Don’t mess with best in West
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