For some parents, no tactic is off limits when it comes to fighting to secure a prestigious education for their children.
For some parents, no tactic is off limits when it comes to fighting to secure a prestigious education for their children.

‘Cash, lies, celebs’: Inside ‘obsessive’ elite school world

DESPERATE parents are going to extraordinary lengths to get their children into private schools, subverting enrolment procedures they say unfairly favour the brightest students.

From donating tens of thousands of dollars' worth of sporting equipment to lying about their religious faith, nothing is off the table.

Family connections and being enrolled since birth are no longer guarantees in a fight for placements that has become "obsessive".

Meanwhile, huge sums are being spent tutoring children as young as seven ahead of international exams that pit them against peers in Asia and give them an edge on NAPLAN, key determinants of enrolment success.

"Parents will almost literally sell their souls to get their kids into some schools, and it definitely helps to know how to play the game," one education insider said.

St Margaret's School students are considered among the lucky ones.
St Margaret's School students are considered among the lucky ones.

In an exclusive Courier-Mail investigation, parents reveal how they secured spots for their kids and the "invasive" measures schools employ to vet families and enhance college reputations.

Facebook accounts are checked and financial records requested as schools court parents who are high-performers in industry and sport, with the expectation they will bankroll building programs or coach elite sport, particularly rugby or rowing.

All this is in addition to non-refundable application fees that can exceed $3000, and lengthy questionnaires in which parents must explain how they will support the college. Religious schools also demand references from clergy.

St Joseph's College Gregory Terrace (Terrace) and sister affiliate All Hallows', with their comparatively low tuition fees and inner-city location, are regarded as the toughest schools to get into, from a prestigious crop that includes Brisbane Grammar and Girls Grammar in Spring Hill, Anglican Church Grammar School (Churchie) in East Brisbane, Brisbane Boys' College (BBC) in Toowong, St Margaret's in Ascot, and Somerville House in South Brisbane.

Annual tuition-only fees for domestic day students at these schools range from $12,000 to $24,000 for Years 5 and 6, and up to $28,000 for Years 7 to 12.

Brisbane Boys College at Toowong is highly sought after.
Brisbane Boys College at Toowong is highly sought after.

But no price is too high for many parents, including those who take on second jobs and sacrifice to give their children a private school pedigree. As one Terrace mother said: "The day I ripped open his acceptance letter at the mailbox I screamed and cried, and the builders next door asked if I'd won lotto - I kind of did".

BEATING THE SYSTEM

-ACADEMICS-

Private tutoring, at upwards of $50 an hour, is a must if you want to ensure your kids blitz NAPLAN, with high scores in the controversial test an automatic entry pass.

"We weren't even called in for an interview; our daughter did really well in NAPLAN so she got straight in," one All Hallows' parent said. "We spent thousands on tutoring but it was worth every cent."

A St Margaret's parent said schools were "desperate to improve their academic reputations as that's how they can justify charging higher fees".

"NAPLAN is increasingly the benchmark but they look at all aspects of your kid's academics, and if your child can play sport too, you're in and with an 80 to 100 per cent scholarship."

She said elite schools also looked favourably on strong ICAS scores, with more parents making kids sit the online tests from Year 2 onwards.

All Hallows is one of Brisbane’s top schools.
All Hallows is one of Brisbane’s top schools.

The International Competitions and Assessments for Schools comprises six tests - English, maths, digital technologies, science, spelling and writing - ranking students in more than 15 countries, mostly Asian. Previously run by the University of NSW, ICAS was acquired by software provider Janison in June 2020, with the company predicting a huge spike in revenue, such is demand for the tests.

If your child struggles academically, be prepared for your enrolment application to be rejected.

A parent who had one son at BBC said her second son, who is dyslexic, was denied a spot, while another family's high-functioning autistic child was also "put in the too hard basket".

"They were fourth generation and two of their other sons went there but the third son was rejected; the mother had to go in there screaming and pull out the 'we are a 100-year family' line to get in."

A Somerville House parent said when she realised her younger daughter was dyslexic, she enrolled her in private violin lessons.

Somerville House is known to value math and music, according to parents.
Somerville House is known to value math and music, according to parents.

"We are a fourth generation family so I knew the culture of the school and that it was big on maths and music, so we paid for two years of violin so she would be considered. Parents must learn the school's culture - and tap into that. I wouldn't call it manipulative, but forward-thinking."

