Gladys Berejiklian: why she breaks the Liberal Party mould March 15, 2017Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics, Secondary Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
Tags: Education and community, public education, values education
In 1990 my brother came home starry-eyed from his third week at high school. He had just begun Year 7 peer support, and was enamoured with his Year 11 mentor.
She was Gladys Berejiklian, now Premier of NSW. “Even then, you could tell she was going to be someone,” he told me yesterday.
Peter Board’s strange catchment stretched from Eastwood to North Sydney and even beyond. As surrounding schools, such as Crows Nest Boys, closed, it became one of the few remaining non-selective co-ed public schools on offer in the north-west.
Like Berejiklian herself, the school was characterised by cultural diversity. Her Armenian heritage was not out of place, as there was a significant diaspora living in the area. Peter Board was a diverse mix of Lebanese, Syrians, Koreans, South-East Asians, South and Central Americas, to name a few. The playground was a myriad of accents and dialects and I learnt to swear in 18 languages. But I also learnt about genocide, the United Nations, the break-up of the former Yugoslavian states, the bombing of Iraq and the fleeing of terror from people who had experienced it first-hand.
In the ’90s, cultural diversity was not without peril. Deep divisions existed in the playground between “skips” and “wogs”. The teachers had neither the tools to deal with it, nor an understanding of what was in front of them. Tensions spilled over into a violent racial brawl which would mar the school’s name for years to come.
For this and a host of other reasons, Peter Board had a poor reputation. My middle-class parents were continually asked why they sent me there. It lacked the academic excellence of nearby single-sex and selective schools, the sporting prowess of nearby football-famous schools and the social refinement of Catholic and private schools. But the school was true to the mission of comprehensive education: Everyone was welcome.
Gladys, by all accounts, was a high-achieving student. But she would have been as valued as someone from the nearby public housing community or a kid who couldn’t read. The school prided itself on its “IM class”, the new program for students with intellectual disabilities integrated into mainstream schooling.
The Drama room was simply a classroom with tables and chairs removed. The sporting equipment was well worn. There was one computer room with a sad dot-matrix printer. Every musical instrument in the school was broken. That didn’t stop us playing.
Falling enrolments and continual rumours of the school’s imminent closure led to Premier Bob Carr signing Peter Board’s death warrant in 1999. I remember feeling deeply betrayed by Education Minister John Watkins, once an English teacher, for closing a school in his own electorate.
PBHS is Gladys Berejiklian’s stomping ground, her roots and her upbringing. They are maybe not what you’d expect for a Liberal Party politician – but give those of us who care about education hope that the NSW government will remain committed to Gonski needs-based educational funding. She learnt alongside people from all walks of life, was given no special treatment, and hacked away at her own path to the top. She is a product of Australia’s public school system where everyone has the right to learn, regardless of gender, class, religion, disability or ability to pay. These are the values that I hope she carries as she leads our state.
For a school with a strong working-class population, where barely anyone went to university, Gladys is like many of us PBHS alumni: street savvy – she still catches the bus to work – and politically smart.
Our school’s motto was “Success Through Endeavour”. Of course, we mocked it for years. But never has it been truer for NSW’s first female conservative leader.
Dr Rachael Jacobs is a lecturer in the School of Education at Western Sydney University and a former student of Peter Board High School. This article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 23rd, 2017.