Primary and high schools in Inner Sydney (source: Sydney Morning Herald)

Independent State MLA for the inner city seat of Sydney, Alex Greenwich, writes in the Sydney Morning Herald that there’s no comprehensive public high school in his electorate to meet the needs of a growing population (Time to make up for Labor’s lack of vision on inner city schools).

He has a simple solution. His constituency includes two of the oldest public high schools in Australia; prestigious academically selective Sydney Boys High School and Sydney Girls High School, both established in 1883. Students in the local area do not have automatic access to these schools; their catchment is State-wide and entry is by examination. (1)

Mr Greenwich argues these schools should accept enrolments from local children irrespective of ability. He provides no indication of the level of demand for local high school places, but if it’s modest (middle class parents tend to favour private high schools) this could be a relatively low-cost solution. My understanding is the NSW Government is giving the idea serious consideration.

The proposal has inevitably prompted much comment on the desirability and role of selective State high schools. But it also highlights a number of more general points about cities in general and gentrification in particular.

First, it’s hard to provide new infrastructure like schools in established areas, especially in the dense inner city. Land is more expensive than in the suburbs and the cost of disruption to existing activities is high.

Second, the debate also shows how well-off gentrifiers sometimes have demanding expectations of public institutions. In this case the complaints of some parents might not reflect the need for a new high school so much as their distaste for the demographics of existing schools.

A number of commenters on Mr Greenwich’s article point out there is already a comprehensive high school in the inner city, Alexandria Park Community School. They say he’s conveniently ignored its existence because it’s outside the boundary of his electorate.

It’s only 60% full (and also offers selective classes for gifted and talented children). But while it has spare capacity, Alexandria Park might not suit the tastes and preferences of all gentrifiers.

Sydney Morning Herald columnist Elizabeth Farrelly pointedly asks new settlers in Surry Hills why they’re ignoring the existence of Alexandria Park; “Please tell me your disdain is not due to its high Aboriginal enrolment”.

A commenter on Mr Greenwich’s article proposes another explanation. He suggests that the parents behind this campaign “don’t really want a public comprehensive high school – they want their kids to be given places at Sydney High when they haven’t earned them”.

Third, the debate also illustrates how the objective of reducing transport use has to be balanced against other priorities. Some argue that all students should have a high school in their local area so travelling time and vehicle use is minimised (e.g. see A new high school for Coburg – what are the lessons?).

While it would of course be wonderful to have a high school in every neighbourhood, the resulting density implies small schools and ignores the benefits of economies of scale. Larger schools lower the cost to the State and offer students greater choice in subjects and co-curricular activities.

Many students at both public and private schools already travel by public transport. The strong preference of middle class parents for private education indicates the attributes of the school are more important to many than travelling time.

So far as the debate about whether Sydney Boys and Sydney Girls should remain strictly selective, some argue that while Mr Greenwich’s proposal might look like a low-cost solution, it would come at a high cost.

If the two schools had to reduce their selective intake to accommodate locally zoned children, it would reduce the opportunities for talented children from across the metropolitan area to attend these schools. That could detract from the traditional equity objectives of selective State education. (2)

Arguably, it might also weaken the supportive cultures of the schools. Elizabeth Farrelly’s daughters attended Sydney Girls; she argues that in a “normal” academic environment brainpower is not a gift but a stigma.

The asset becomes a liability. Outside special schools, such children wither and die. In them, they bloom. Orchids need hot-houses…Sydney Girls in particular had a mission to allow gifted young women to sit alongside their peers at university. That mission is still potent. We still desperately need brilliant and empowered women leaders.

On the other side, some local students with average abilities might not fare well in a school where the great majority of students are exceptionally talented. Their interests might be best served by a comprehensive school. (3)

Like Ms Farrelly, I should declare an interest here; I have a current and active role in the governance of a selective high school in Melbourne. In my view, selective schools are in the spectrum of special schools; they shouldn’t be carelessly treated as a substitute for the Government’s obligation to provide quality comprehensive schools.

As well as utilising spare capacity at Alexandria Park, there are other options for a new inner city high school in Sydney. They include re-purposing the Goulburn St car park or constructing a new school as part of the Central-to-Eveleigh redevelopment.

_______________________________

  1. The State electorate of Sydney includes the following suburbs Centennial Park, Chippendale, Darlinghurst, Edgecliff, Elizabeth Bay, Kings Cross, Moore Park, Paddington, Potts Point, Pyrmont, Rushcutters Bay, Strawberry Hills, Surry Hills, Sydney, and Ultimo.
  2. There are 17 fully selective high schools in NSW, 25 high schools with selective classes and 4 agricultural high schools offering selective placement in Year 7. More here.
  3. Brisbane State High School is a predominantly selective high school that is also zoned for local entry.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.