This document provides feedback to the Department of Education and Communities consultation on inner city high schools following my community ‘kitchen table’ discussion held last week. This group included constituents with children at Darlinghurst Public School, Crown Street Public School, Glenmore Road Public School, Woollahra Public School, Sydney Secondary College and several childcare centres.
The clear, unanimous and key message from parents and carers at my session was that the government must urgently initiate steps to provide an additional high school that can serve growing inner city student populations. They stress that the lead-in time needed to identify and obtain a site and construct the needed facilities demands an urgent response, and a new school must be ‘local’.
While the discussion was positive and identified solutions that I will outline, a number of parents raised concerns that the government’s consultation process focussed heavily on very short term options not the fundamental problem that there is no public high school that can serve inner city needs. Some parents found the inclusion of schools that are even further away meant that the government expected students to travel even further. Some parents reported feeling discouraged, disengaged and disillusioned through the consultation process.
Participants identified that changing catchment boundaries does not solve the problem and saw few positive outcomes from this measure. They say populations are increasing across Sydney’s inner east, inner city and inner west and boundary changes could have a flow on effect to other regions facing similar concerns, and move the problem around rather than address it.
Those at the session noted that the only available public schools for inner city students are full or filling fast. I understand that Alexandria Park Community School retains some flexibility to continue taking students in the short term; however participants are concerned that Alexandria Park cannot continue to absorb additional students.
Major Green Square residential development continues, with more students expected. This will make high school places for the inner city even more difficult in future unless an additional school is built soon.
Participants told me that many students currently travel up to one and a half hours to school, with significant impacts on student learning and family life. I share their concern that despite being in the middle of the city these travel times are akin to what students in remote locations must travel. They say that dedicated school transport should match any boundary changes so that students do not have to spend so much time travelling.
A number of participants raised concerns about the importance of school community, both in terms of volunteer and community fundraising support, and peer relationships, which they say boundary changes undermine. They are concerned that families and businesses will not commit time and money to support schools where there is no long term relationship because students are being re-allocated or live too far from campus.
Participants reported that re-allocating students from one school to another during their schooling and splitting siblings up reduces social and peer support for students and can be a logistical nightmare for parents as well as confusing for students. They argued that the government should support school communities.
Those attending this session did not support changing school boundaries as a viable solution.
Participants very strongly supported direct and dedicated public transport to schools to increase student safety and attendance and reduce road congestion. They described an inner city high school as a ‘congestion-buster’ for families, who would no longer need to add to traffic at peak times if they could walk, cycle, or take the soon to be established light rail to school
Parents raised concerns about limited public transport impacting on student participation in extra-curricular activities due to safety fears when there is no direct transport, particularly after dark.
Some participants strongly supported schools being linked with cycle and pedestrian routes, noting the increased safety, independence and health benefits for students at Crown Street, Bourke Street and Alexandria Park schools from separated cycleways. Inner city residents are very aware of traffic congestion and the resulting health and safety impacts. Those at this session called for an Active Transport Plan for all high schools that gives priority to public transport, cycling and walking.
Refurbish existing schools
Those attending this session had some support for refurbishing existing schools to allow additional students, but raised serious concerns that this is a short term strategy that should only be used to buy time until a new school is built. They pointed out that extra classrooms will not address over-stretched facilities like libraries, halls, sports facilities or play space.
However, those attending stated that they were not aware of space or buildings at local schools that could provide for additional students. Participants understood that Sydney Secondary College and Alexandria Park Community School will both have no space for additional students in the near future.
Participants at the session suggested that Cleveland Street High School should be refurbished and expanded to include local area public high school students along with the existing Intensive English operations. Parents said this approach would be in line with the government support of multiculturalism and cross-cultural learning.
Those attending this session raised concerns about the value of temporary buildings on inner city school sites. They are concerned that inner city schools have very limited outdoor space, and playgrounds and green space should not be sacrificed for buildings that are a short term stop gap.
Participants did not support the use of temporary structures that do not address the underlying lack of school places. While locations were discussed where demountable buildings could be provided, none of those identified provide practical solutions.
Some participants suggested demountable buildings might be located adjacent to Sydney Boys High School and Sydney Girls High School.
Participants reported that everyone wants a good variety of programs and activities at all schools, but the problem for the inner city is that there is no school where these can be provided. They agreed that a new inner city high school could be designed to provide new programs or offer new facilities or equipment that other schools might also access.
New school location
Participants commented that a new school must be ‘local’ to the inner city and easily accessible for the whole inner city area. This school should set a high standard for sustainability and student resources as would be expected of a global city.
Participants were concerned that a new school be centrally located with excellent transport links, some particularly concerned about cycling and walking links. They supported a new school built around a diverse and supportive school community.
A new centrally located high school will take pressure off other nearby schools that face further increases in student population and are full or nearly full. Participants suggested that a new high school could cater for some of the many thousands of people who travel to work in the CBD and whose transport and work hours limit local school options where they live.
Modern family life has changed significantly, with more parents working different and longer work hours. Any new school must provide for outside school hours and school holiday programs and could be co-located with childcare facilities that are also in high demand.
New high school facility
Existing government property assets should be considered where there are no education facilities available. Those attending said that location and accessibility are vital to any school and referred to the location of the Goulburn Street Car Park as suitable.
Participants stated that the government must look at other facilities that could be used for school purposes; and identified that government agencies moving out of the CBD should be required to assess if their facilities could be converted to a high school. They referred to the office of the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages as a case in point.
Those attending this session are very concerned that the demographic data and predictions that underpin school planning do not reflect what is happening in the community or in similar global cities. They say that past patterns have changed and the government needs to prepare for people with children living in the inner city.
A number of participants reported that increased tertiary education fees will force some parents to reconsider public high school so that scarce funds can be kept aside for further education. They suggest that more parents will be choosing public schools in future.
Some parents highlighted that Sydney’s inner city has the highest number of same-sex parented families according to the most recent Census. The said that an inner city public school would provide a less discriminatory environment for these families than the many religiously affiliated private schools in the area.
My constituents reiterated that the inner city community is keen to examine creative and innovative responses to ensure that inner city students have a public high school. They refer to the successful St Andrew’s Cathedral School and suggest that a similar facility could be included in a new residential or commercial tower in the CBD or adjacent precincts.
The Voluntary Planning Agreement between the City of Sydney and Greenland Australia for a new cultural facility in what a new residential tower at the former Sydney Water site on Bathurst Street is a useful model. Those as the session also suggested that the government lease and refurbish office space within an existing building so that the lead-in time for a new school is much shorter.
Participants pointed out that the government is investing significant funds in major redevelopment projects at Barangaroo, Darling Harbour and Central to Eveleigh, and ask why priority community needs like a high school have not been included in these projects. They also point out that people buying homes in the inner city contribute significant amounts to government through stamp duty, with windfall gains in this year’s budget.
Those attending this session agreed that the government must recognise that the long term urban consolidation policy requires new and improved facilities to serve the additional inner city residents, and the students who are part of those families. The government has recognised this in the decision to build a new and large Ultimo Public School; those students will also need a high school.