school

"I went to a private girl's school in Sydney. Here's what it was really like."

From the outset, let me say this: I, too, am privileged.

I attended a Sydney private girl’s school in the exclusive Eastern Suburbs for seven years. I started in Year 6 as the recipient of an academic scholarship. 

Regardless of that, my parents wanted me to have the best education possible and were willing to sacrifice everything. I come from a modest family. We don’t value material items, but do value travel and experiences. I grew up in Kensington, a cosy suburb admittedly in the east, but what feels like a world away from the mansions many of my peers lived in. 

And with that, let’s first talk about the financial costs of attending a private school. Tuition alone at many Sydney private schools costs over $30,000 per annum. What people don't talk about enough, is how that's only the beginning. We then had strict uniform policies, meaning parents had to fish out thousands on blazers, bags, sports uniforms, hair ribbons and felt hats (yes we had to wear them and yes we looked like Madeline). You get the picture. 

And with an expensive uniform came high standards. Breaching any rule (for example: not wearing our blazers or hats in public, eating or drinking in public, dress above knees) would land us a Friday detention. There were times where teachers would make us kneel before them to measure our dress lengths. I found that truly humiliating.  

By the end of Year 6, I had settled in to the school, but I cannot deny the environment changed me. I developed a serious eating disorder and suffered from anorexia throughout Year 7 to Year 9. Like most young teenagers, I felt the pressure to look 'skinny'. There were lunchtimes where girls would sit in a circle and eat nothing, and I just joined in. This goes for many girls-only schools, and while it's not necessarily a causal effect of having gone to a private school, my environment did seem to have a toxic influence on my self-esteem.

There were also expensive school excursions. In Year 10 for a commerce excursion we went on a Sydney Harbour Cruise and had three hours ‘free time’ to explore Harbourside Mall in Darling Harbour to ‘collect data’ about small businesses. Ultimately, students just ended up buying clothes, jewellery and food for the day. 

Art and History were trips offered to Europe, as they often are at private schools, costing a small fortune. I must admit, I did benefit from the private school connections. In Year 10, I was selected for an exchange programme, where I lived in a tiny German town for three months with a host family and developed my German skills. This is an opportunity I might not have had if I'd never attended a private school. 

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It was an education steeped in wealth. I often felt like I never truly fit in. It didn’t faze me too much, but at times I felt about it. My mum and dad preferred to skip social functions at the school because they didn’t have much in common with other parents, so I never got to really develop close bonds with a lot of my peers in the way others did. I never went away with my friends to their Palm Beach second homes. I never went to fancy cafes to join my peers for $25 breakfasts. I never attended the exclusive weekend parties, which were the source of gossip for the following weeks.

With that said, parents get what they pay for, and that's more than just reputation. I was given countless opportunities during my school years. I took part in many co- and extra-curricular activities provided by the school. I debated, played chess (I was a nerd), participated in academic competitions and a cultural school exchange programme, performed in inter-school musicals, played sports, mentored and volunteered. In essence, I received a great education. Class sizes were cosy, with one teacher for every 10-15 students on average (some of my classes even had a whopping three students in my senior years). I could consult my teachers whenever I needed them and they would do whatever they could to help and support me. I developed incredibly close bonds with my teachers, who still influence my life choices. For all of the above I am grateful. 

I think as we all reached our senior years, our privilege became something we talked about more and acknowledged. But that didn’t stop it from existing. I often wonder whether my life would have been different had I attended a different school. 

I don’t completely resent my high school years. I am beyond grateful for having received the education I did. I was given every opportunity. I just wish that I could tell people that I went to a Sydney private school without having to follow it up with a “but I swear I’m not a private school girl”. 

Right now, it feels like a dirty word.

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected] You can also visit their website, here.  

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