One mother’s campaign to fix overcrowding in Sydney’s schools
Steph Croft never set out to become a whistleblower. But in 2012 the financial analyst and mother of two teenagers began to realise something was going horribly wrong with schools planning. As president of the parents’ association at Willoughby Girls High School, she sent several letters to the NSW Department of Education and Communities about the urgent need for new buildings to replace demountables on the school’s small site. The department kept responding that they had “other regional priorities”. When Croft raised this with parents’ associations from other public schools on Sydney’s North Shore, many said they had sent similar letters. All had received the same dismissive reply.
Led by Croft, these concerned parents began to gather and share information. The overcrowding in local schools was at crisis point. Almost every public school in the area was well over its intended student capacity, many with heavily restricted outdoor areas and no room for further demountables.
Sydney’s lower North Shore, it turned out, was experiencing the highest student growth rate in the state. Between 2006 and 2012, many of the schools had enrolment growth rates as high as 40% (one primary school, Lane Cove West, had a phenomenal 86%), far higher than the 10% growth rate for the wider northern Sydney region – itself already one of the highest rates in New South Wales. Willoughby Girls High and Willoughby Public had 1850 students on a combined site that, according to education department guidelines for recommended space per student, should only accommodate 450 students. Cammeray Public had 1000 students on a site designed for 350. Killara High School had 20 demountables on its school oval.
Despite this enormous growth in enrolments, there had been almost no capital investment in lower North Shore schools in more than 20 years, other than the federal government’s “Building the Education Revolution” infrastructure funding for primary schools. And there was an 11-year backlog on minor capital works for local schools.
Steph Croft and her fellow parents began to wonder: if the existing schools were already at or beyond capacity, where would the growing numbers of future students in the area go to school? And why had the department failed to plan for this massive growth in demand?
I never set out to investigate schools planning. I’d initially intended to write a human-interest story about Cammeraygal High School, a new public co-ed school opening on the lower North Shore in 2015 – a feel-good piece about how a new school is created from scratch. I had no inkling of the overcrowding at local schools until I asked someone at North Sydney Council about the decision-making behind the funding of the new school, which was to open on a site that had previously housed Bradfield College, a TAFE senior vocational college.
He told me about a public meeting he’d attended, where a local parent spoke passionately and eloquently, marshalling facts and figures to make a strong case about the scale of the problem of overcrowding in local schools. He didn’t know much more about Steph Croft, but he believed the creation of the new school might in some way be thanks to her persistence.
The lower North Shore has long been seen as an area of wealth and privilege, filled with large houses surrounded by even larger leafy gardens. In fact, the area has changed dramatically in recent decades. Widespread construction of blocks of units to provide medium- and high-density housing began in the 1960s, and, since the 1990s, this urban infilling has intensified with major developments of high-density residential apartment buildings along the Pacific Highway corridor. North Sydney is now the second most densely populated local government area in Australia. Eighty-seven per cent of its dwellings are classified as medium- or high-density housing. (The Greater Sydney average is 40%.) Some areas within North Sydney Council’s boundaries have levels of socio-economic disadvantage similar to poorer areas in Sydney’s rapidly gentrifying inner west.
The public-school population has exploded due to these residential developments and other factors such as the current baby boom, elderly residents being replaced by young families, and high numbers of new immigrants choosing to live in the area.
It puzzled me that the education department had not anticipated the population boom. After all, the state government has a statutory obligation to ensure that children have local access to public schools with decent infrastructure, facilities and playgrounds. The department’s own 2003 review of school asset maintenance started off, “Australian and international research gives clear evidence that better educational outcomes are achieved when the school environment is well maintained and functionally suited to purpose.” I found several media reports on the overcrowding in local schools, but nobody could adequately explain how the department got its schools planning and enrolment projections so wrong.
Until I spoke to Steph Croft.
Over lunch in the city, she continued the story she had begun to share with me over the phone. She wore an understated business suit and had her long hair tied back in a ponytail, and she spoke with a quiet sense of urgency and purpose. Earlier in her career, she had worked for many years at the Australian Securities and Investment Commission on compliance and corporate governance issues, and it was clear she had a sophisticated grasp of complex statistical data. I could see why it appealed to her to work methodically through the numbers, slowly building her case. I could also see that she’s a true believer in public education. Her passion for this issue is all-consuming, and her sense of outrage undiminished after working on this campaign full-time for two years as an unpaid volunteer. She seemed relieved, even grateful, that I was prepared to listen as she carefully joined the dots.
