For more than a decade there’s been a black hole for comprehensive high schools across 14km of Australia’s most densely populated suburbs from Rose Bay to Balmain. In a presentation last year, Licia Heath outlined the problem in Eastern Sydney.
There have been problems in planning for new schools in the Inner City and East for a long time. Community for Local Options for Secondary Education (CLOSE) were screaming from the rooftops, between 2011 and 2015, about problems such as increased birth rates, increased density, more families in apartments and incorrect modelling for demographic forecasting.
After a sustained campaign by CLOSE — citing evidence of failed demographic planning and hard numbers showing a 50% increase in primary enrolment since 2010 — the NSW Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, announced in 2015 that a new $60m local high school would be developed on the site of the Intensive English High School (previously Cleveland Street Boys High School), near Central Station. That high school is due to open in 2020.
In 2016, CLOSE turned its attention to Sydney east forming CLOSEast. Rose Bay Secondary College is at capacity and public schools are under significant enrolment pressure due to a tailwind of school closures, some of the highest birth rates in the country, increased residential density and more families choosing public education. An overview of public schools in the Sydney area can be seen in the map, which shows population density and current, sold and proposed schools.
CLOSEast is a group of concerned parents and residents lobbying government to prioritise solutions including another public high school in Sydney’s east. It wants an urgent audit of public land in Sydney’s east and a moratorium on the sale of public land in the east until an inquiry is held into the need for a new public high school.
CLOSEast was encouraged when a Legislative Council Inquiry into Inner city public primary school enrolment capacity and redevelopment of Ultimo Public School, in February 2017, arrived at similar conclusions in its recommendations. Modelling needs to improve, third party review needs to occur on demographic forecasting, there needs to be greater co-ordination between government departments and greater involvement between the Department of Education (DoE), local councils and the Department of Planning and Environment (DPE) when planning for schools, and the government should conduct public land audit in all areas of significant population growth.
The recommendations were music to CLOSE’s ears and it looked like things were moving. In June 2017, the government announced $4.2billion in the state budget to build/redevelop schools, and fund a new NSW Schools Infrastructure Unit. Also a new School Assets Strategic Plan (SASP) was issued by the DoE. At the same time DPE announced a new Education and Child Care State Environment Planning Policy (SEPP).
Locally, CLOSEast learnt that $18.6 million would be spent to upgrade Bellevue Hill PS (Public School), to include 27 new classrooms in October 2017. A $9.9 million upgrade at Bourke St PS to include new classrooms, a library, a hall and outdoor learning spaces would be in place in late 2017. Rainbow Street PS would get 35 new classrooms and Randwick PS to get 10 new classrooms, early in 2018.
At the same time as these announcements, it also became apparent that the DoE was not acting on many of the Upper House Inquiry recommendations and that, while community consultations were occurring, the decisions had already been made.
With 20,000 new dwellings planned for the east by 2031, in the Eastern Suburbs Economic Profile of December 2013, it still looked like there would be no new schools. On top of this public land suitable for new school sites was being sold to developers at a faster rate than ever. Since 2011, the State Government has sold more than 380 DoE properties.
Analysis of DPE and DoE data by Inga Ting graphed population growth in pre-merged Local Government Areas (LGAs) against primary school enrolment growth from 2013-7. It highlighted LGAs with rapidly growing primary school enrolments that are now also facing a boom in the population aged 10-19 years. The hotspots for rapid growth (in order) were Camden, Waverley and Ryde.
There is a perfect storm of factors making some LGAs in the east worse than other LGAs. The eastern suburbs has a larger birth rate than Greater Sydney and the birth rate has been more prolonged, resulting in the increase in numbers of school-aged kids being larger than Greater Sydney. Over the decade, 2006-2016, the eastern suburbs has experienced stronger annualised growth in young children (0-14) than Sydney and NSW.
The east has more kids per square kilometre. Of all metropolitan LGAs, Waverley has the highest number of children per square kilometre, with more than 1,200 and Woollahra ranks fifth highest, with around 870 children per square km.
