Amid tragedy, St Andrew’s students support each other to best result

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The head of St Andrew’s Cathedral School has praised students’ resilience after it reported its best-ever HSC results, as the community continues to grapple with the tragic death of beloved staff member Lilie James.

The CBD school climbed 68 places to be ranked 84th in the state when HSC results were released on Thursday. A record 138 band six results, awarded for marks above 90 per cent, were earned by the school’s 132 HSC students.

St Andrew’s Cathedral School principal Dr Julie McGonigle and students Max McDermott, Liv Morrison, Bronte Critchley, Hannah Monaghan and Leon Street-Wilcken.Credit: Nikki Short

Head of school Dr Julie McGonigle said there had been a particularly strong showing in English and creative subjects, with 26 nominations for the state’s major work showcases.

“We typically have around nine,” she said, noting the year group had always excelled in music, drama and design.

But McGonigle acknowledged academic success was only part of the story for the year 12 students graduating this year, praising them for supporting each other while attention fixated on the school in tragic circumstances.

In late October, the country was rocked by the death of James, the 21-year-old sports assistant killed in a St Andrew’s gym bathroom by fellow coach Paul Thijssen, whose own body was later recovered from sea cliffs in Sydney’s east.

McGonigle praised the year 12 students, about one-third of whom take the International Baccalaureate instead of the HSC, for their courage and resilience amid the tragedy.

“Naturally, they were deeply shaken. And for them to pick themselves up and come back into the building, to sit their exams, the courage that that required was really phenomenal,” she said.

“There’s a lot of individual stories about students who knew both Paul and Lilie well, who then had to pick themselves up and come back in and do exams, and that’s a very difficult situation.”

While most of the major HSC exams had already been completed, McGonigle said the PDHPE exam, held the day after the community learned of James’ death, was particularly difficult for students.

“That was one of the most traumatic exams because the sports assistants help with all PDHPE lessons,” she said.

The school provided counsellors before and after exams, and also supported impacted students to apply for special consideration for exams where appropriate.

Addressing the rest of the school the week after the incident, McGonigle described James as “a ray of light”. 

“We are left with grief, shock, and utter confusion – because both parties were known to our school. Our beautiful Ms James, a ray of light and Mr Thijssen, whose actions are completely incongruent with who we knew,” she told students in year 7 to 11 at a special assembly.

Hannah Monaghan, one of four students who received a band six in PDHPE, said taking the exam that day was “a bit surreal”, but the class supported each other through it.

The seventeen-year-old from Maroubra was proud of her 95.6 ATAR on Thursday, although her plans for next year did not require it.

A flower tribute outside St Andrew’s Cathedral School in memory of Lilie James shortly after her death.Credit: Flavio Brancaleone

Monaghan will be moving to the US to play field hockey at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. “It’s going to be very different to Sydney. [It is] a small college town. I’m really looking forward to it,” she said.

Bronte Critchley, from Gladesville, was one of four students at the school with an ATAR above 99. She said the strong sense of community carried the year group through their exams.

“Everyone was checking on everyone,” the 17-year-old, who plans to study biology, said.

Critchley produced major works for both English and history extension subjects, and particularly enjoyed pulling together her history project on how Richard III was depicted over time. Fellow high achiever Max McDermott, who earned an ATAR of 97.2, was also glad to have chosen subjects involving a longer creative project. His English extension 2 major work was based on his grandmother’s experience with dementia.

In an email to students and parents on Thursday afternoon, McGonigle praised the class of 2023 for overcoming adversity.

McGonigle said she had been impressed by how parents, students and staff had all supported each other.

“We acknowledged the importance of grief. The first set of emotions were grief and shock and confusion, and it was really important to acknowledge that and get support for that,” she said.

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