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Billionaires Scott Farquhar and Gretel Packer fight to allow girls at private Cranbrook School

Generations of boys from Cranbrook School in Sydney’s east have endured rival private college students chanting a childish taunt across rugby fields and playgrounds.

‘Get a girl, get a girl, get a girl if you can; if you can’t get a girl, get a Cranbrook man,’ goes one recent version of a decades-old rhyme. The catchcry has changed slightly with the times but the slur always stays the same.

Pupils at Scots College further up Victoria Road at Bellevue Hill were once even known to mockingly doff their hats and offer a seat to Cranbrook boys on buses and trams. 

Now the all-male Anglican college and its mega-wealthy benefactors are embroiled in a schoolyard fight over whether the 104-year-old institution should become co-educational.

One of Australia's most elite private colleges is divided by a bid to allow girls to attend the all-boys Cranbrook School at Bellevue Hill in Sydney's east. Among the parents supporting the proposed change are billionaire Atlassian founder Scott Farquhar and his wife Kim Jackson

One of Australia’s most elite private colleges is divided by a bid to allow girls to attend the all-boys Cranbrook School at Bellevue Hill in Sydney’s east. Among the parents supporting the proposed change are billionaire Atlassian founder Scott Farquhar and his wife Kim Jackson

Cranbrook School was established as an all-boys Anglican college in Victoria Road, Bellevue Hill in 1918. A plan to make the school co-educational was circulated by headmaster Nicholas Sampson among senior staff and school directors in April last year

Cranbrook School was established as an all-boys Anglican college in Victoria Road, Bellevue Hill in 1918. A plan to make the school co-educational was circulated by headmaster Nicholas Sampson among senior staff and school directors in April last year

Billionaires are battling with other business and political heavyweights over whether boys and girls should mix as teenagers behind the school’s wrought iron gates.

These parents are understandably passionate about their children’s education. Annual fees at Cranbrook are up to $75,489 for a boarder and $39,894 for a day boy. 

The move to introduce girls at Cranbrook – at first in Years 11 and 12 – is supported by the country’s third richest man, Scott Farquhar, the co-founder and CEO of Atlassian who is worth an estimated $26.41billion.

Farquhar and his wife Kim Jackson have offered to sponsor scholarships for girls coming from other schools to hasten the process.

Those against the move include former federal Labor minister turned political commentator Graham Richardson, famous for his personal motto ‘whatever it takes’.

Those against the move to make Cranbrook co-educational include former federal Labor minister turned political commentator Graham Richardson, who is famous for his personal motto 'whatever it takes'. Richardson is pictured with wife Amanda

Those against the move to make Cranbrook co-educational include former federal Labor minister turned political commentator Graham Richardson, who is famous for his personal motto ‘whatever it takes’. Richardson is pictured with wife Amanda

The conflict has led to accusations about a lack of transparency and featured sometimes fiery debate. It has not helped smooth concerns that the proposal was revealed not by the school itself but through a story in the Sydney Morning Herald. 

Evan Hughes, a Cranbrook old boy and son of the late art dealer Ray Hughes, referred to the school’s unwanted old reputation in an opinion piece for the same newspaper. 

‘Instantly the age-old joke popped into my mind: were they finally letting boys in?’ Hughes wrote, before forcefully arguing for the proposed change.  

The plan to admit girls to Cranbrook was circulated by headmaster Nicholas Sampson among senior staff and school council members in April last year. 

It came amid an explosion of claims by young women of being being sexually exploited, assaulted and denigrated by students from all-boy private schools.  

The co-ed idea was met with early approval by many parents but immediately resisted by others who want to preserve the school’s traditional identity.

The plan to admit girls to Cranbrook came amid an explosion of claims by young women of being being sexually exploited, assaulted and denigrated by students from all-boy private schools. Cranbrook is pictured

The plan to admit girls to Cranbrook came amid an explosion of claims by young women of being being sexually exploited, assaulted and denigrated by students from all-boy private schools. Cranbrook is pictured

Cranbrook has a junior campus at Rose Bay catering for kindergarten to Year 6 students. Some parents were furious the school would make such a fundamental change after they had committed their boys to 13 years of same-sex schooling. 

