What other schools can learn from the Sydney private school saga

What other schools can learn from the Sydney private school saga

Sympathetic council members Skander Malcolm, CEO of financial services firm OFX and rich lister Seumas Dawes resigned.

The unholy tit-for-tat that had been stabbing away at Cranbrook’s heart over 18 months finally erupted on Monday when the entire council, bar Katrina Rathie, resigned.

In their letter of resignation, addressed to Cranbrook’s parents, alumni and friends, the council members said the row was “damaging the reputation of the school and impacting on its operations.”

“We believe this has made the governance of the school untenable,” they wrote. “Despite a number of good faith attempts over many months to resolve the underlying issues we have concluded that a workable solution is not possible and we are no longer able to discharge our duties as directors.”

They then committed to supporting the school in a transition to a new council.

The following evening, the final meeting of Cranbrook council as it’s presently constituted (the resignations take effect from December 31) was profoundly anti-climactic. North acknowledged that the council was in caretaker mode and asked lone survivor Rathie, a staunch supporter of the headmaster, to bring them a new slate of councillors to be ratified. The Anglican Church is entitled to four positions.

Nominations are expected to open next week and close a week later. An independent nominations committee comprised of former Cranbrook presidents Roger Massey-Greene and Helen Nugent will then select the new members of council with an appropriate mix of gender, age and expertise.

Perhaps most importantly, greater emphasis will be placed upon representing the current student body, including the junior school. Of the 13-member council in place at the AGM in May, just four were parents of current students – and all of them in the senior school.

The new council is expected to be named by Christmas and will then face election at the 2023 annual meeting expected in May. The new council is also tipped to approve a large number of applications from current parents for voting membership of the company that operates the school, giving them a far greater say in its direction. That will go a long way towards remedying the crisis at the school after North had advocated freezing new membership.

The past few months of drama at Cranbrook has thrown the shortcomings of its governance model into sharp relief. The parents of current students are entitled to voting membership of the Cranbrook company but are required to apply to the council. Until last week, very few had.

The school council is only answerable to the members of that company. Given most of the company’s members are no longer actively engaged in school life, and that council can make it difficult for current parents to gain membership, the system afforded the council a distinct lack of accountability.

A bigger problem?

Emma Rowe, an expert in educational reform and policy, in particular privatization and marketization of schools, says the way the council and company was “gerrymandered” to suit North’s view of the world “was very problematic”.

“It’s indicative of a bigger problem we have around schools that are absolutely awash with privilege and their governing bodies that are not very democratic,” Rowe says.

Murray points out that independent schools are independent for a reason – they are “meant to operate differently to the way the state would go about pursuing the public good”.

“We want independent decisions being made, and you don’t want regulators getting in too close and making calls on the merits of decisions.” Murray says. But this also contributes, he admits, to potential malfunction when the common good gets subsumed by personal interests or vendettas.

Girls will now enter the school in years 7 and 11 from 2026.

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