One of the first unsettling facts she came across in 2012 was that the NSW government, in its draft Metropolitan Strategy for Sydney up to the year 2031, had made no provision for necessary education infrastructure. This strategy called for 44,000 new residential dwellings on the lower North Shore and in the nearby Ryde area alone, and 29,000 on the mid-upper North Shore. It considered planning for employment, transport, recreational space and shopping centre facilities in order to support residential growth, but schools were not considered essential infrastructure. (Nor were hospitals.) There was no consideration of existing school capacity or future needs.
Croft’s finding would later be backed up by the NSW Teachers Federation in a submission to the draft Metropolitan Strategy in June 2013 that criticised the strategy for making “little mention of education infrastructure in its plan to support Sydney’s 30% population growth over the next 18 years”. Infrastructure NSW’s State Infrastructure Strategy 2012–2032 also warned that existing schools infrastructure would need “major changes … to meet its current and future demand”.
Croft decided to look more closely at the education department’s overall planning for schools. She discovered that the department was not taking this expected residential growth into account. Worse, the department’s projections for the North Shore did not include immigration into the area, nor the changing demographics of families living in units. In a letter she drafted for the Northern Sydney Regional Council of Parents & Citizens Associations (NSRCPCA), sent in September 2012 to the state MPs for the affected areas (including Barry O’Farrell, then the NSW premier), and signed by 30 member associations, the following outdated assumptions were identified:
current capacity issues were not foreseen or planned for, as it was assumed for school modelling purposes that all women on the North Shore would have all their children by the age of 25, and that families do not live in units.
The letter also pointed out that schools planning for the North Shore appeared to use the assumption that only 4% of local unit-dwelling households had children, when Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showed the number was 29%.
After receiving this letter, Croft says, many local MPs (including government ministers Gladys Berejiklian and Jillian Skinner) acknowledged the scale of the problem and provided strong support to the campaign to bring it to the attention of the education department. Several local councils, including Willoughby, North Sydney, Lane Cove and Mosman, passed motions supporting the campaign.
But in October 2012, at a meeting with state government representatives and department officials, Croft and her parents’ association colleagues were told that the overcrowding in lower North Shore schools was a “bubble” that would go away in five years. This was supposedly part of a 40-year cycle of natural population growth and decline: school numbers in the area were high in the 1970s, then low in the 1990s, were peaking again in the early 2010s, and would soon drop off again.
“This suggestion that enrolment numbers would drop off going forward did not pass the common-sense test, especially given Sydney’s high birth rate and the Metro Strategy,” Croft says. “We became concerned that the government was being given fundamentally flawed information by bureaucrats for planning purposes.”
At that meeting, Adrian Piccoli, the state education minister, told them that there would be no new capital funding for northern Sydney schools. “They don’t need it. It’s not going to happen,” Croft remembers him saying. The department’s priority growth area, they were told, was south-west Sydney. But Croft had already done the sums: from 2007 to 2012, the number of enrolments on the lower North Shore alone had grown at three times the rate of the whole of south-west Sydney.
Croft says she and the other parents always attended meetings together for moral support, but were often treated like “dummy mummies who didn’t know what we were talking about” by certain bureaucrats at the department. She tried to point out to them that the 40-year cycle approach no longer applies because of the trend towards urban infill and densification.
“Our campaign was never about telling the government how to do its job,” she says. “It was about ensuring they had reliable information to make planning decisions – and it quickly became apparent that they didn’t.”
Soon after the first meeting with the minister, the NSRCPCA organised a public meeting about school overcrowding. At this meeting, Croft pointed out another major suspected flaw in the demographic modelling for schools planning. The education department was using Medicare live birth data for its student number projections, but Croft and others had begun to fear the department was not accounting for as-yet-unborn kids who would start school in more than five years. In 2012, for example, the projections for 2018 were missing kindergarten children, and the projections for 2019 were missing both kindergarten and Year 1 children, and so on into the future.