At Churchie, third-generation old boys and big financial donors have claimed kids with poor grades and learning difficulties are excluded.

-FINANCES-

Money talks, particularly around salubrious sports facilities including rowing sheds and rugby fields.

One Terrace parent said her family donated tens of thousands of dollars of sporting equipment ahead of their son's enrolment application being rubber stamped.

"Pre-school donations are a pretty convincing reason to take kids," the parent said.

Another said offering free expertise in areas of accounting, law and learning support was favourably viewed.

One Terrace parent said her family donated tens of thousands of dollars of sporting equipment
One Terrace parent said her family donated tens of thousands of dollars of sporting equipment

A common concern for all schools, according to an education insider, was the ability to meet the fees. "Schools don't want flight risks, so they do background checks."

A hopeful Somerville House parent said when her daughter's application was reviewed, she and her husband were asked to provide a letter from their accountant. "It was invasive, but I guess it is such a lot of money to commit to; thankfully, he classified us as middle to high-income earners."

An All Hallows' parent said she believed the school was "trying to expand its selection process".

"It's a shallow pool if you only take daughters of old girls; you're missing fresh revenue streams if you stick to families who've already given and might be a bit over it."

-SPORT-

If you've played for the Wallabies or rowed for Australia, your child is "in".

"Schools actively court parents with a profile, particularly in sport, and if you can coach, then they'll take you and your kid," said a BBC parent. "It flips the power balance on its head, and famous parents can basically shop the schools and choose the one that offers the most, including free tuition."

Brisbane Girls Grammar School.
Brisbane Girls Grammar School.

Another said having a "celebrity coach" had become a "selling point" for schools and it was common for top sporting students to be "poached" from rival colleges. Several others said they'd spent thousands on football coaching to increase their sons' odds.

-RELIGION-

There is "massive snobbery and elitism around religion", according to one parent with many friends "heartbroken" by enrolment rejection.

"Getting into Terrace or All Hallows' becomes obsessive, but it doesn't matter how long you've been on the (enrolment) list - if you're not Catholic enough, your family doesn't stand a chance."

She said a friend's daughter didn't get into All Hallows' because she had attended a state school. "The mother was actually a devout Catholic and would have cups of tea with the nuns at her parish, but she also believed in a state education in the early years. When her daughter didn't get in, it was like they cut her heart out - she was distraught to feel they judged her faith and it cost her daughter a place."

An All Hallows' mother whose daughter's application was successful, despite her attending a state school, said she was "school shamed" while volunteering in the tuckshop. "Mums were really upset I hadn't sent my daughter to a Catholic primary and one kept asking, 'how did you get her in here?'," she said.

Brisbane Boys College at Toowong is among the most elite schools.
Brisbane Boys College at Toowong is among the most elite schools.

Faith-based schools also require references from a member of the clergy, the higher up the better. A former Terrace student said it helped that his aunty was a nun who'd been blessed by the Pope, while a parent said their family went to mass for two years, despite not being believers, to get a priest's letter.

-CONNECTIONS-

Schools are not above snooping in Facebook accounts to see what kind of parent you might be. If you want to send your child to a PMSA school, including Somerville House and BBC, don't join the Beyond PMSA group.

The Presbyterian and Methodist Schools' Association came under fire from thousands of angry parents over its handling of several scandals in 2017, heralding the Beyond PMSA lobby group.

While the PMSA has ushered in new blood since, one parent said "don't belong to the Beyond PMSA Facebook page, or even 'like' it".

St Joseph’s College Gregory Terrace (Terrace) and sister affiliate All Hallows’, with their comparatively low tuition fees and inner-city location, are regarded as the toughest schools to get into.
St Joseph’s College Gregory Terrace (Terrace) and sister affiliate All Hallows’, with their comparatively low tuition fees and inner-city location, are regarded as the toughest schools to get into.

If an enrolment application is rejected at a top school, having the right connections can have it overturned.

"One minute we were told 'get lost', and the next, after a call to the principal from a benevolent old boy who was a close friend, the school rang and said they were excited to announce they had found a place," one parent said.

Others have hit up politicians to get applications across the line.

WHAT SCHOOLS SAY

Terrace principal Michael Carroll said demand for places was high and there were long wait lists for Years 5 and 7.

"Enrolment pressure continues to be an issue of us, particularly considering the strong academic results, impressive pastoral care and cocurricular programs, reasonable fee structure and the importance of a Catholic education," Dr Carroll said.