Cranbrook’s most famous alumni are the late billionaire media mogul Kerry Packer and his son James, the casino magnate who is selling his stake in Crown Resorts. 

Packer junior’s longtime right-hand man Ben Tilley attended Cranbrook as did his onetime best friend and former Nine Network CEO David Gyngell. 

Others to walk its halls include businessmen Rodney Adler and Jodee Rich, who were both behind failed phone company OneTel, Packer’s most spectacular early business mistake.  

Farquhar, who has children at Cranbrook, was the earliest high-profile supporter of making the school co-educational. Other well-known parents have since emerged to let their stances become publicly known. 

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Cranbrook’s most famous alumni are the late billionaire media mogul Kerry Packer (left) and his son James (right), the casino magnate who is selling his stake in Crown Resorts

Billionaire Gretel Packer, son of Kerry and brother of James, sent her two sons to Cranbrook and is among those who want girls at the school.  

Others backing the change include billionaire Caledonia chief investment officer Will Vicars and chair of venture capital firm OneVentures, Walter Lewin.

The Packer family and Cranbrook School 

Cranbrook’s most famous alumnus is the late billionaire Kerry Packer who first spent a year at the school from age five. Packer spent five more years at Cranbrook from age nine until the headmaster recommended he be sent to Geelong Grammar.

Packer’s son James went to Cranbrook when he was 10 and completed his HSC there. Like his father, James had dyslexia and was an academically unexceptional student but an accomplished sportsman. 

Packer senior once landed his helicopter on Cranbrook’s oval to watch James play cricket, then took off while the match was still underway. 

Former NSW Olympics Minister Michael Knight, another Cranbrook old boy, once asked Packer senior which university James would be attending after school and was told: ‘Uni! Why would he want to go there? To learn how to smoke marijuana?’  

James’s philanthropist sister Gretel Packer, who went to Ascham, sent her two sons to Cranbrook and supports the co-ed proposal.  

The pro-girls push is also supported by Macquarie Group director Nicola Wakefield Evans and managing director of the McKinsey global management consulting firm Angus Dawson. 

Gretel Packer, Wakefield Evans, Dawson and Lewin were among influential Cranbrook parents who met for dinner at Vicars’ Bondi home in March, according to the Australian Financial Review.

Also present were Sampson and the school council’s president, investment banker Jon North, who was reportedly urged to advocate harder for the headmaster’s co-ed vision. 

Daisy Turnbull, daughter of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy, recently began teaching commerce at Cranbrook part-time but has not disclosed her position.

She attended the Catholic all-girls Kincoppal-Rose Bay and it is speculated her presence might help attract potential female students.   

Farquhar’s business partner Mike Cannon-Brookes – Australia’s second richest man with $27.83 billion – is an old Cranbrookian but has not spoken out.

It was reported in September he and wife Annie were moving their sons from Cranbrook to a school in the Southern Highlands where the couple has an extensive property portfolio.

The most prominent opponent is long-time Packer family adviser Richardson who has said he would likely not have enrolled his son at Cranbrook if he he had known it would become co-educational.

Also against the proposal are chicken heir and fashion retail pioneer Robby Ingham, his wife Sarah, commercial property investor Lesli Berger and his wife Kirsty.  

Behind the rowing sheds, the opinions of some parents could prove to have significance beyond whether their boys should share classrooms with girls.     

Daisy Turnbull, daughter of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy, recently began teaching commerce at Cranbrook part-time. She is pictured with her former husband James Brown, parents and children

Daisy Turnbull, daughter of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy, recently began teaching commerce at Cranbrook part-time. She is pictured with her former husband James Brown, parents and children

Cranbrook has embarked on a $125million building program to replace aging infrastructure which relies considerably on generous benefactors. 

Farquhar, who went to the selective James Ruse Agricultural High School at Carlingford, and Vicars, an old Cranbrookian, are said to be major financial supporters of the redevelopment. 

For those supporting the co-ed bid there are other financial incentives involved. Cranbrook would expect to lure students whose well-heeled parents now send their children to nearby all-girl schools such as Ascham and Kambala. 