Although department officials never officially acknowledged that Croft and her colleagues were right, there was a marked change in their attitude within 24 hours of that public meeting. “Suddenly they were no longer denying that there was a serious schools capacity issue,” says Croft, “and they finally began to address it.”
Early in 2013, Croft and her parents’ association colleagues were alarmed to discover that the education department’s flawed planning model was being used once again to justify a recommendation that no new schools be provided to accompany a massive planned development in northern Sydney, the North Ryde Station Urban Activation Precinct.
This development would add another 2500 units to the area. Existing schools in Ryde were already at or over capacity and heading towards the same kind of acute overcrowding as lower North Shore schools. The worst overcrowding was in an area where a public school, Peter Board High School (itself the product of the 1986 merger of North Ryde High and Ryde High), had been closed in 1998 on the basis of projections that enrolments would continue to fall.
Croft and her colleagues sent a letter to the Department of Planning and Infrastructure in May 2013, challenging the education department’s view that there was sufficient capacity in existing Ryde schools. They pointed out that the only public high school in the area, Ryde Secondary College, was already at twice its official capacity and had no more room for demountables.
They showed that the education department’s methodology in calculating Ryde school capacity was “simplistic and totally inappropriate”. The capacity of existing schools had been determined by calculating the average number of square metres per student available in all public and private schools in the area. (Private schools are generally more spacious, thus throwing out the average.) Any public schools with more than the average number of square metres per student were deemed to have excess capacity, regardless of the nature or quality of individual sites.
Croft also reiterated the point that the education department’s model underestimated future student numbers by assuming that few occupants of the new units would have school-aged children. In reality, the NSRCPCA letter contended, the “actual rate of units with children in a particular area may be three or four times the standard assumption rate used by the education department”. They reminded the planning department that, according to the government’s own precinct planning parameters, a new development of that size should be accompanied by at least one new primary school and more than half a new high school.
Croft had earlier made an application under the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 for access to certain relevant documents. One education department document that was released was an asset management spreadsheet that recorded current school enrolments, enrolment forecasts for the next five years, numbers of demountables per school, and the total area of every public school in northern Sydney.
One of the parents’ association presidents also working on the campaign compared the department’s figures with calculated public school area, and discovered that the social impact assessment and planning documents for the Ryde development were overstating the existing public school area by 12 hectares, or the equivalent of two primary schools and one high school.
A media source later told Croft that the planning department was quick to point out that all schools data had been provided to them by the education department, who in turn blamed a contractor who had used Google Maps to do the calculations. The education department released an amended version of the total public school area, but the figure was still out by 8 hectares.
Were these planning oversights politically motivated, or were they evidence of incompetence on the part of the education department, fuelled by outdated assumptions about demographics and population growth? How far back did the dodgy numbers go? And why did nobody within the government notice that there was a problem until a concerned local mum began to look more closely at the numbers?
Many advocates of public education in Australia have long accused both major political parties of underfunding and closing public schools while in power, and systematically selling the sites to private schools – especially in wealthier postcodes – as a quick fix to fill Treasury coffers and encourage the privatisation of education.
Just over 25 years ago, during the tenure of the Liberal premier Nick Greiner, 11 public schools on the lower North Shore were closed down, and swathes of land at many of the now overcrowded local public schools were sold off as “surplus”, often to private schools.
Greiner and his education minister, Terry Metherell, began their “rationalisation policy” in 1988, targeting 15 schools. The idea was to sell off “under-utilised” or “surplus” assets, supposedly to fund school developments in other high-growth areas of Sydney (at the time considered to be Sydney’s south, west, north-west, and central and north coasts). “Once identified as being surplus to the educational needs of the local community,” Metherell wrote in 1989, “a school … should proceed towards disposal.”
In spite of Metherell’s claims that this was “responsible economic management”, it was reported last year that these sales of school land had generated less than $30 million, half the $60 million that was predicted back then. Many of the public school sites that were sold off – including Balmoral Beach Infants, Milsons Point Public, Castlecrag Infants – were sold to private schools. Other sites – for example, Marsfield Public, Thornleigh Public, Naremburn Public and parts of St Ives Public – were sold to developers.
The education department stated at the time that “the key factors in identifying schools for closure are the demography of the given area and the accommodation capacity of schools in the cluster”. But many parents and teachers at the affected schools suspected even then that the department had got its modelling wrong.
