more like businesses where everything becomes financially motivated, where more value is placed on those who provide good publicity or financial benefits,” she said.
Haynes said the school she loved had left her feeling "hurt and betrayed" after senior staff began censoring her speeches to highlight the school's distinguished image.
“Everything I wrote had to be censored by those higher up than me," she said in her address.
“I was never trusted to say the right thing.”
However, chairman of the school council, Mark Webb, denied that Haynes' speeches had been censored by senior staff at the school which he said provided a "safe and respectful" learning environment.
“Girls have the right to express their individual opinion,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald, adding he addressed the school straight after Haynes's speech and said he did not recall how the audience reacted to her claims.
Haynes said she was instructed not to conclude an open day speech earlier this year in which she wanted to tell families the school was less than perfect.
“I sent this to those in charge of me and received a reply: ‘Great speech but change the ending. No parent wants to hear that the school isn't perfect’,” she said.
Leading up to the big day, Haynes wrote two versions of her speech: one to show staff and the other she planned to give.
“I wrote two speeches today just so I would be able to say that Ravo isn't perfect,” she said.
Parents pay up to $28,000 a year to send their daughters to the school, which Haynes said projects an unrealistic image.
“If the school can't admit it isn't perfect, how can it expect adolescent girls to realise perfection is unattainable?” she asked, adding she hoped the school would learn from its mistakes in the same way manner it expected from students.
“We learn from mistakes,” she said.
“The only dangerous thing about mistakes - which I think Ravo may have lost sight of this year - is not being able to recognise and admit to them.”
Her speech received a standing ovation from the students and some parents although she described the reaction from staff as “reserved”.
Haynes, who hopes to study medicine, said her parents were a “little shocked” by her words but supported her decision to speak out.
“It was definitely taking a risk but I respect the girls in my community too much to be insincere so I took that risk,” she said on Sunday.
Afterwards, many students said her message resonated with them, with a video of the speech posted on YouTube receiving almost 6,000 views.
“The image [the school] tries to project isn't real and I think it can be unhealthy,” she said.
“I fell for this image that the school presented to me. I thought the school was absolutely perfect. To be valued within the school a lot of people feel they have to present the same image of perfection that the school does. It's important to know that to be valued within a school you don't have to be a model student.”
Public education advocate, Jane Caro, told The Sydney Morning Herald some private schools carefully shape their image to help justify their fees.
“For those elite schools, it's all about brand, it's all about image,” Caro said.
“When parents choose to send their children to those schools, what they are buying is prestige, brand, image and status. When someone calls that status into question, it raises the question of what exactly the school is offering for the money.”
She said the school should be proud of Haynes's integrity in addressing its shortcomings.
“It's managed to produce someone capable of critical thought who can apply her intelligence to what she has observed around her and had the courage to call it,” she said.