Bringing girls onto the campus might also improve Cranbrook’s academic performance among elite eastern suburbs private schools. 

Cranbrook finished 35th statewide in last year’s HSC results – well behind all-girls schools Kambala (11th), Ascham (16th), St Catherine’s Waverley (23th) and Kincoppal (28th). 

Scott Farquhar's Atlassian business partner Mike Cannon-Brookes - Australia's second richest man with $27.83 billion - is an old Cranbrookian but has not spoken out about Cranbrook becoming co-educational. He is pictured with wife Annie Cannon-Brookes

Scott Farquhar’s Atlassian business partner Mike Cannon-Brookes – Australia’s second richest man with $27.83 billion – is an old Cranbrookian but has not spoken out about Cranbrook becoming co-educational. He is pictured with wife Annie Cannon-Brookes

Cranbrook has never been a sporting powerhouse – which contributes to the barbs from students at other colleges – and is not a member of the Athletic Association of  Great Public Schools.

If girls are admitted to Cranbrook, sports options will be basketball and touch football in the summer months, and soccer or netball in winter. 

Evolution of a chant

A taunting rhyme directed at Cranbrook boys dates back at least as far as the 1950s. 

‘Tiddlywinks, old man, get a woman if you can; if you can’t get a woman, get a Cranbrook man,’ was one version.

‘Tiddlywinks, young man, run as fast as you can; if you can’t get a woman get a Cranbrook man,’ was another.

By the mid 1980s it was shortened to: 

‘If you can, get a woman – if you can, if you can; if you can’t get a woman, get a Cranbrook man.’

Co-ed supporters believe interaction between the sexes at school would help encourage ‘healthy and respectful’ relationships in adulthood.

A group of 22 recent head prefects has written a letter addressed to Sampson and North urging the school to embrace the co-ed model.

‘The current single-sex independent school structures in Sydney create one-dimensional interactions between the genders,’ the letter stated. 

‘Some of the attitudes and norms of behaviour that develop in these communities are, rightly, no longer acceptable in broader Australian society.’

North wrote to the Cranbrook community in December to reveal the introduction of more extracurricular activities which would involve girls. 

He said the council had looked at other secondary institutions that had made the transformation and reviewed research on the benefits of co-educational schools. 

‘We have been encouraged by support within the school and the community to make changes that will better support our students both during their time at Cranbrook and as they move on to tertiary study and professional endeavours,’ he wrote.

North, who said the council unanimously agreed to implement the co-ed initiatives, flagged consulting parents, teachers, students and alumni about welcoming girls into Years 11 and 12. 

‘This will be an important step for Cranbrook and will require strong community engagement and support,’ he wrote.

‘The consultation process will ensure that all views are heard in determining the right approach to co-education for Cranbrook.’ 

Billionaire Gretel Packer, son of Kerry and brother of James, sent her two sons to Cranbrook and is among those who want girls at the school. The philanthropist is pictured with mother Gretel

Billionaire Gretel Packer, son of Kerry and brother of James, sent her two sons to Cranbrook and is among those who want girls at the school. The philanthropist is pictured with mother Gretel

A proposal to enrol 70 senior girls to join 190 boys in Year 11 was put to the school community at three town hall-style meetings in early May with support from the principal.

Kim Jackson reportedly used a junior school parents’ WhatsApp group to encourage participation in one of those forums, according to the Daily Telegraph.

‘Hi All. Reminder – Tonight is the Cranbrook community forum about co-education,’ she wrote. ‘From our informal polling, the vast majority of parents are in favour of co-ed and assume tonight’s consultation is about the “how”.

‘However, from our dealings with the school board, the session tonight is actually “whether” co-ed should happen at all.

‘So if you are in strong support of co-ed, your attendance tonight (in person or virtual) is needed to ensure it happens.’

A group of 22 recent head prefects has written a letter addressed to headmaster Nicholas Sampson (pictured) and school council president Jon North urging the school to embrace the co-ed model

A group of 22 recent head prefects has written a letter addressed to headmaster Nicholas Sampson (pictured) and school council president Jon North urging the school to embrace the co-ed model

Jackson’s post led to an angry response from one anti co-ed parent just moments later. 