Just over ten years ago, under the Labor premier Bob Carr, attempts were made under the “Building the Future” plan to close or merge a further ten public schools across Sydney. At the time, Education Minister John Aquilina stated that the “not negotiable” decision to close these schools was due to falling enrolments – expecting that parents would then take their children out of the targeted schools, which would strengthen the case for closure.
But the Labor government’s plans were mostly thwarted by strong community campaigns against the closures and by criticism of the department’s planning and enrolment projections. At a public meeting about the proposed closure of Chatswood High, several participants noticed that the department’s demographic “expert” at the meeting was in fact a retired teacher of industrial arts from another local school, who had no formal qualifications as a demographer.
A damning state parliamentary inquiry found widespread evidence that the government had decided to close the schools before properly consulting with parents and teachers. Hunters Hill High, Chatswood High and Marrickville High were saved, as was Erskineville Public, but other schools in the inner city and the east were sold off (Vaucluse High, Redfern Public) or merged (Alexandria Park Community School, for instance, was formed through the amalgamation of four schools). All these areas now face severe overcrowding in their public schools.
During the Greiner school closures in the late 1980s, one of the most active anti-closure community groups formed to protest the proposed closure of Castlecrag Infants School. Bruce Wilson, the then president of the Castlecrag parents’ association, and his wife, a statistician, publicly criticised the education department’s enrolment projections at the time.
“The department was relying on old census data instead of up-to-date surveys of catchment areas for the schools targeted for closure,” Wilson told me recently. “A simple survey would have identified that that school’s numbers were rebuilding, and increasing numbers of young families were moving into the catchment area.”
Wilson, who worked as a government lawyer for many years, submitted the first request under the NSW Freedom of Information Act 1989 in relation to the proposed closure of Castlecrag. “I had been part of a group of young, idealistic lawyers who suggested the scope and content of the proposed Freedom of Information bill,” he told me. “I didn’t expect that a few years later I would be involved in the first lawsuit under the FOI Act.” In Wilson v. The Department of Education, he accused the Greiner government of hiding land valuations and relevant demographic information during the proposed closure. Wilson’s appeal was successful: the court found that most of the documents in dispute should not be considered exempt from disclosure.
The Castlecrag community lost its battle when the school was closed in 1990, but the campaign continued. For four years, residents occupied the site and established 24-hour family picketing. When the site was finally sold to the Glenaeon Rudolf Steiner School in 1994, community leaders tried unsuccessfully to raise financial support to buy it back.
Primary-school children in Castlecrag now have to travel by bus to other schools, including Willoughby Public, where playground time is rostered as there is not enough space for all the students to play outside at the same time.
Milsons Point Public, a small primary school built in 1887, was another school earmarked for closure in 1989. In response, North Sydney Council made a detailed submission to the School Closures Review Committee, challenging the education department’s demographic data. Many of the flaws the council identified in the department’s methods and assumptions are very similar to those Steph Croft uncovered 23 years later.
The department had claimed that North Sydney’s population was decreasing, but the council’s submission pointed to census data showing that it was in fact increasing. The census data also contradicted the department’s assertion that ageing of the local population would continue, instead showing an increase in the number of families with kids moving into high urban consolidation areas like Milsons Point. The submission stated:
The asset rationalisation programme of the Education Department is in conflict with the urban consolidation policy of the Department of Planning. Surely a more co-ordinated approach is needed … Threatened closures have turned into self-fulfilling prophecies. Parents do not place their children in schools that may be closed with the resultant declining enrolments justifying the school’s closure.
Robyn Read, then the independent MP for the North Shore, described the proposed closure as “another deplorable example of the minister’s arrogant approach to education”, and accused Metherell and Greiner of deceiving the community. (Both had reportedly made assurances that the school would not be closed.) At the end of 1990, Milsons Point Public was closed and the site sold to the private St Aloysius’ College.
The nearby Cremorne Girls High community also fought fiercely to save their school from closure in the late 1980s, most memorably with a protest march of hundreds of students across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the education department’s headquarters. The school, founded in 1926, was nonetheless closed at the end of 1987 (under the Labor premier Barrie Unsworth), and sold to private girls’ school SCECGS Redlands in 1990 (under Greiner).
