Don’t mess with best in West

The West Australian - - OPINION - Mal­colm McCusker

If you were WA’s Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter, what would you do with a govern­ment high school that has pro­duced 15 Rhodes schol­ars, a prime min­is­ter, a gov­er­nor-gen­eral, a chief jus­tice, gover­nors, judges, doc­tors, en­gi­neers, a chief sci­en­tist, au­thors, Bea­z­ley medal win­ners and many oth­ers who have made valu­able con­tri­bu­tions to the com­mu­nity — whose alumni sup­port needy stu­dents and which has a me­dian ATAR of 95.5 (State me­dian 83.5) mak­ing it, of all WA sec­ondary schools, pub­lic and pri­vate, “the best in the West”?

That school is Perth Mod­ern School. Chil­dren from all over the State, from many dif­fer­ent so­cioe­co­nomic back­grounds, pass a tough exam to go there. Money won’t do it, only brains and hard work.

Would you fos­ter it as a model of ex­cel­lence, to show what can be achieved by the pub­lic sys­tem? Or change it rad­i­cally, close the aca­demic ex­cel­lence pro­gram at the 106-year-old her­itage site in Su­bi­aco, make it a lo­cal in­take school, and move the 1500 stu­dents to a new aca­demic se­lec­tive school, on top of a high-rise build­ing, ad­ja­cent to North­bridge?

Well, that is what our Govern­ment is plan­ning. Se­ri­ously!

Why? Is there ev­i­dence that the ed­u­ca­tion and health of chil­dren ben­e­fit from hav­ing classes in a high-rise build­ing? Of course not. This pro­posal has gen­er­ated enor­mous op­po­si­tion. A pe­ti­tion has been signed by more than 1600 peo­ple. Par­ents, teach­ers and alumni ask why they were not con­sulted.

The stock an­swer: The Govern­ment has a “man­date”. There will be no con­sul­ta­tion on whether young chil­dren should be put in a city high-rise. Only, “in due course”, on de­sign as­pects. Per­haps the colour of the walls?

That ig­nores a very im­por­tant elec­tion man­date: The prom­ise, re­peated by Premier Mark McGowan on elec­tion night, that the new Govern­ment would “con­sult with and lis­ten to the peo­ple of WA”. They are just empty words, if the Govern­ment isn’t pre­pared to give proper (or any) con­sid­er­a­tion to the over­whelm­ing ar­gu­ments against this pro­posal.

“Ed­u­ca­tional ben­e­fits” sug­gested by Min­is­ter Sue Ellery are that this high-rise school will be closer to the State Li­brary, Scitech and the State Theatre. All three are only a short train or bus ride from Perth Mod now. Stu­dents get nearly all their learn­ing re­sources on­line, and few would go reg­u­larly to the State Li­brary or State Theatre. These “ben­e­fits” are il­lu­sory.

So why send young stu­dents to a high-rise build­ing in the city? All chil­dren need sport and phys­i­cal ex­er­cise to help their brain and so­cial devel­op­ment. A re­cre­ation area on top of a build­ing, even if fea­si­ble, is just not com­pa­ra­ble with the grass oval and play­ing fields that Perth Mod and many other schools have. For safety, the rooftop would need a fence, cre­at­ing a claus­tro­pho­bic, prison-like at­mos­phere.

And what about safety? Hav­ing 1500 chil­dren jostling for lifts when the bell rings would be chaotic, as it would be in an emer­gency evac­u­a­tion, with stu­dents (some with dis­abil­i­ties) scram­bling down stairs. Also, a num­ber of chil­dren have said they would feel un­safe and scared in this area next to North­bridge when leav­ing school in the evening af­ter band prac­tice.

Is there any cost ben­e­fit to out­weigh these dis­ad­van­tages? Has the pro­posal been sub­jected to proper fi­nan­cial scru­tiny and a health im­pact as­sess­ment? What al­ter­na­tives have been con­sid­ered and costed?

It has been sug­gested that the fit-out will cost tax­pay­ers about $25 mil­lion, with an an­nual rental of $15 mil­lion (no doubt es­ca­lat­ing over time). In just five years, if those fig­ures are cor­rect, it will have cost the tax­payer more than $100 mil­lion, and li­a­bil­ity for rent will con­tinue.

It is said that our State is “drown­ing in debt”, that we have the “worst fi­nances since the De­pres­sion”. We have over­crowded pris­ons. Po­lice, teach­ers and nurses should be paid bet­ter for the valu­able ser­vice they pro­vide. Shouldn’t the Govern­ment give pri­or­ity to these, and other press­ing needs, over spend­ing mil­lions on a project which is so strongly op­posed and risks ru­in­ing such a suc­cess­ful school?

Of course, the Govern­ment has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to deal with over­crowd­ing in schools, within its bud­getary re­straints. But the Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter does not, or should not, have an un­bri­dled monopoly on how the prob­lem should be ad­dressed. All min­is­ters must take re­spon­si­bil­ity, and ask them­selves, and de­mand an an­swer to the ques­tion, “why risk mak­ing a mess of the best in the West?”

Illustration: Don Lind­say

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