‘Hi all. Unfortunately there are many families who are strongly opposed to this proposal and feel betrayed by it,’ that parent wrote.

‘Your voice also deserves to be heard. Please make sure you attend and let your voice be heard.

‘The decision to go co-ed is not finalised and you are welcome to stand against it. This platform is not to be used any further to lobby for or against the proposal.’ 

Those in favour of co-education believe the consultation process has been too slow. 

A group of current and former parents opposed the re-election of three council members including North at the school’s Mary 31 annual general meeting.  

North accused his critics of seeking to ‘quietly undermine the governance of Cranbrook in order to gain power and influence for themselves.’ 

Cranbrook finished 35th statewide in last year's HSC results - well behind all-girls schools Kambala (11th), Ascham (16th), St Catherine's Waverley (23th) and Kincoppal (28th). Kincoppal is pictured

Cranbrook finished 35th statewide in last year’s HSC results – well behind all-girls schools Kambala (11th), Ascham (16th), St Catherine’s Waverley (23th) and Kincoppal (28th). Kincoppal is pictured

He and the other council members were re-elected with about 80 per cent of the vote. Whether the school ever becomes co-ed is still in the consultation process.

An online survey was sent to parents this month to gauge their level of concern over the various objections that have been raised to the proposal. 

Some mothers and fathers have been worried their boys would be distracted by the presence of girls. Some worry their boys’ academic rankings could drop, or they would lack confidence to participate fully in classrooms.

The survey also asked if parents were concerned that making Cranbrook co-educational ‘will result in the loss of an environment that offers rites of passage for boys and provides a space where boys can be boys.’     

How sexual assaults and consent laws are driving co-ed school push  

Former Kambala student Chantel Contos asked for school girls to come forward with stories of sexual assault in February last year and was overwhelmed by the response

Former Kambala student Chantel Contos asked for school girls to come forward with stories of sexual assault in February last year and was overwhelmed by the response

The push to allow the enrolment of girls at Cranbrook came amid widespread claims of girls being sexually assaulted by students at boys-only private schools.

The school was already planning to go co-ed but the announcement followed publication of the sexual assault allegations and an accompanying petition calling for change in February last year.  

Cranbrook’s then head prefect Asher Learmonth delivered a speech to the school that month asking his peers to reconsider their treatment of women.

‘For too many men, especially from the years of eight to 10, women are completely and shamelessly over-sexualised – mere objects of our desires, and a vehicle for validation or popularity amongst our year group,’ he said.

Learmonth said students at all-boys schools such as Cranbrook began to socialise with girls from about Year 9 but only in a ‘a completely artificial environment’ like at a party.

‘Boys, sadly, it should go without saying: women are just as interesting as you, just as smart, just as funny, have just as many insights, are just as impressive, are just as good value,’ he said. 

‘You don’t need a sister or mother to understand this. Women are people just like you.’ 

Chantel Contos (above) believes segregating boys and girls for learning leads to an alienation which causes unhealthy attitudes to the opposite sex

Chantel Contos (above) believes segregating boys and girls for learning leads to an alienation which causes unhealthy attitudes to the opposite sex

Former Kambala student Chantel Contos had asked a question on Instagram:

‘If you live in Sydney: have you or has anyone close to you ever experienced sexual assault from someone who went to an all-boys school?’

Some of Australia’s top same-sex schools including Cranbrook, Scots College, Sydney Grammar and Waverley College were repeatedly named in responses. 

Contos subsequently launched a petition calling for earlier sex education in schools, particularly around consent. 

She believes segregating boys and girls for learning leads to an alienation which causes unhealthy attitudes to the opposite sex.

‘In Australia, we’re in a very weird position on this because single-sex schools are way more prevalent than in other countries,’ she has said. 

‘Because they are separated at school, it means the only time they do meet is on weekends – when there is often alcohol and drugs involved.’

Among the claims gathered by Contos one Kambala student alleged a Cranbrook pupil put his penis in her mouth ‘as a joke’ while she was asleep.  

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