Margaret Gowanlock attended Cremorne Girls in the 1950s, and is publishing a commemorative history of the school this year. “It ripped the hearts out of the girls and the staff,” she says of the closure. “It was politically expedient for the site to be sold … The worst part was the dishonesty, leading the community to believe our school was safe.”
The closure of Crows Nest Boys High in 1992 was a slightly different case. The student community was diverse, with a large Armenian and Lebanese contingent. “Crowie”was sandwiched between two selective schools (North Sydney Boys and North Sydney Girls), and the mean joke at the time was that it was “rejective”.
“We were the lost boys,” George Kahkejian, a former student, told me. “A lot of the public bus drivers wouldn’t let Crowie boys on their buses because they thought we were wild. But the teachers were amazing, and never gave up on us. Many of us went on to do some impressive things, thanks to that school.”
Noel Thomsen taught at Crows Nest Boys for 12 years, and was devastated when the school closed. “There was no political will to save our school,” he says. “It was seen as expendable.” Teachers and parents tried to rescue the school by putting forward a plan to transform it into a senior vocational college. They felt blindsided when it was announced that the school would close. The site would be occupied by North Sydney Girls, and a TAFE senior vocational college, Bradfield College, would be set up literally across the road. “We’d done all this work, taken the consultation process seriously, and we lost the school anyway,” Thomsen says.
These communities lost their battles to save their schools. Now, their belief that those schools were closed wrongfully has been justified, as the government buys new sites at great cost so that schools can be started from scratch to fill a gaping need. For the students, teachers and parents who lost not only their schools’ physical buildings but also the rich community traditions that had thrived in them, it’s a hollow victory.
Soon after Croft and her colleagues sent their May 2013 letter contesting the education department’s schools planning for Ryde, the NSW cabinet overhauled the demographic modelling systems informing the state’s planning. In August 2013, the planning department’s demography unit was revamped and given the job of providing consistent, evidence-based modelling across all government portfolios.
The major victory for the parents’ associations campaign was the astounding news that the O’Farrell government’s 2013–14 budget was allocating $70 million to new school buildings on the North Shore. In the Baird government’s 2014–15 budget, $400 million has been allocated to schools infrastructure across NSW, to create 256 new permanent classrooms.
Cammeraygal High School has just admitted its first cohort of Year 7 students, and is the first new school to open on the lower North Shore in 42 years. It will gradually build up to a Year 7–10 co-ed junior high school, with funding earmarked for a senior school.
Two further victories for the campaign are the new K–12 comprehensive co-ed school that will be developed on the University of Technology Sydney’s Ku-ring-gai campus, to open in 2017, and the new public primary school for 1000 students that will open in 2016 on the site of the former North Sydney Anzac Memorial Club. The Anzac Club became available as a potential school site thanks to North Sydney Council, which at a public meeting in 2012 passed a motion to “explore long-term leasehold with the NSW Department of Education and Communities”.
Existing public schools in the area will receive upgrades or extra classrooms. A master plan is supposedly being developed to address overcrowding in Manly primary schools, which are currently bursting at the seams. (Manly Vale Public School, already at 214% capacity, is expected to grow by a further 40% in four years, while at Manly Village Public School, 28 classes of children are spread between 22 classrooms. The overcrowding at Manly Village is reportedly so bad that the former principal considered knocking down the wall between her office and the deputy’s office, turning it into a classroom, and moving her desk into the cleaner’s cupboard.)
Education Minister Adrian Piccoli has signalled that his department will also be “looking into solutions” for public school overcrowding in Sydney’s inner city, inner west and eastern suburbs, now all also at crisis point. Fairfax recently reported that enrolments at public primary schools in the eastern suburbs have grown by as much as 101% between 2010 and 2014; some in the inner city have grown by as much as 200% in the same period. The relocation of the overcrowded Ultimo Public has been funded in the budget (though stalled negotiations on the sale of the proposed site have caused delays), as has the upgrading of Bourke Street Public. An inner-city schools working party has been formed within the department in response to growing calls for a new inner-city public high school to meet rising demand.
“These new schools and classrooms are very welcome,” Croft says, “and they represent a victory on behalf of the concerned parents and community members who would not give up this fight. They solve the immediate problem of overcrowding in some of our schools, but the wider consequences of the education department’s flawed planning and analysis are now having to be addressed across NSW.”
