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Sorry, we’re full – high schools in high demand

Parents are asking for the old Cleveland Street High School site to be turned back into a local high school to meet student demand. 

Last year, community group CLOSE (Community for Local Options for Secondary Education) used the Sydney by-election to draw attention to the absence of a non-selective public high school option in the electorate. “This area has the densest population in Australia, all the public primary schools are full and the only local high school options are one hundred percent selective,” says CLOSE Director Skye Molyneux. “It made sense to get some political attention to this issue and push the government to reveal its plans.”

City of Sydney data shows that between 2006 and 2018 there’ll be an increase of 2,700 children in the 5-9 year-old age group and 1,200 in the 10-14 year-old age group. Yet, in 2001 the NSW government cited “changing demographics” and declining enrolments for shutting down public primary and high schools around Sydney. It ignored increasing enrolments in comprehensive public high schools and that tens of thousands of inner city dwellers would be piling into new apartments.

CLOSE has learned this demographic planning for schools was based on the assumption that all families moved to the suburbs when their oldest child reached the age of five and that no families would live in two-bedroom units. “This is simply not true,” says Ms Molyneux. “Many families now live in the city in apartment blocks and are looking for good public secondary education options for their children. The Department of Education’s outdated planning presets from the 1950s are no longer relevant and no one seems to be taking responsibility for the fact that our kids don’t have a local high school to go to.”

The “local” high school for inner-city families is currently Balmain High School, across Anzac Bridge and an hour’s public transport journey away. But Balmain High is full. The Department of Education and Communities (DEC) has said it will begin a consultation process, in term two this year, to alter boundary zones and redirect kids from Surry Hills to Alexandria Park. This is only a stop-gap solution, though, as DEC has already said Alexandria Park High will also be full in two years’ time.

Last year, NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said there’d be a need for a new public high school for Sydney by 2016. If this is to happen, planning must start now, and this is what CLOSE has found lacking in all its communications with government. “There is an urgency,” says Ms Molyneux. “The kids who will need this high school are already in year 4. Cleveland Street High School is already built and in a good location. In the absence of any other ideas of locations from Piccoli, we want a feasibility plan done for this so it can become a local comprehensive high again.”

Currently the Cleveland Street site is used as a short-term placement Intensive English School for new immigrants to Australia, catering for about 250 students. However, the school has capacity for more than 800 students and CLOSE believes that it can serve both purposes, particularly in the early years.

Overflowing public schools are not just a problem in Sydney. On the North Shore demographic planning was based on no families living in apartments and all women having had their kids by the time they were aged 25. Now primary and high schools along the Pacific Highway are at capacity and office space has been rented to cope with the overflow.

Last week the Mayor of North Sydney Council called for North Sydney Boys’ and Girls’ Schools to accept local students and become only partially selective. This would be a win for students and the community, and would be similar to the strategy employed by Newtown Performing Arts High School, which takes both a local and audition-based intake. MP Alex Greenwich also supports this option for Sydney Girls’ and Boys’, where entry is currently on academic merit only and students travel for up to two hours each way from all over Greater Sydney to attend.

Good planning is the key to good government. Yet, as far as public education is concerned this is sadly lacking. In Ultimo, last year’s Census data showed more than 500 children under the age of 2 living in the area. The local primary school option is already full, even though in 2007 local MP Clover Moore asked in parliament what planning was being done to manage the demand. In 2012 Adrian Piccoli proposed selling the site to developers as a solution with the requirement that a primary school would be built as part of the high-rise development. Community outcry stopped this and the government has set up a working group of council, DEC and parents to look at future options.

If public schools are to compete with non-government schools and be diverse, vibrant centres for learning and our young people, governments have to start treating education budgets as an investment rather than a cost centre. All future urban planning and residential development assessment must recognise that increasing population densities be accompanied by the provision of adequate sites for public schools, both primary and secondary school. Segregating and separating high school students based on family fortune or academic performance goes against any notion of equity.

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