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Thinking Critically About Current Proposals for the New Inner-South High School

The State Government has finally released a bit more info about the proposed new public high school for Brisbane’s inner-south side.

I’ve written previously about overcrowding issues at Brisbane State High School, and late last year I wrote an update raising concerns about the lack of genuine consultation and possible flaws in the government’s process for deciding where the new school should go.

Recent disclosures by the State Government have showed my concerns were not unfounded. While different government sources initially provided somewhat-conflicting information via different forums, here’s some of what we’ve been told…

  • the new high school will have a capacity of 1100 to 1400 students
  • like Brisbane State High School, the new school may have a merit-based entry component, meaning students from outside the local area will be able to attend it
  • the government’s preferred site is at Boggo Road/Dutton Park near the train station
  • two other sites – one next to Davies Park, and the other at the northwest end of the Kurilpa Peninsula along Montague Rd – were briefly considered but deemed less viable
  • the school is proposed to have exactly the same catchment boundaries as BSHS
  • the new high school will have very little green space on site for student sport and recreation, but the government is currently negotiating with UQ for shared access to UQ sports fields on the north side

As a local councillor, it seems to me that the location, the catchment boundaries and the decision to include merit-based selective entry enrolments are all suboptimal, and that the State Government needs to completely reconsider its approach.

When you look at the government's Precinct Selection Report (particularly page 7 and 8) it's obvious that revoking or reducing BSHS's selective entry enrolment was left out of scope for this decision, so it was more-or-less taken for granted that the new school would also include merit-based selective entry. This necessarily influenced how the government evaluated each potential site, particularly in terms of transport and accessibility. It's obvious that the arbitrary deadline of wanting the school to be ready by 2021 also seriously influenced the decision, despite the fact that BSHS could accommodate more local students in the short-term if it tweaked its enrolment policy.


This location doesn’t stack up from a transport perspective

The bulk of current and future demand for school places is a long way from the Boggo Road site at Dutton Park, with rapid high density population growth to the west of Montague Road in West End, and closer to South Bank in South Brisbane. There will also be some densification of Woolloongabba down the line, particularly around the Cross River Rail project, but the higher-density part of Woolloongabba to the east of the Pacific Motorway will be well within walking distance of Coorparoo State High School. According to Brisbane City Council’s projections, even in the long-term there will still be a lot more residential growth in West End and South Brisbane than in Dutton Park.

Thus for most local students, the new high school will be much further away from home than the current BSHS site. Although Dutton Park is only a few kilometres from West End as the crow flies, it’s a long and not particularly safe journey by foot or bicycle. You either have to climb all the way up and down Highgate Hill, or you have to follow the very busy Vulture St and Annerley Rd corridors. All routes are indirect, and all routes involve crossing and walking along busy, noisy, unpleasant main roads.

A fit cyclist who’s not afraid to take risks and run red lights can make this journey in under 15 minutes. For most high school students living to the west or the north of Highgate Hill, you’re probably looking at a 20-minute bike ride along a dangerous route, or a 30 to 40-minute walk. (A third route option from Montague Rd is to follow the river all the way around the Kurilpa Peninsula and along the South Bank boardwalk in order to avoid Vulture St traffic before heading down Annerley Rd – that’s around an hour each way on foot).

Neither BCC nor the State Government have identified or committed to any kind of direct, high-frequency east-west public transport services connecting the Montague Road and Boggo Road precincts. Even after the Cross River Rail and Brisbane Metro projects are eventually completed, public transport options from West End to Dutton Park will not be particularly quick or direct. Commuters will have to travel in towards South Bank and back out towards Dutton Park via bus or train. Not only is this an inconvenient two-stage journey, but it would also push hundreds of additional commuters through some of the most congested and heavily used public transport hubs during peak periods.


It is short-sighted and close-minded to suggest that hundreds of local students should travel by public transport every single day, rather than simply offering a school closer to where they live. Someone has to pay for these public transport services – either the students themselves or taxpayers more generally. A proper long-term cost benefit analysis may actually find that even if land is much more expensive in West End than Dutton Park, it actually works out cheaper for the government to find a site that doesn’t require lots of students to catch the bus or train.

The alternative to the suboptimal active and public transport options I’ve just outlined is for students to be driven in private vehicles. This is definitely something we want to avoid in the inner-city. Traffic congestion is already bad enough. Even a few hundred extra parents driving their kids from West End to Dutton Park during peak hour would put a huge strain on the network and choke up intersections that are already over capacity. Parents should not have to spend half their day as unpaid taxi drivers.

