By Jesinta Burton and Holly Thompson
He’s one of Western Australia’s most prominent executives, but Crown Resorts boss John Van Der Wielen says he spent longer than he’d like to admit keeping one element of his journey close to his chest.
“I kept my story to myself for a very long time, I’m ashamed to say, because I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder,” he said.
“But now I wear it like a badge of honour that I left school early.”
Disengaged with his schooling and hungry for practical experience, Van Der Wielen left Hamilton Hill High School at the age of 15 to take a job in insurance.
His ascension in the workforce was rapid, but it would be another decade before an employer recognised his potential and encouraged him to seek a formal education.
With four decades’ worth of experience in financial services and an Ivy League education now under his belt, he says he wouldn’t change a thing.
But he also admits there are stark differences between his journey and those of his peers, the vast majority of whom attended private schools, then top-tier universities.
A 50-strong list of the state’s most accomplished public figures has laid bare just how significant a predictor socioeconomic status and education is of success.
The list, compiled by this masthead, comprises those who were educated in WA and either went on to take the helm of WA’s biggest employers and companies by market capitalisation, or have reached the top of their profession in the arts, sport and politics.
It only includes those whose schooling information was readily available, and makes sure to include people who have held powerful, public-facing roles across a range of WA’s key sectors, to diversify the list and broaden the research base.
Just 38 per cent of them attended a government high school, despite data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showing 74 per cent of WA teenagers were enrolled in the public school system in the 1980s, when the majority of those on the list would have attended.
Of those, one-third attended schools in the top quarter for socio-educational advantage.
More than half attended an elite private school, the vast majority of which catered to those from Perth’s affluent western suburbs and regional WA.
Curtin University School of Education senior lecturer Brad Gobby said access to private schools was limited in the 80s and the lower-fee private schools did not become popular until the 90s, when government funding stepped up.
“You had to be quite privileged to attend the elite schools, I would say even more so than you would need to be now, so it is interesting they are overrepresented on the list,” he said.
“[It] suggests those schools restrict their access to society’s wealthy and privileged, typically through using high fees as a barrier to enrolment.
“It reflects the historic and sustained link between family background, high-fee elite private schooling and access to pathways to social and economic power.”
Gobby said this pattern remained today, with students enrolled in elite schools usually from families in the top socioeconomic quarter, and that having an elite school on the resume was automatically a step-up for many.
Students benefited from connections made in the school community, with “old boys’ clubs” making this privilege intergenerational.
He also said those from the top quarter were more likely to attend university and study law, politics, economics and similar degrees.
Many of Perth’s most influential people went to private schools, but some break the mould.Credit:Nathan Perri
This did not mean students at other schools could not do the same, but the doors were often harder to open.
“It’s not about attacking individuals … but it is proof that we have an education system that helps the advantaged and makes it harder for everyone else,” Gobby said.
“If we had a fair and equitable system of education opportunity and educational outcomes, there would be a diverse mix of public and private schools attended by WA’s business leaders. That is not what we see here.”
He said the list could be compared to Australian politics, where there were more public school graduates on the left side, and more white-collar backgrounds on the right.
“Similarly, there is also a divide between the type of industry, for example those in areas such as health or the arts, compared to CEOs and lawyers.”
A whopping 80 per cent of those on the list also attended university, compared with just 8 per cent of the population Australia-wide aged 15 or older in 1991 (the estimated average year those on the list would have attended).
Just 8 per cent on the top 50 list left school early.
Five on the list obtained a qualification from either Harvard or Oxford University and more than half attended the University of Western Australia – one of the Group of Eight, Australia’s equivalent of the Ivy League.
Of those listed with law or business degrees who went on to take lucrative jobs, the vast majority attended elite schools, while those in politics, arts, property or sport were more likely to have gone to public school.
At least three are helming multibillion-dollar companies founded by their fathers, while others have used the family business as a springboard to forge ventures of their own and pursue philanthropic work.