In 2008 Waverley and Woollahra LGAs combined had My School primary enrolments of less than 4,000 students, by 2016 they accounted for 5,542 full-time equivalent primary school enrolments. Across the east pre-school, primary and secondary enrolments have all been increasing. Most notably primary school enrolments have increased 4% each year between 2011 and 2016.
Large-scale residential development has resulted in higher density in the east than in Greater Sydney with more families with children living in apartments than in Greater Sydney. Long gone is the belief that “no families will live in 2 bedroom apartments”.
There was also an assumption that people living in the eastern suburbs would use the private school system. Private school fees, however, have priced out many families. Sydney’s private school fees have soared by up to 20 per cent over the past four years, with some parents paying more than $35,000 a year despite record levels of public funding. The rate of growth in fees at some schools has been up to twice the rate of inflation since 2013.
During the 1990s and 2000s, five government high schools were closed in the east: they were Vaucluse, Dover Heights Boys, Randwick North, Maroubra and Maroubra Bay High Schools. The remaining government high schools are selective, single sex and / or have restrictive catchments.
As a result of the cumulative impact of all of the above, Waverley and Woollahra top the table for the most number of students per public high school, with approximately 6,800 12-18 year olds per public high school.
To help understand the choices and wishes of parents in the Eastern Suburbs CLOSEast has been combining the hard demographic data with surveys of parents of pre-school and primarily school children in the east, to better understand their reality and to provide evidence to politicians and officials. The findings below came from surveys of 1,042 parents of primary school children and 148 parents of pre-school age children undertaken by CLOSEast.
As an average, 85% of parents surveyed preferred a co-educational public high school education for their kids. The key reasons given were that private schools fees are unaffordable (76%), the local community is valued (68%), preference for co-educational to single-sex schools (62%) and rejection of faith-based education (58%).
There are some differences between school cohorts reflecting demographics. For example, half of the parents with children in Coogee PS, 46% in Bondi PS and 40% in Randwick PS say they do not fit with, or wish to support, a private school system compared to a 33% average for the survey.
In the multi-choice survey, public selective (30%) and private co-educational (24%), such as Reddam House and International Grammar), were next preferred. Lower preferences were for private faith-based co-educational schools (9%) and private non-faith-based single-sex schools (8%).
“I believe that a high quality public secondary education is a basic right for all children. There are really so few options in the Eastern Suburbs for families who value education highly (and are well educated themselves), who support secular, public education and in any case, do not have the means to pay for a private education. There is a fear among many parents that Rose Bay Secondary College is too large and overcrowded, and only those in the selective streams thrive. Surely bright children, who may perform inconsistently (or do very well in some subjects, but not all) should have the right to thrive too. Parents who can’t afford or aren’t willing to pay $30k a year or more to send their child to an “elite” private school (whose values they don’t share); or aren’t willing to go through the charade of pretending they’re Catholic; or aren’t prepared to put their children through hours of extracurricular coaching, are really stuck. They are also fighting the perception that they don’t care enough about their child’s education. I can’t believe that in the 21st century in Australia, parents in the Eastern Suburbs are having to turn to religious schools or pay through the nose to feel their children won’t slip through the cracks. The government is doing a huge disservice to all children (and Australians across the board) by not offering more high quality public secondary options”. BONDI BEACH PARENT
“I believe that a high quality public secondary education is a basic right for all children. There are really so few options in the Eastern Suburbs for families who value education highly (and are well educated themselves), who support secular, public education and in any case, do not have the means to pay for a private education.
