If you want gender justice, should you ban private boys’ schools?

By George Variyan

The “offensive and misogynistic behaviour” of elite private school boys that routinely erupts into the public consciousness is not an aberration. It is a byproduct of the heterosexist ‘machinery’ that organises relational life within these schools (Variyan & Wilkinson, under review). 

There is strong evidence that young female teachers are being responsibilised for boys sexually harassing them, where they were being questioned about their teaching and dressing in too feminine a manner. Teachers also reported encountering disbelief from their school leaders in the face of complaints of sexual harassment, as well as the poor handling of complaints with minimal consequences for boys’ harassing behaviours. These are all critical incidences and discourses of victim-blaming that lead female teachers to question themselves, to self-censor and self-blame. However, it also stands to reason that market pressures might lead school heads to play down or disappear reports of sexual harassment before these incidents come to parents’ (or wider public) attention. After all, these schools “have reputations, brands and interests to protect in a crowded educational market”. 

Why are elite private schools in the spotlight this time?

Chanel Contos, formerly a student at Kambala, began a petition last month for “sexual consent education” to be taught much earlier. Her petition was swamped with testimonies from young women, some of whom say they were 13 when they were sexually assaulted by their male peers. Now Ms Contos will meet with principals to address sexual assault claims that have affected hundreds of former students.

But it is the culture which matters. And when it comes to researching culture in elite private schools access is always a challenge. 

My research in three elite private boys’ schools reveals that part of this social machinery is the male-centric rusted-on cultural practices of these schools. For example, the gender segregation, the hyper-competition and the pre-eminence of rugged sport continue to manifest a culture of masculinity that is both toxic and excluding of females. This marginalisation is a critical aspect of how female teachers in these schools are disempowered, because masculine ways of being and masculine authority are privileged first and foremost, and become the social logics that female teachers must navigate.

The reports of sexual assaults amongst elite private school girls that have recently broke out in the media have been touted as a ‘wake-up call’ for the privileged all-boys’ private schools who have been named in these allegations. For critics who have previously argued that the “education sector [has] yet to learn lessons of #MeToo”, perhaps this is really the moment when everyone actually wakes up. I can’t help but be sceptical about this possibility. A better education for boys is laudable, but also suggests that violence against women and girls is a simply a question of the improving boys’ knowledge about these matters. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In this final calculation, dealing with gender violence and oppression in elite private schools might be a question of dealing with powerful interests. I suspect that these interests, and the advocates for these schools, will aim to ride out the media storm and deflect attention so that they can get back to business as usual. Maybe that’s too cynical, but I doubt that the recent allegations made visible in the media is really new news to these schools’ leaders. 

However, If the Australian community is prepared to admit that the usual tropes of ‘boys will be boys’ will no longer suffice, then perhaps there might be an appetite for real change. I do not believe that this change will come from better schooling programmes alone, because the hyper-commodification of schooling, parent pressure, and sedimented school practices are significant social architectures that will continue to generate silences around the profane aspects of elite private schoolboy culture. Instead, it may just be the time to consider even more radical thinking. This could begin with asking whether elite private boys’ schools have any place in a gender-just world, but it could also begin with asking what education might look like if it had an ethics of justice at its core. 

Dr George Variyan is a lecturer in Master of Educational Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His background includes teaching, learning and leading in schools in Australia and overseas. George’s engagement in research is based on a critically orientated sociology, which explores human agency in the relationship between education and society. Key interests include educational sociology, gender, social justice, and ethics.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

One thought on “If you want gender justice, should you ban private boys’ schools?

  1. Heather Hobbs says:

    And who are most of these schools run by?

    Religious institutions (of all faiths) which in many cases are themselves unashamed bastions of male domination and patriachy. Even the more progressive churches struggle to shake off centuries, even millenia, of treating women as subservient (they refer to it as having a different role). This is so ingrained that many can’t take a step back and see it for what it is.

    I’m fairly certain you won’t here these views widely expressed because the Catholic church in particular is so powerful and we’re very wary about upsetting other minorities.

    Mouthing words is not enough to bring change in culture – it has to be modelled by people who have internalised those attitudes and beliefs.

    In the spirit of transparency, I am an ex-Catholic school teacher.

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