With student numbers swelling in city public schools — partly because of population growth and partly because of a slowdown in the drift to non-government schools — the NSW and Victorian state governments have plans to build a bunch of new schools. Sensibly, they have realised that urban land availability does not allow the traditional sprawl of buildings and playgrounds, so the new city schools will be high rises.
Media reports in Sydney and Melbourne show the schools to be at the fancy end of the architectural scale. They’ll no doubt be equipped with all of the latest — soon to be outdated — technology and will have ‘learning spaces’ instead of classrooms, ‘information resource centres’ (RIP libraries), and cafés … vale, the humble tuckshop.
Contrast this with Chatswood Public School in Sydney. Due to its outstanding reputation for academic quality, its student numbers have almost doubled in the past 10 years. It is so over capacity that demountable classrooms have been placed in the car park and on the oval of the high school across the road to meet demand.
There is a high premium on house and rental prices in the enrolment zone. Parents are willing to bypass a nearby under-capacity school and pay a real estate premium to have their child educated in a demountable classroom in a crowded school. They do this because they believe the teaching and learning is first rate, and this outstrips all other factors. While Chatswood is perhaps the best known example of this phenomenon, it is far from the only one.
To be clear: students and teachers in public schools should have comfortable, high quality facilities that are fit for purpose. But in their eagerness to provide this, state governments should not lose sight of the fact that whizz-bang buildings are not necessarily the highest priority for parents. Astute parents know that there is no substitute for a great teacher and a strong curriculum — whether it’s in a demountable classroom or a multi-billion dollar learning space. Governments need to make sure their priorities are just as sound.
Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a senior research fellow and director of the FIVE from FIVE literacy project.
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