Understanding Enrollment Pressures at Brisbane State High School

School over-crowding is one of the big planning issues in Brisbane’s inner-south side. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around which makes it harder to focus on and push for policy reforms that will actually improve the situation. This post isn’t intended to be a detailed analysis or policy proposal. But I thought it would be constructive to articulate a few key facts and highlight what I think some of the main issues are, in order to stimulate further conversation and provide a framework for more nuanced critical analysis down the track. I should preface this by emphasising that I’m just a humble local councillor. I don’t have any direct responsibility for education policy or school resourcing. However, as a city councillor, I see it as my responsibility to help ensure there is sufficient infrastructure and resources to cater for the residents of my ward, and right now I’m concerned that Brisbane City Council is encouraging and facilitating extremely rapid densification even though local educational institutions are already well over capacity.

 

The Current Situation

As of the start of 2017, Brisbane State High School has around 3200 students enrolled. This year, approximately 58% of the new cohort of Year 7 students were ‘locals’ from within the State High catchment. The other 42% were students from outside the catchment who were enrolled via one of the three ‘selective entry’ streams – academic, cultural and sporting. You can find a bit more info about these categories via the BSHS website.

The main constraint on school capacity isn’t necessarily the classrooms themselves. In part, it’s the services and facilities (i.e. libraries, computer labs, sports fields/green space), but in particular it’s shortfalls in funding for the specialist staff roles. For example, I’m told most public high schools get funding for one year level coordinator for each grade, however, BSHS has around 500 students in each year level, and they still only get one year level coordinator for each cohort.

State and federal government funding arrangements mean that Brisbane State High School only ends up getting around $9500 per student per year, which compares unfavourably to other public schools. (Don’t even start me on high-end private schools, which receive a lot of government funding that would be better off going to public schools.)

A school of 3000+ students also has other impacts on students that are perhaps less straightforward to measure. What are the effects on a student’s sense of identity when their school community is so large that they begin to feel swallowed up by it? Do some students feel greater pressure to compete with one another and learn to prioritise and value traits like selfishness over generosity? How much extra work do school staff have to put in to ensure that students continue to be treated as unique human beings rather than being reduced to ID numbers and rankings in academic results tables?

Several students have told me that the sheer physical size of the BSHS campus is itself also a problem. Many kids have to travel fairly significant distances between classes from one period to the next, often lugging a backpack full of textbooks with them. There are anecdotes that the mass movement of students during period changeovers can even cause bottlenecks at choke points like the footbridge over Cordelia Street.

I’m sure some of these concerns are exaggerated, and obviously there are also significant advantages to such a large and diverse student body, but staff, students and parents generally seem to agree that the school is already big enough. Even if substantial funding was directed towards redesigning the entire campus to make more vertical classrooms practical, this won’t address concerns about ongoing funding models for staff and resources, or about preserving the school’s sense of community.

 

More Growth on the Horizon

State High’s biggest year level cohort is 575 students. However the smallest cohort – those who are in year 10 in 2017 – is about 460 students (this smaller cohort is a legacy of the transition a couple of years ago where Year 7 became part of high school). So if nothing else changes in terms of school enrolments, at the end of 2019 around 460 Year 12s will graduate, but at least 550 Year 7s will start at BSHS in 2020, pushing the school’s student population up past 3300.

Of course, that doesn’t even begin to account for what happens as more apartments are constructed and more people move into the inner-city. Right now, a lot of inner-city apartments are sitting vacant, but that could change quickly down the track. Brisbane City Council and the State Government are proposing to squeeze tens of thousands of additional residents into suburbs like West End and South Brisbane over the coming decades. Where will all those students study?

I’m reliably informed that the State Government commissioned KPMG to conduct a study into enrolment and capacity issues, and that a report titled ‘Future Sustainability of Enrolments at State High’ was produced in July 2016. To the best of my knowledge, this report still hasn’t been made public, and I haven’t seen it.

 

‘Ghost Locals’

The other factor inflating the school’s capacity is that because of Brisbane State High’s reputation and prestige, many families are pretending to live within the catchment in order to get their children enrolled there. Rather than going through the very competitive selective entry pathways, these families use a range of tactics in order to be treated as locals. Some of these tactics have included:
– households of five or six people pretending to live in a one-bedroom apartment
– temporarily renting a property within the catchment, then breaking lease and moving out as soon as the student’s enrolment has been confirmed
– students from other suburbs pretending they live with extended family members within the catchment
– students moving out and paying high rents to live alone in the South Bank student accommodation towers, coming home to their family in the suburbs on weekends

Staff members I’ve spoken to estimate that there are somewhere between 300 and 900 students who don’t actually live within the catchment, but pretend to do so. Without those students, the school would be able to stay below maximum capacity for the next few years at least.

