#SheReviews The School Run By Ali Lowe

June 5, 2024

One of a plethora of conundrums facing all devoted and conscientious parents throughout Australia (if they have the financial means) is the decades-old debate of whether to send  their children to a public or private school. Fees for the luxury of a private school education are often astronomical, despite the majority of private schools in Australia being associated with the Catholic, Anglican or Uniting Churches. I looked online and was astonished (yet in reality not surprised) that the most expensive boys’ and girls’ private schools in Australia are Geelong Grammar (fees being over $50 000 for a year twelve student in 2024) and Kambala in Sydney’s eastern suburbs (fees are over $50 000) respectively.

In contemporary Australian society a question that is constantly reverberating in all tiers and classes of the community is ‘Will my children get a better education at a private school as opposed to a public school?’ Further, parents may ask themselves ‘What would I do to get my child into the private school of my choice?’

Such preponderances are hauntingly and classily examined in the latest psychological thriller, The School Run, by stellar English (she came to Sydney for a year seventeen years ago and has been here since, and now lives on Sydney’s northern beaches with her family) author, Ali Lowe.

The School Run is set in the enchantingly idyllic and picture-perfect (on the surface at least) fictional seaside enclave of Pacific Pines, on the coast of New South Wales. Parents Estella, Bec and Kaya are friends who are united in their fervent quest to get their year six sons, Archie and Jonty (Estella’s twins), Cooper (Bec’s son) and Ollie (Kaya’s son) who attend Pacific Pines Primary School, into the incredibly elite, expensive and difficult to get a place at St Ignatius Boys’ School (a Catholic school) for high school. The trio of school mums are outwardly living lives of perfection, privilege and envy. However, Estella, Bec and Kaya are all hiding dark secrets that would blow their seemingly heavenly lives to smithereens if such secrets were ever revealed.

Estella Munro, prim and proper, and someone not to be trifled with, is married to Conrad, a long-suffering oncologist whose profession has given Estella the lifestyle which she feels she deserves.  A luxurious lifestyle that includes a seaside home at number six Ocean View Parade.

Estella and Conrad’s feisty and rebellious daughter, Felicity, is in grade twelve at Asher’s, a private girls’ school that Estella herself attended back in the day. Jonty and Archie, Estella’s twin boys, may be physically almost identical, but Jonty is superbly sporty and not inclined to be academic. Meanwhile, Archie is smart and an academic whizz, but not great at sports.

One of Estella’s firmly entrenched goals in life is to get her boys into St Ignatius (Iggy’s) Grammar. And woe betide anyone or anything who gets in Estella’s way.

As Estella reflects to herself one day, “The fact is Iggy’s offers their boys certain essential things no other school within miles does: prestige, sporting excellence, and of course the International Baccalaureate, which guarantees a boy acceptance to universities around the world and not just Australia. Iggy’s boys go to Yale, to Cambridge……….She (Estella) aches for it: for the prestige and status it will bring them and gird them through life. For the status it will give her”.

Bec Lloyd is a cake maker extraordinaire, the woman behind the definitively successful business, Cakes by Bec. Bec has the organisational skills and demeanor of methodical teacher. Bec’s dependable husband, Tom, is an architect, so her life, like Estella’s, is one where the ‘nicer’ and ‘finer’ things in life are hers for the taking. Regarding Bec’s cake making business, “for Bec it is not about the money, it is about the satisfaction. It’s about doing a good job. She hasn’t had any complaints in over a decade of baking (and she must have made close to a thousand)……Well, there had been that one complaint…….”

Bec and Tom’s exuberant eighteen year old daughter, Willow, has just finished up at Asher’s Girls’ School. Bec’s sweet son, Cooper, is still her ‘little boy’, despite being on the verge of high school. Five year old outspoken daughter, Sage, is in her “last weeks as a pre-schooler”, and is very much daddy’s little girl.

Bec muses to herself of sending Cooper to St Ignatius Grammar, “It’s not that they have anything against going down the public route – it’s just that Pacific Pines High is not right for Cooper……..She is plagued with worry that Iggy’s might be too stuffy, or too entitled, but she has to weigh up the pros and the cons, and in her and Tom’s eyes, the pros have won by a decent margin. Now they just have to hope, to pray to the God that Bec genuinely believes in, that being a gifted sportsman from a Catholic family will be enough to get Cooper over the line and through the gates of Iggy’s”.

Kaya Sterling, an effervescent physiotherapist who has just moved to Pacific Pines with her respectful and eager-to-please son, Ollie, is so motivated to get Ollie into St Ignatius, that she (despite being an atheist) begins attending the local Catholic Church with Ollie, and enrolls Ollie into the church’s baptism classes.

Gala Day at St Ignatius is a yearly event where prospective students must compete in sports and attend an interview. At these ‘tests’, the boys are rigorously assessed by stern school principal, Ursula Deacon, her friendly son, Sam (the sports master), and lecherous outgoing school captain, Felix Weaver.

Can Estella’s, Bec’s and Kaya’s sons ‘make the cut’ at Gala Day, and be offered a coveted place at St Ignatius?

Do Jonty, Archie, Cooper and Ollie all get an acceptance letter to the school that charges and promises so much?

Do any of the boys from Estella, Bec’s and Kaya’s families miss out on a place, and if so what will the repercussions be?

How far will the driven mothers go to get their sons a place at St Ignatius Grammar?

Who does Felix Weaver blackmail with compromising photos he has of them?

Which mother does Felix threaten to expose the ‘dirt’ on?

Who hits Felix with their car the night after Gala Day and leaves him for dead?

Does Felix ever wake from his coma after the ‘accident’?

Will he remember anything? Will he recover?

Who is sprung in a tawdry tryst with Sam?

What is Estella’s secret (that is linked to a former student from St Ignatius Grammar) that she has been keeping from so many?

Where is Kaya’s husband, and why did Kaya and Ollie leave Perth and move across the country to Pacific Pines?

What dark secrets are Kaya and Bec keeping?

What is the murky darkness under the sublime surface of Pacific Pines and Estella’s, Bec’s and Kaya’s existences?

Ali has written a highly intelligent, insightful, wise, creepy and eerie psychological thriller. The School Run is an exemplary and classy read. Ali does this genre so well (I also recommend her two previous novels, The Running Club and The Trivia Night).

Themes of grief, teenage pregnancy, how far parents will go to protect their children and ensure they ‘get places’ in life, child and teenage self-esteem and mother/child relationships are expertly examined in The School Run.

Bravo Ali! This novel is a captivating and engrossing read. Like with all well done thrillers, I found myself turning the pages faster and faster the further I got in to the book.

I loved The School Run and will be lining up to read whatever Ali writes next! Ali, your move to Australia was England’s loss and our gain!

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