In March 2014, the NSRCPCA, led by Croft, asked the government to reconsider emerging school-capacity issues in light of the identified flaws in the education department’s modelling for northern Sydney and elsewhere.
While schools are now considered “essential infrastructure” in the draft Metropolitan Strategy for Sydney, it has been reported by Fairfax that, by the department’s own estimations, there will be a shortfall of $7 billion in essential public school funding over the next two decades. Infrastructure NSW’s State Infrastructure Strategy 2012–2032 stated that in the next two decades Sydney’s student population will increase by a third, or 250,000 students. Fairfax recently gained access to leaked departmental documents that showed these student numbers would necessitate an additional 220 new government schools, for which the department is unprepared.
Meanwhile, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported in October 2014, the boom in Sydney’s residential developments is set to continue, with the next three years bringing an all-time record in apartment construction.
The education department was evasive in response to my questions. A spokesperson stated that the department “is constantly monitoring demographic trends and planning ahead for future educational needs, which includes consultation with the Department of Planning and Environment, councils, and developers in Sydney and across NSW”.
But the education department is vast. Who is responsible for schools planning, specifically? The answer is the Capital Works and the Planning & Demography units within the department’s Asset Management division.
In the past three years, these units have gone through nine northern Sydney planners, at one stage three in three months. The units were restructured last year and, despite bad press about inaccurate planning, the number of in-house planners and demographers was significantly cut.
A former department planner told me that previously there was one planner assigned to each of the regions within NSW, which allowed planners to engage deeply with local schools and communities. Now individual planners are given responsibility for several regions.
Another ex-employee says there is a toxic work culture within these units. Verbal abuse and active sabotage of other people’s work are common. “There have been some fantastic planners at the department, who proposed innovative and budget-neutral solutions,” this planner told me. “But most have left – sometimes only a few days after arriving – because of the dysfunctional workplace.” Several local councils have reportedly written letters of complaint about the unacceptably aggressive behaviour of certain department employees.
Despite the announcement of funding for new schools and extra classrooms, several people I spoke to warned that the department’s planning and asset management incompetence is continuing as usual, and that as a result three- or four-storey schools of up to 2000 students on small sites will become the norm.
Errors in the department’s tendering process have resulted in three overcrowded primary schools still not receiving their promised extra classrooms. Planning in St Leonards is apparently once again being done using the old assumption that households in two-bedroom units do not have children. The department is giving extra infrastructure to schools that are overcrowded due to high numbers of out-of-area students, contravening its own policy of only building extra classrooms on sites with high local demand. One primary school that will receive extra classrooms, for example, has 40% of its students coming from out-of-area.
Department master plans to alleviate capacity pressure in local schools appear in many cases to have stalled. An opportunity to expand a particular school with major overcrowding issues onto adjoining council land was recently rejected by a department planner. In a council meeting, this planner suggested instead that the capacity issue be solved by putting more demountables on the school oval; the students could play in a council park across the road.
The department is considering selling off Frenchs Forest Public to the shopping centre next door, then redeveloping from scratch both the primary and high school on the grounds of the high school. Given the high cost of redevelopment of the joint school, the financial gain would be limited.
“These managers are spending millions and millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money, but there is no accountability for bad decisions,” one of the ex-planners said. “In a couple of years, all these students are going to turn up on their first day at school and we will have nowhere to put them. Another Steph Croft is going to have to come along and tell the emperor he has no clothes.”
A few sources now also suspect that Adrian Piccoli is planning a major sell-off of small schools (with fewer than 300 students), and any site not required for five years, after the NSW election in March. Up to 40 schools and currently unused sites across NSW – including at least four in northern Sydney – could end up on the closures and mergers list.
Whether or not this turns out to be the case, what is certain is that the department is shifting to an American model of high-rise schools for the future. The approach increasingly seems to be to try to get a commercial return by selling off bundles of school assets, then intensifying the use of the remaining assets through building multistorey schools with large student populations on small sites with limited playground space. Late last year, for example, planning staff at the department were told by managers to investigate selling off half the Artarmon Public School site and building a four-storey school on the remaining portion, even though the existing site is already very small.
