Financial pressures, social isolation, academic demands and an incredible workload: a mother and daughter reveal the downsides of winning an independent school scholarship.
It's that time of year again, when private school marketing incites aspiring parents to a frenzy of anxiety and desire at the prospect that their child could win that most coveted of prizes – a scholarship.
We too were seduced by the promise of the glittering opportunities offered in these academies of prestige and privilege, but as we discovered, a scholarship is a double-edged sword.
Scholarships were originally intended to help clever kids from low-income families get a first-class education. These days, they're largely the province of affluent families who can afford to invest in years of tuition, scholarship preparation courses or extra music lessons to maximise their child's chance of success.
Exceptionally clever or talented children will probably get a scholarship anyway, it's the second-level of applicants like our daughters, who are very bright but not brilliant, who compete fiercely for the places that remain. But we felt the girls were in with a chance: they were academic, talented and good exam candidates, so we embarked on the quest.
We didn't know what we were getting into. The girls endured examinations, auditions, and interviews and were ultimately successful. Between them they won Academic, Performing Arts and Music scholarships to secondary school.
We soon discovered that very few schools offer full scholarships. We got a 60 per cent fee remission, but some schools offer as little as 25 per cent. We took what we could get and were grateful, because by then we'd invested in the school and we were hooked.
Whatever the marketing rhetoric, many private schools are effectively run as businesses. They net top students through the scholarship process to guarantee impressive results, which will reflect well on the school.
We had to sign an agreement that our child would stay at the school until she'd completed Year 12, or repay the full amount of the scholarship, and therein lay the rub: scholarships are very much a two-way street. Students must keep their end of the bargain, both by excelling academically and participating prominently in school activities. Expectations are high on both sides.
Disillusionment set in early. Much was promised; rather less was delivered. The 'individually tailored programs' the school promoted were a furphy. In reality, timetabling and available resources means options are always limited.
More troublingly, while our daughter was undoubtedly valued as an asset, she wasn't always valued as a person. The needs of the school came first.
It was demanding right from the start. On a combined academic and music scholarship, our daughter was required to continue learning her instrument, and to take part in an array of musical, extracurricular, community service and leadership activities.
The burdens increased exponentially in the senior years. For a time we were unaware of the extent of the pressure she was under. I stupidly added to that pressure, hovering like a Black Hawk helicopter over a battlefield, trying to ensure she met all requirements while keeping up academically.
"Exceptionally clever or talented children will probably get a scholarship anyway, it's the second-level of applicants like our daughters, who are very bright but not brilliant, who compete fiercely for the places that remain. "
We too were feeling the pressure. Scholarships only cover tuition fees and although we lived frugally, we struggled to make up the shortfall. As products of free education, my husband and I had no notion of the many additional costs that come with a private school education.
The first shock was the ruinously expensive uniform – add a private school logo and the cost of a garment trebles. Then we had to buy a notebook computer from the school. They were cheaper in the shops, but the school model came with customised software, so we had no choice. There were also compulsory school camps, excursions, incursions, building fund contributions, Grounds, Technology and Publication fees, overseas trips and sports equipment. Our daughter didn't get to do horse riding or skiing. We couldn't afford it.
A few years later, our younger daughter took up a scholarship at a school with a more liberal ethos and had a largely positive experience, but expenses escalated. Fees that seemed manageable in Year 7 increased to fearful levels by Year 12, so that our girls would always rank as what Chris Lilley's Jamie stigmatised as "povo" kids.
Other scholarship parents were similarly burdened and we tended to stick together. We felt we didn't belong. One school parent frankly admitted that she resented paying full fees to subsidise scholarship students. I didn't blame her.
Ultimately, both girls scored high ATARs and attended uni on partial scholarships, but they may have achieved as much at any school. It's impossible to tell if it was all worth it. As parents, we can only make the best decisions we possibly can with the information available.
I only wish I'd had more information at the time, and a better understanding of the pitfalls as well as the perks of the scholarship experience.
The general perception of school scholarships is that they're purely positive, providing invaluable opportunities to the students lucky enough to win them. Unfortunately, that wasn't my experience.
To me, winning a scholarship to secondary school meant having to meet other peoples' standards during the most difficult period of my life. I attended a private school on a combined academic and music scholarship, which knocked a substantial chunk off my school fees and provided free music lessons, but it also committed me to a highly unrealistic workload and academic standard.
To keep the scholarship, I had to maintain high marks and participate in a number of after-hours music ensembles. The school also expected me to commit to the same compulsory extra-curricular activities as non-scholarship students, such as charity groups and Saturday sport.
It was mind-numbingly stressful, constantly trying to juggle assignments and looming music exams while being pulled out of class – sometimes for full days – to be toted from campus to campus for showcase orchestral performances.
The school aimed to produce well-rounded students, equally strong at the arts, sports and community involvement, but for scholarship students in particular, the result was often exhausted, anxiety-ridden adolescents. We struggled to achieve balance, make the grade and find acceptance as we negotiated the minefield of social and developmental issues that go with the painfully awkward teenage years.
Part of the pressure came from home. I remember sitting up for hours on nights before my music theory classes, frantically trying to finish the homework I'd no time for, because my parents insisted I take music theory lessons since they came free with the scholarship.
I understand why they did it – they wanted to get the most value out of the scholarship as possible, but ultimately, I don't think my parents' strategy worked – to this day I can't tell my diminished sevenths from my augmented sevenths at all.
While I had to work long and hard to maintain a high academic standard, and resented having to sacrifice after-school time and Saturdays to music and sport, I expected these pressures from the outset.
What I didn't anticipate was being trapped into a school culture that not only failed to meet my personal needs, but instead alienated me. I'd formed my expectations of the school based on its enticing marketing material, brief interviews with staff and a tour of its sparkling facilities, but I soon found that the school was more concerned with upholding its reputation than with the wellbeing of its students.
I suppose when you're applying for scholarships to affluent private schools, you automatically assume that a school offering opulent extra-curricular activities like fencing and international trips will certainly meet its core responsibility of ensuring students' welfare and safety.
Sadly, this was the school's most glaring failure. As a vulnerable Year 7, I could never have anticipated the regressive culture of victim-blaming that was widespread among the school administration, and which allowed bullying to thrive.
Instances of sexual harassment, such as girls being pressured to send nude photos, were glossed over by the school's 'boys will be boys' mentality, and left me feeling profoundly upset and helpless.
But because I was there on a scholarship, I couldn't change schools as other students might have. Leaving meant paying back the scholarship's full value – something my family simply couldn't afford. I, and many other marginalised students, suffered in silence.
Attending a private school on a scholarship was challenging in more than the academic sense, but I also learnt sacrifice and discipline along the way. I became used to having little time to myself; to managing multiple extra commitments; to meeting and maintaining high standards in every aspect of my life.
I think that's made me a stronger person today: it certainly made my time at university (to which I also won a partial scholarship) a comparative breeze.
My university scholarship was worth less in dollar terms, but it had much more value to me as a student. There was no monitoring of my academic progress at a subject level, and I felt barely any pressure to perform to a particular standard because I only needed to maintain a B grade. It didn't cover all my expenses, but it did afford me more freedom and confidence.
Scholarships entail responsibilities that can become burdens for parents and even the most motivated and capable students. Yet I've no doubt other scholarship winners have more positive stories than mine.
My scholarship was just to the wrong school – one that failed to meet my educational needs, and if anything, made learning an ordeal. Ironically, that experience ultimately helped me become capable and confident – just not in the way intended.