Being The Public School Kid In A Private School World

Being The Public School Kid In A Private School World

As Emma graduated from high school, met new friends and started working, she found she was up against some sturdy stigma. Here’s how she navigated being treated differently based on where she went to school.

High school leaves you with many things. There are the positives, like a Year 12 certificate, lifelong friends and the ability to forge your parents’ signatures under pressure (I haven’t needed this skill since graduating, but I’m sure the day will come).

There are also the negatives: unwanted nicknames, scars from woodwork class and, for most, a pure hatred for any and all maths involving letters.

While it’s a mixed bag of takeaways, one I wasn’t prepared for was the public school kid stereotype that’s followed me into new workplaces and friendship circles.

“Did people have sex in the toilets at lunch?” a friend asked me after remembering that unlike him, I went to a co-ed public school. We live in the same suburb, were born in the same year and yet it often seems to them that we grew up worlds apart.

It’s not the only question that comes up, either. No, I didn’t have sex in the toilets. No, I couldn’t just leave whenever I wanted and no, I didn’t get into any fights, which, if I’m honest, is the most surprising answer considering my quick tongue and slow reaction time.

Among friends, no harm is meant, but after securing my first job out of university I realised that the stigma didn’t just stick to the confines of my peers. Unfortunately, some colleagues and employers carried preconceived notions of the differences between private-school and public-school education and the types of employees they breed.

I’ve heard superiors declare someone as a ‘good hire!’ based solely on the fact that they attended the same private school. This regularly serves as sufficient testament to an employee’s skills and work ethic, rendering meeting in person or another glance at their resume unnecessary.

In comparison, I’ve been asked in the workplace “did you only go to university to meet a rich husband?” On another occasion, upon hearing sirens, a colleague quipped, “They’re probably after you Emma, better run”.

I can take a joke about my character with the best of them, but I take great pride in my work. The prospect of negative character traits being associated with the quality of work I provide, especially when it impacts my livelihood, isn’t something I wasn’t expecting.

In my experience, the assumptions made about me can be linked to one of the two stereotypes most commonly accepted about public school education.


1. Public school kids are rough around the edges

Some say rough but I prefer worldly. This stereotype seemed to work against me in roles that involved dealing with the public.

However, the diversity of students at my public school gave me the ability to get to know a huge variety of people, differing in race, gender, socio-economic background and even first language. Growing up around people that didn’t look and sound exactly like me taught me how to relate to people I may not have that much in common with on the first impression.

Instead of hindering me, this is a skill I now pride myself on. I’m comfortable forming relationships and building rapport with people different to myself in the workforce, whether they’re colleagues, customers or clients.

2. Public school kids get lower test scores and don’t go to university

Plainly untrue. This one’s tied to the perception that going to a public school drags down your  ATAR. I won’t even pretend to know how that’s calculated, and I’m sure it involves maths with letters, so we’ll skip that part and head straight to what I do know. 

We’re lucky enough to live in a country that doesn’t require university fees paid upfront.

Yes, you may have to work to support yourself through it and yes, this might stretch your degree out further, but those public school students willing and determined to put in the work do go to university. We graduate in the same heinous gown and hat ensemble as our private school alumni.

I’m aware that stereotypes go both ways.You may be surprised to know that not a single one of my private school friends resembles Ja’mie from Summer Heights High (okay, maybe one). However, these have been my personal experiences as I navigated life after school.

In the end, I’ve realised that nothing about my past, including my school, determines my future. Hard work and dedication are two universal attributes that you can develop, no matter what school you attended.