It seems that the people making this decision have forgotten that travel time has a big impact on students’ quality of life. A lot of high schoolers have extra gear to carry (sports equipment, text books, musical instruments), and often have to arrive early or stay late for extra-curricular activities. There’s a huge difference between a 10-minute journey and a 40-minute journey. When you spend at least an hour a day travelling to and from school, that leaves less time for study, socialising, extracurricular pursuits and sleep.

While a lot of high school students in South-East Queensland do currently spend a lot of time travelling to and from school, it’s certainly not ideal, and it’s definitely something we should try to minimise when planning a new school from scratch, particularly in the inner-city.

Having said all of the above, the Dutton Park site is obviously quite well-located for out-of-catchment students travelling from further afield. Its position next to the Park Road train station means it would probably be quicker for a student living near Moorooka or Morningside train stations to get to this school than it would be for a student living in West End.

It is obvious to me that this site has been chosen to favour access for out-of-catchment students rather than locals. This raises the question, why the hell is the government creating a second merit-based public high school?


Selective-Entry is Part of the Problem, Not the Solution

From a broader public policy perspective, merit-based entry public schools that take in lots of students from outside their catchment are very difficult to justify, and probably not in the wider public interest. Obviously if a school takes in the highest achieving students from all around the city, it’s going to perform well above the average. But what about the brain-drain on all the other public schools who lose their strongest students? Rather than picking favourites and placing some schools on a higher tier than the rest, the government should ensure that all public schools are of the same high standard.

Merit-based entry is not means-tested entry. BSHS’s selective entry program is not focussed on bringing the most disadvantaged and highest needs students into a high-performing inner-city school. It takes in high-achieving students from families who have the knowledge and capacity to navigate the school’s enrolment processes.

Allowing the new high school a high proportion of merit-based out-of-catchment enrolments represents a gross misunderstanding of the reasons that the existing Brisbane State High School is already over-crowded. I shouldn’t need to spell this out, but I’m going to do so for the benefit of the politicians who don’t seem to have thought this through…

  1. As long as BSHS has a significant component of merit-based selective entry enrolments, it will be perceived as a high-status, high-quality school.
  2. As long as BSHS is perceived as significantly better than other public schools, parents will continue to use a range of strategies to get their kids enrolled there, including moving into the catchment deliberately to get into the school, and pretending to move into the catchment (which is apparently quite common).
  3. Adding a new high-status merit-entry public school in the inner-south side might ease enrolment pressures on BSHS for a few years, but in the long-term, both schools will again reach capacity as more and more families move into the catchment specifically to get into these high-status public schools.

While the reasons people move into the inner-south side are complex and varied, the presence of a high-status school that takes in high-achieving students from across the city is clearly a major pull factor for a lot of families. While many residents blame the over-crowding of BSHS on over-development, it’s arguable that the school itself may actually be one of the key drivers of unsustainable development, propping up demand for new apartments that would otherwise struggle to attract buyers.

It’s also important to reinforce that any school – public or private – which takes in students from across the city is extremely counter-productive from a transport planning perspective. When there are below-capacity high schools dotted right across Brisbane, it is absurd that thousands of students travel in and out of the inner-city every day, creating increased demand for public transport services and/or road capacity. The significant decrease in traffic congestion on school holidays is clear evidence that students who travel into inner-city schools rather than going to the local public high school are contributing to unnecessary and avoidable strain on the transport network. The State Government should take this into account as another argument against out-of-catchment enrolments.

A lot of parents would continue to prefer BSHS over the new high school if the new school did not have the high status associated with merit-based selective entry. So it seems the government’s bizarre decision to favour merit-based intake is calculated to help the new school compete with Brisbane State High School. This smacks of political spinelessness. Instead of engaging in the tough but important conversation as to whether it’s long-term sustainable for BSHS to continue taking 50% of its enrolments out-of-catchment via merit entry, the government is dodging the question and making the same mistake all over again with the new school.

This is especially concerning when you realise that neighbouring high schools like Coorparoo and Yeronga are below capacity. I’ve heard from a couple of parents now who are frustrated that Coorparoo and Yeronga are already seen and treated as BSHS’s poorer cousins. Creating a new high-status, inner-city, selective-entry high school so close to the catchment boundaries of Coorparoo and Yeronga will likely make it more difficult for these schools to attract and retain high-achieving students.