It’s hard to generalise about the demographic circumstances of these not-quite-genuine-local families. There are probably some poorer families who used to be locals and have a long history of connection to the inner-south side, but have been recently priced out of the inner-city. But anecdotally, many of them seem to be wealthier upper-middleclass families who really want their kids to go to a GPS school. They see themselves as having a choice between paying $25 000 a year to send them to Boys Grammar or Girls Grammar, or spending that money on an investment property down at Montague Road and using the 4101 address to get their kid into BSHS.

I’m told the school has to dedicate a lot of staff resources (apparently as many as four full-time staff) towards checking whether new in-catchment enrolments are genuine, but obviously it doesn’t get any extra funding for this work from the State Government. It’s now common for some parents to fraudulently sign statutory declarations saying they live within the catchment, which means the school then has a very high burden of proof threshold to demonstrate the contrary. The school is now turning away students who’ve only lived in the area for six months before seeking to enrol, which means households who move into the area for a legitimate reason other than to get their kids into BSHS are also getting caught up. Even long-term local families now have to provide more paperwork and jump through more hoops in order to get their kids enrolled. The administrative burden on the school will only increase as our population grows and more students – from both within and outside the catchment – seek to enroll.

 

My perspective at the moment

This is a complex issue, and I think it would be intellectually dishonest to point the finger at a single decision-maker or a single level of government for the mess we’re in. I’m still seeking more information about alternative options to address capacity issues. But I think both Brisbane City Council and the State Government should put the breaks on upzoning land and approving new development projects within the BSHS catchment until capacity concerns are addressed.

Overcrowding at BSHS is ultimately a result of broader structural issues in Queensland’s education system. Many parents clearly feel their child will get a better education and have better opportunities if they go to State High compared to other high schools. Parents from other parts of Brisbane will continue to find increasingly innovative ways to trick the system and get their kids into BSHS as long as they perceive that it offers a better education than their local high school.

In a city like Brisbane, every child should have the opportunity to attend a good-quality government-funded high school within walking distance (or a short bus ride) of their home. This means that if the school’s overcrowding gets to a point where it’s turning away kids who genuinely live within the catchment area, BSHS should start taking fewer non-catchment students through its selective entry pathways. But the school would not be over capacity right now if not for the fact that hundreds of parents are pretending to live within the catchment in order to get their kids into State High.

From an urban planning perspective, it’s pretty inefficient and undesirable to have kids from the suburbs commuting into the inner-city to attend school. It doesn’t matter whether those kids are attending a private school, or have gotten into a public school like BSHS through a selective entry pathway, or have gotten into BSHS by pretending to live within the catchment. Moving so many students in and out of the city every day when they could be studying locally is a significant and unnecessary burden on the city’s transport networks.

Our long-term goal should be for every child to be able to get a good education without leaving their own neighbourhood. At a time when reducing fossil fuel emissions from private vehicle transport is so urgent, continuing to take around 50% of students via selective entry pathways from outside the catchment is at best only defensible if those students are travelling by public or active transport. The money that governments and councils spend on road maintenance to allow more people to drive into the inner-city would be better spent on improving the quality of local suburban schools.

The term ‘locational disadvantage’ describes the fact that – in general – students growing up today in the outer burbs experience greater hardship and have fewer opportunities than students in the inner-ring. The strongest argument in favour of supporting children from the suburbs to continue to access inner-city schools is that in a city of increasing locational disadvantage, encouraging poor kids to enroll at BSHS offers a pathway towards upwards social mobility. But this approach prioritises the interests of a small minority of students at the expense of the many. And the selective entry pathways are not means-tested. What happens to the kids who are left behind in ‘low-status’ schools when all the high-achieving students take up scholarships to private schools or get into somewhere like Brisbane State High? Would it be more socially just if BSHS’s selective entry pathway prioritised the poorest and most disadvantaged children, rather than the high achievers?

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether BSHS’s target balance of taking 50% of students from within the catchment and 50% from outside the catchment needs to be adjusted. If the argument for taking so many students from outside the catchment is partly based on equity and addressing locational disadvantage, maybe the selective entry pathways should be means-tested and only available to students from poorer families. What percentage split would be more sustainable in the long-term? What percentage split maximises equity and opportunities for all public school students across Brisbane? Should BSHS have to wind back its selective entry pathways altogether?

There are lots of options and questions that need thinking through, but right now it seems to me that the school has no more room to grow. Under these circumstances, it is reckless of the Brisbane City Council and State Government to continue approving developments that exceed the density of the relevant neighbourhood plans. It is short-sighted of the State Government to support new neighbourhood plans (such as the Dutton Park-Fairfield Neighbourhood Plan) that allow for significantly increased populations within the BSHS catchment area until funding and land for a new inner-city public high school is identified and set aside. We need to keep talking about the impacts of development and infrastructure spending shortfalls, and demand that current and aspiring State MPs clearly state their position on these issues in the lead-up to the next state election.