St Joseph's Terrace principal Michael Carroll. Photo by Sarah Keayes
St Joseph's Terrace principal Michael Carroll. Photo by Sarah Keayes

The Year 5 intake was capped at 135 students, with an additional 100 or more boys accepted in Year 7.

"Priority is given to siblings, sons of old boys and then Catholic families in Catholic schools, in that order," he said. "Other enrolments are considered if places are available."

Somerville House and BBC are "non-selective and welcome all students, no matter their academic level or religious background," PMSA CEO Sharon Callister said.

"Several of our schools, including Brisbane Boys' College, have recognised support programs for students with learning challenges," Ms Callister said. "Our schools do have capacity limits which can create waiting lists."

Churchie headmaster Alan Campbell said his school had "high academic and behavioural expectations".

"Each enrolment is carefully considered from date of application, always with the intent of advising clearly what the school can offer each boy," Dr Campbell said.

"A great enthusiasm for learning and a willingness to be involved in every aspect of school life are among the important considerations during the enrolment process."

 

Dr Alan Campbell is the headmaster at Churchie.
Dr Alan Campbell is the headmaster at Churchie.

 

A St Margaret's spokesperson said "no student shall be regarded as having automatic right of acceptance". When places were scarce, siblings of students got priority. Next in line were children of Anglican clergy, then of staff, past students, and finally in order of when applications were made.

The All Hallows' website says parents must "demonstrate a commitment to supporting the Catholic mission and values of the school", with the "degree of involvement in a Catholic school, faith community or other church ministry" the primary criterion.

BEST FEEDER SCHOOLS

Terrace and All Hallows'

St Ignatius, Toowong

St Joseph's, Bardon

St Agatha's, Clayfield

St Columba's, Wilston

St Peter and Paul's, Balmoral

Ambrose Treacy College, Indooroopilly

Brisbane Grammar, Girls Grammar:

Ascot State School

Eagle Junction State School

Indooroopilly State School

Ironside State School, St Lucia

Anglican Church Grammar School:

Coorparoo State School

Ascot State School

Mt Gravatt State School

TOP TEN TIPS

•Be demonstrably religious if you want a faith-based school - be active in your parish and secure reference letters from clergy.

•Donate large sums of money or school equipment in kind.

•Spend thousands on private tutors to improve academic merits.

•If your child is sporty and/or musical, pay for extra coaching or lessons.

•If he/she has learning difficulties, be prepared for rejection.

•Put your child's name down at birth.

•Choose the 'right' feeder school.

•Promise to be actively involved in the school community.

•Get on side with your accountant, to prove you can pay the fees.

•Don't rely on connections but use as many as you can.

SUCCESS STORY

Frankie Mitchell is forever grateful for the opportunities her private school education provided.

Ms Mitchell, who graduated from All Hallows' School in 2017, said she gained an "important sense of independence".

Frankie Mitchell, former All Hallows’s student, pictured at her home in Auchenflower. Frankie is now studying Arts/Law at University of Queensland. (Image/Josh Woning)
Frankie Mitchell, former All Hallows’s student, pictured at her home in Auchenflower. Frankie is now studying Arts/Law at University of Queensland. (Image/Josh Woning)

"We were never spoon fed and always taught to think independently and to be inclusive, that no one was better than anyone else," she said.

"All Hallows' instilled great values, and they didn't push you to be good at just one thing - it was about being a well-rounded person, across academics, sport, culture and social justice."

Ms Mitchell, 20, of Auchenflower, attended the Catholic girls' school from Year 5 and is now studying arts/law at the University of Queensland, with hopes of becoming an intellectual property lawyer.

"I am forever grateful to my parents for sending me there, and for the opportunities and values I gained," she said.

Francesca La Spina, who sent her two children to private schools, said it was "the best investment I ever made".

Daughter Britt, 27, attended Somerville House and son Bruno, 22, Churchie.

"The contacts, the friends, the loyalty of people - you can't buy those networks any other way," said Ms La Spina, a commodities trader who ran her own business when her children were young.

"Looking back, I would have worked three jobs to get them through, whatever I had to do to give them that foundation because once they have it the world is their oyster.

"My grandfather arrived from Italy in the early 1920s and was very poor and couldn't read or write, and I always remember him telling me, 'spend as much as you can on your kids' education because it makes all the difference'."

 

Originally published as 'Cash, lies and celebs': Inside 'obsessive' elite school world



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