There is a fear among many parents that Rose Bay Secondary College is too large and overcrowded, and only those in the selective streams thrive. Surely bright children, who may perform inconsistently (or do very well in some subjects, but not all) should have the right to thrive too. Parents who can’t afford or aren’t willing to pay $30k a year or more to send their child to an “elite” private school (whose values they don’t share); or aren’t willing to go through the charade of pretending they’re Catholic; or aren’t prepared to put their children through hours of extracurricular coaching, are really stuck. They are also fighting the perception that they don’t care enough about their child’s education. I can’t believe that in
the 21st century in Australia, parents in the Eastern Suburbs are having to turn to religious schools or pay through the nose to feel their children won’t slip through the cracks. The government is doing a huge disservice to all children (and Australians across the board) by not offering more high quality public secondary options”. BONDI BEACH PARENT
In the northern part of the east, the only co-ed public high school, Rose Bay Secondary College, is considered a ‘school of choice’ by those surveyed. Overcrowding and the potential for decline in education quality is a key concern for parents surveyed at one of its ten catchment schools, Bondi Beach PS. Eighty percent said they feel forced towards the private sector when they cannot afford it. Concern about capacity, reach and having to join multiple waiting list for private schools are a symptom. Pre-school parents and those who have children who have not yet started school expressed similar pressures and concerns when surveyed.
Looking specifically at the inner city sample of 71 parents with kids at Darlinghurst PS, Bourke St PS and Crown St PS, this group has the strongest interest in co-ed public secondary education (93%), community connections were valued (86%), co-ed and secular schools were preferred (66%), and 42% did not fit with private school image/model.
CLOSEast is not anti-development. So far it points out communities have seen significant residential development at any cost, without the accompanying schools. Schools need to be prioritised in planning, not an afterthought. The Departments of Education and Planning need to speak with the Councils in the east about new multi-purpose high school sites built for school communities between 9am-3pm and accessible to the broader community out of school hours. Most importantly, governments need to start planning now for the east and adapt forecasting models to the trends of today, not of the 1990s.
I’m not sure where we went wrong in planning for public schools in NSW, but it’s largely pointless to argue about that now. But I am glad to see both sides of politics making admissions that the status quo needs to change and forming plans accordingly. The NSW Government needs to impliment the Upper House Inquiry recommendations and undertake an urgent audit of public land in the east.
Yet, governments and politicians need to understand that every time a new residential development site is announced, a developer puts in a (non-complying) amendment to a DA site or community space is earmarked for residential development without the corresponding social infrastructure, the trust they’re trying to build with the community and constituents erodes.
Another CLOSEast survey question pointed out that education is primarily managed by the state government, it asked to what extent high school capacity issues in the east and education-related concerns would affect people’s consideration of candidates in the NSW election in March 2019. On average, a vast majority of parents in the east (78%) said that education concerns would strongly affect their consideration of local candidates in the upcoming state election.
CLOSEast points out that people want a response from all MPs standing for election and that people care about that response. The struggle, however, is not a party political but one of basic principle upholding Sir Henry Parkes’ promise to every child in New South Wales: public education; free, compulsory, secular and democratic.
This article is based on a presentation, Competing Priorities: Where are our public high schools?, delivered to a community run forum on Planning Sydney’s Future at NSW Parliament House on 18 October 2017.
Recommendation 1 – That the NSW Department of Education amend the inner city school cluster model to acknowledge that public schools provide an important sense of community and to afford greater emphasis to connecting schools with their immediate neighbourhood and community.
Recommendation 2 – That the NSW Department of Education subject its demographic projections to a regular third party review process.
Recommendation 3 – That the NSW Government formalise coordination between UrbanGrowth NSW, the NSW Department of Planning and Environment and the NSW Department of Education to ensure that school building programs are determined with the most up-to-date and accurate information on development pressures.
Recommendation 4 – That the NSW Department of Education share its demographic projections with councils in appropriate cases and on a confidential basis, to ensure a cohesive and consistent approach to city planning.
Recommendation 5 – That the Minister for Education consider strengthening whole of government oversight and support for the NSW Department of Education in future land negotiations for schools.
Recommendation 6 – That the NSW Government conduct an audit of public land in all areas of significant population growth in New South Wales to identify suitable locations for new schools and expansion of existing schools.
Recommendation 7 – That the NSW Department of Education, when assessing land for the purposes of remediation, rely on the standards set by the relevant authority such as the Environment Protection Authority, unless the department can demonstrate that a higher standard is required.