It should be noted, however, that two of those companies were built by men who left school at 14 and single-handedly built their businesses from the ground up.
Among the most highly qualified on the list is academic-turned-Education Minister Tony Buti, who attended UWA, Oxford and the Australian National University after graduating from Kelmscott Senior High School.
He made his foray into politics 13 years ago with the aim of improving educational outcomes in his electorate of Armadale, one of the most disadvantaged communities in the metropolitan area and one with stubbornly low attendance rates.
“I’m a firm believer that education is incredibly important and receiving a good education plays an important part in affording you opportunities,” Buti said.
“You’re not precluded from doing well if you go to a state school, the situation is what you make of it, but historically, there is no doubt that there have been a disproportionate number of [successful] people from certain private schools and a skewing of people that have come from certain backgrounds that have had more opportunity.
“When you look at the numbers generally and the proportion of people that go public as opposed to private, there should be more public school people that reach the upper echelons.
“My aim is to create an environment that allows any person to reach their full potential, no matter where they go or what postcode they come from.”
But Buti also pointed to other factors he deemed just as influential, including the ethos of the school you attend, the quality of the teaching staff, family support and the community you were raised in.
Australian Independent Schools WA deputy director Ron Gorman said those were often the factors that underpinned parents’ decision to send their children to independent private schools, according to the association’s 2021 School Choice Research report.
The survey showed the four most important factors influencing parents’ choice of independent school were educational excellence, good teachers, a supportive caring environment, and good facilities.
Resources Minister and Member for Brand Madeleine King, who is included on the top 50 list, said educational opportunities were far from equitable and became less so the further you lived from the city.
King attended Safety Bay Senior High School and said there had been no private schools in the Rockingham or Kwinana area at the time.
“If kids wanted to go private they would have had to travel over an hour to get to school, and be able to afford it,” she said.
“In the early 90s, private schools became more popular and there was this perception formed that they were better – all these talented students got sucked out of the public system, it is a real shame. There was a level of division created that still permeates schools today.
“I know students in my electorate who have to travel to different schools to be able to take the subjects they want due to resourcing and staffing issues in public schools.
“It is terribly unfair. Children are all capable, but it is about how you nurture that ability that counts.”
King achieved an aspiration, held since childhood, of studying at UWA – finally settling on a law degree.
But she found there was a gap between classmates from private and public schools, and realised many in her classes had already formed connections to both each other and people in the profession.
“It was a struggle. I made most of my friends through playing hockey,” she said.
But she said the most important thing she took from her education was the friendships she formed.
“You don’t always need to know those at the top to succeed. I think having lasting friendships and a great support system that shapes your values is what really counts in the end.”
“Everyone wants to give the ‘I did it all myself’ story, but they should recognise the privilege they have even to go to a private school.”
A businessman on the list, who did not want his remarks attributed to him, said networks existed in the top end of business and people naturally tended to pick graduates from the top schools on the pretext they came from better families.
He said elite schools provided better academic, sporting and social connection opportunities.
“Everyone wants to give the ‘I did it all myself’ story, but they should recognise the privilege they have even to go to a private school,” he said.
“Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
Having seen little change in the education system, Van Der Wielen, the Crown Resorts boss, said he believed high school students could benefit from a broader education in financial literacy, leadership and life skills.
John Van Der Wielen said it took a long time to be proud of his journey to success.
He also said schools should do a better job at conveying that students could embark on further education later in life, touting the benefits of having lived, worked and studied overseas.
“I think our education system forces people to specialise too early. I’m supportive of [university] but I don’t think it’s the only route,” he said.
“During my time in London there were very few people at my equivalent level that had not gone to a private school and a top-tier university. And in general, I still find that to be the case.
“Someone who’s worked in a different country themselves and immersed themselves in other cultures – that outweighs what university you’ve gone to.
“Your education has a big impact on your ability to succeed, but your attitude and your ethics are just as important.”
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