Planning staff were also told last year to identify any other sites across Sydney that could be sold off, and to look again into the possibility of selling off Hunters Hill High School. Once more, invaluable school sites and infrastructure might be at risk of being sold off because of short-sighted, faulty planning, and with limited consultation with the school communities themselves.
Late last year, I wandered past what is now Cammeraygal High School. The building was unchanged at that point. The Bradfield College signs were still up, and the site looked in good shape if a little desolate: classroom blinds were closed, a potted palm in the courtyard had blown over, and the grassy patch within the quadrangle was overgrown.
There were two banners tied to the perimeter fence, one saying that Bradfield College would be moving to the TAFE St Leonards campus, and another announcing in capital letters: “NEW HIGH SCHOOL OPENING HERE IN 2015”. Something about the impersonal phrasing struck me as strange, with its suggestion that new schools pop up furtively overnight like mushrooms. Perhaps it was because the school hadn’t yet been named. (Some of the Crowie Old Boys had suggested it be called Crows Nest High School.)
Michelle Calder, whose daughter Lilly is in the first Year 7 cohort starting this term, is pleased that her daughter will be able to spend extra time with her teachers before the other years are added. She says the new principal, Kathy Melky (previously deputy principal across the road at North Sydney Girls), is wonderful. “There is a huge sense of excitement among the children and parents,” she says. “We feel quite special being part of the foundational year for the new school.” In a supportive gesture, students at North Sydney Girls and North Sydney Boys will provide peer support for the students starting at Cammeraygal.
Steph Croft is delighted about the creation of this new school, though she refuses to take personal credit for what has been achieved. “It was inspiring to see so many people coming together to work on the campaign,” she says. But she will admit that “it has been a huge commitment for our family”. Her own children will not benefit from any of the changes or the new schools that will be opening. (Her youngest finishes school this year.)
Why did she do it? “I care for our community. I want the government to have accurate information, so that proper planning happens,” she says. “And I like getting problems solved. The numbers and facts now speak for themselves.” She hopes that the significant victories of the campaign might bring some peace for the communities that lost their schools in the past. “I know these new schools don’t bring the old schools back, but it’s vindication of a sort, that the communities were right in protesting those closures. Maybe it can help to heal those wounds.”
The Melbourne situation
Crowded schools are hardly unique to Sydney. The ACT government has closed more than 20 schools in the past decade, and a quarter of Canberra’s public schools may face overcrowding in the next three years. At Brisbane Central State School, where overcrowding has made playground injuries increasingly common, the government is considering selling some of the land earmarked for its expansion to a neighbouring private school. But only Melbourne suffers systemic problems comparable to those that exist in Sydney, and it is for similar reasons.
Beginning in 1989, the Kirner (Labor) and Kennett (Liberal) governments instituted cost-cutting measures that closed some 350 schools across the state by the mid ’90s. Many were older schools in the inner city that had seen enrolments drop as families with young children moved further out. However, gentrification and densification have brought families back, and they find the remaining schools don’t have enough capacity and the sites of the old schools have been sold off.
Port Melbourne Primary, for instance, will this year squeeze more than 700 students onto a site designed for 300. North Melbourne Primary has turned a staffroom and part of its library into classrooms to accommodate rapidly growing enrolments. South Melbourne has no primary school at all, though there are plans to open one in the next few years. In Docklands, the troubled suburb installed west of Melbourne’s CBD in the mid ’90s, people have finally begun to take up residency, only to discover that there is no school and the primary schools all around are overflowing. The state government has acquired a site for a Docklands school, but at present there is no funding to build it.
Much of Melbourne may face similar problems in the next 15 years or so, according to Peter Goss, an education researcher at the Grattan Institute. Last year, he analysed state government demographic projections that predict the number of school-aged children in the state will increase by 350,000 by 2031. Goss says this means that as many as 550 new schools will be needed, mainly in the inner city and in fast-growing outer suburbs. Martin Dixon, then the education minister in the now-defunct Napthine Liberal government, responded that his estimates put the number required in the next ten years at more like 60, of which his government had plans to build 13 (in public–private partnerships).
The new Andrews Labor government has announced plans to build an additional 11 schools. James Merlino, the education minister, says he “understands how critical it is to plan for expected growth in our outer suburbs and regions”. How these words will translate into action remains to be seen, but it’s a start.