What the State Government is Planning vs What the Community Needs

A lot of people are excited about the Dutton Park high school proposal because it has the potential to become a dynamic and innovative new approach to secondary schooling. The opportunity for collaborative co-curricular and extra-curricular activities delivered in partnership with the University of Queensland and the neighbouring EcoSciences precinct is quite positive, and could help challenge and redefine established norms within Queensland’s mainstream public schooling system.

Like the three Queensland Academies campuses, which deliver specialised curricula to high-achieving students, a new selective-entry high school at Dutton Park could become a flagship for the public schooling system and help challenge the flawed narrative that students get a better quality education in the private schooling system.

The State Government is also exploring unconventional design options for the school itself, which could help reconceptualise the very idea of a high school classroom. Giving a few leading architects broad scope to think outside the box will no doubt prompt a broader rethinking of the built form of public high schools, and open up some much-needed conversations about the way people learn in the 21st century.

That all sounds really great. But it’s not necessarily what South Brisbane needs.

The funding for a new public high school on Brisbane’s inner-south side was allocated specifically to cater for rising demand within the local inner-city catchment. While the government’s current proposal is shiny and exciting, it is not the best response to the problem at hand, which is that the existing local high school is already well over capacity, and thousands more residents will be moving into the inner-city over the coming decade.


While the problem is urgent, we shouldn’t rush the decision

It seems that the decision to prioritise the Dutton Park site was largely driven by the fact that the land is more readily available, and the State Government wants the school to open as soon as possible. But this urgency shouldn’t prevent us from making the right decision from a long-term planning perspective. This high school must meet the area’s needs for the next 50 years, not the next 5.

Now that funding has been allocated for a new high school, we should take the time to consult properly and make the right decision about the location, catchment, enrolment policies and design. These are inter-related issues that shouldn’t be decided separately from one another. It would be a mistake to settle on a location and only then start the conversations about selective entry, catchment boundaries and design questions like where the children are expected to exercise during lunchbreaks.

Although BSHS is currently over-crowded, there’s a simple pressure valve option available to buy a few years’ time and make sure the new high school genuinely meets the needs of the whole community. Currently almost 50% of Brisbane State High’s intake is selective-entry students from outside the catchment. For the next year or two, the school can and should reduce this merit-based entry component right down to 10 or 20%. This would mean that the new year 7 cohorts would number around 300 students rather than 500+, and free up enough classroom space for the school to operate more sustainably for the next few years while the new high school is built.

This will give us the time to consult properly, to consider other possible sites and to ensure that all options are on the table, rather than rushing to build on the only site where land is currently available.


Genuine Consultation?

There are many kinds of consultation, some of which give more weight to the opinions of ordinary residents and some which only canvas residents’ views but leave all the substantive decision-making power to public servants and politicians. From what I’ve observed so far, the State Government’s approach with this issue has been to use ‘consultation sessions’ to present information justifying its decisions, rather than creating a genuinely open public forum for debate. If the government was more firmly committed to genuine consultation, they would mail out a survey to all residents seeking input on a range of options for the location and style of the new school, and publish the results.

In Australia, the dominant discourse within government is that experts and key stakeholders know best, and that the views of ordinary residents who have no particular expertise in urban planning or education theory should count for relatively little. This mindset ignores the very valuable local knowledge and insights that residents can contribute. Crowd-sourcing feedback on proposals (and being genuinely open to that feedback) is an important means of testing the conclusions that government departments arrive at, and all levels of government should put significantly more money and resources into doing this properly.


I thought it might be useful to highlight some of the alternatives to building a new selective-entry high school at Dutton Park. Some of these options are mutually exclusive, others could complement each other. Some would cost more than others. But the problem is that so far, the government has told residents that a new high school at Dutton Park is the only feasible solution.


Industrial site at northern end of Kurilpa Peninsula

There are several large sites in the north-west corner of 4101 that could be acquired by the government and combined with existing neighbouring pieces of government-owned land to provide room for both a new high school and ovals/green space. This green space could be opened up to the public, yielding a double benefit to the community.

