Cranbrook School in Sydney at war as board resigns: Boy’s private school

Inside the bitter school stoush that has some of Australia’s wealthiest at war – as almost its entire group of advisors quit amid bold plan to bring girls into the $40,000-a-year exclusive institution

  • Battle for control at one of Australia’s most prestigious and expensive schools 
  • Breakdown in relationship between headmaster and school council president
  • $40,000-a-year Cranbrook School educated the likes of Kerry and James Packer

Ten of the 11 council members at one of Australia’s most prestigious and expensive private schools have resigned amid a plan to allow girls and allegations the council president is trying to force the headmaster out. 

With a battle for control brewing, the group of 10 said in their joint resignation letter that the ‘governance of the school (had become) untenable’.

The $40,000-a-year Cranbrook School in Sydney‘s east – which educated the likes of Kerry and James Packer and tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes – has been riven with disputes in the past six months.

There has been a major disagreement over plans to admit girls from 2026, more than a century after the Anglican school opened in Bellevue Hill in 1918.

And there has also been a breakdown in the relationship between headmaster Nicholas Sampson and school council president Jon North. 

A letter about the council resignations, signed by Mr North and nine others, including former ASX chief financial officer Gillian Larkins, was sent by email to parents.

Former ASX chief financial officer Gillian Larkins (pictured) has resigned from the board of the prestigious Cranbrook School in Sydney

Former ASX chief financial officer Gillian Larkins (pictured) has resigned from the board of the prestigious Cranbrook School in Sydney

‘We are writing to inform you that we have resigned as members of the Cranbrook School Council and any affiliated entities effective 31 December 2022,’ it said.

‘The current situation is damaging the reputation of the school and impacting its operations. We believe this has made the governance of the school untenable.

‘Despite a number of good faith attempts over many months to resolve the underlying issues we have concluded that a workable solution is not possible and we are no longer able to discharge our duties as directors.’

An online petition in support of Mr Sampson had gathered almost 1,000 signatures by Monday evening – the school has around 1,300 pupils. 

The petition calls him ‘a world class educator (who) has proven to be an exceptional headmaster of Cranbrook School over the last 10 years’. 

‘It is clear from media reports that the council president, Jon North has tried to force Nicholas Sampson to leave the school against his will. 

‘Nicholas Sampson lodged a formal complaint about the treatment he has received from the council president more than four months ago and unfortunately this is still unresolved many months later.’

The petition said parents are only now realising ‘what has been going on behind the scenes’ at the school.

Cranbrook school (pictured) has been a boys only institute since it opened its gate in 1918

Cranbrook school (pictured) has been a boys only institute since it opened its gate in 1918

‘The vast majority of Cranbrook parents, staff, students, old boys and donors admire, respect and support Nicholas Sampson and want him to remain on as headmaster. 

‘They are saddened and appalled to hear that he is not being supported or treated appropriately by the school council,’ it said. 

Among those to have signed the petition are former Australian rugby international and Cranbrook Foundation director Anthony Abrahams and Lucas Pontifex, an executive director with investment company Morgan Stanley. 

Typical of the comments from signatories was one that said ‘Nicholas Sampson is a fabulous headmaster and Cranbrook needs him, the boys do. Let’s get this done!’

The sole school council member who did not resign is Katrina Rathie, a director of SBS.

Cranbrook headmaster Nicholas Sampson's (pictured) relationship with school council president Jon North has reportedly broken down

Cranbrook headmaster Nicholas Sampson’s (pictured) relationship with school council president Jon North has reportedly broken down

The letter sent to the school community last Thursday, signed by all the council members bar Ms Rathie, accused ‘four disaffected individuals’ of challenging the governance of Cranbrook. 

‘In September last year, the school council agreed to extend the tenure of the headmaster to the end of 2024 at his request,’ it said.

‘The school council has subsequently reassured the headmaster that it is supportive of him performing his contract.’

Since mid-2022, billionaires have been battling with other business and political heavyweights over whether boys and girls should mix as teenagers behind the school’s wrought iron gates.

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 change are billionaire Atlassian founder Scott Farquhar and his wife Kim Jackson (pictured)

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 change are billionaire Atlassian founder Scott Farquhar and his wife Kim Jackson (pictured)

These parents are 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.

Mr 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’.

The plan to admit girls to Cranbrook was circulated by Mr 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.

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.

Daily Mail Australia has contacted the Cranbrook School seeking comment for this story. 

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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