It seems the State Government was reluctant to force these large companies off their land, but it’s obvious that businesses like Parmalat and Hanson are going to remain in the inner-city for some time, waiting for land values to keep rising so that when they do eventually move out, they can sell their sites for huge profits. The longer the government waits to acquire these sites (whether it’s for public parkland, schools, or other community facilities) the more expensive the land will get. It seems this option of acquiring industrial land against the wishes of existing companies was dismissed too quickly. A school at this site would be much closer to high-density developments in 4101, and would also be well-located near the State Library, the Queensland Art Gallery, GOMA, The Edge, and the Queensland Theatre Company, offering great opportunities for collaboration with these organisations.

It’s important to emphasise that the State Government still owns a lot of land in this area underneath and around some of the bridges, and wouldn’t have to acquire all the land needed for the new school from private businesses.


Site along Montague Road next to Davies Park

Large sites at 281 and 297 Montague Road could be compulsorily acquired and used to build a vertical school with rooftop recreation space as well as shared access to the ovals in neighbouring Davies Park. These sites have current development applications for another major highrise development, but the developers are apparently slowing down on that project due to concerns about the oversupply of apartments in the area. In its early communications, the State Government said it was considering locating the new school at Davies Park, creating the false impression that it was proposing to build on the parkland itself. However locating a new school next door to Davies Park makes a lot of sense, and would place the school within close walking distance of the many new apartment developments to the west of Montague Road.

It’s clear to me that acquiring these sites either for a school or to expand the green space in Davies Park makes a lot more sense than for the land to remain in private ownership and get redeveloped as highrises.


Significantly Reduce Brisbane State High School’s Selective Entry Intake

As discussed above and elsewhere, almost half of current BSHS students – around 1500 students out of the total 3200 – come from outside the local catchment via a merit-based selective entry pathway. If BSHS took in fewer out-of-catchment merit-entry students, it would have far more room to accommodate local students. The school could retain a smaller means-tested out-of-catchment entry program for students of low-SES backgrounds, but could shift its enrolment policy to focus more on its role as a local high school rather than taking in hundreds of students from across the city.

A lot of BSHS alumni and perhaps parents will object to this idea, because they think the school’s success and identity are closely linked to its selective entry program, but I think that view undervalues the strength of the school’s amazing culture, which reinforces itself from one generation to the next and is not based primarily on whether students are locals or out-of-catchment. BSHS has changed its enrolment policies many times in the past, and has nevertheless managed to retain a strong identity and culture of success. I think BSHS will remain the great school it is even if the proportion of out-of-catchment merit-entry students decreases significantly, particularly if they introduce a means-tested intake for students from marginalised backgrounds.


A Smaller, Locals-Only High School at Dutton Park

In addition to building a large new school within the 4101 postcode and rethinking BSHS’s enrolment policy, it might still be worthwhile to build a new local catchment public high school at the Dutton Park site to cater to the immediate surrounding neighbourhood. A lot of Dutton Park and Gabba Hill parents are rightly excited by the prospect of a new high school in their neighbourhood, in large part because it means their kids won’t have to commute all the way over to West End, but also because a high school in the 4102 postcode would contribute to this community having its own distinct local identity rather than getting subsumed into 4101. A local school with a small catchment and no selective entry program would be a very different kind of school to the one that the State Government is currently proposing, but this option should also remain on the table for discussion.

If there is a genuine need for a small local high school in Dutton Park, this should be considered in addition to proposals for a larger new high school in West End/South Brisbane. If the State Government were willing to make developers and other big businesses contribute their fair share towards the cost of public infrastructure and services, there would be more than enough money for new schools in both postcodes. However it might make more sense to instead improve active transport links down to Yeronga State High School, which is currently under capacity and also has more land available to expand down the track if necessary.


Don't Dismiss Alternatives Too Quickly

I think these other sites and options do deserve further serious consideration, and should not be dismissed too readily. The State Government’s current proposal is clearly not the best possible response to future demand and existing capacity issues in Brisbane’s inner-south side.

In the government's Precinct Selection Report decision-making criteria, the Dutton Park site outperformed other options significantly on Sub-Criteria 1C, 2A, 2B, 2D and 3D, and did a lot better than it deserved to on 3A. But these criteria scores would have turned out quite differently if:
- there was serious consideration of scrapping selective entry for both BSHS and the new school (relevant to 1C, 2D)
- there was flexibility regarding the target 2021 start date (relevant to 2A, 2D)
- there was a genuine commitment to walkable neighbourhoods and active transport (relevant to 2B, 2D and 3A)
- the government was willing to spend more money now on land acquisition in order to save money in the long-term on transport infrastructure and services (2B), and
- if the government wasn't also trying to use this project to accelerate for-profit development and gentrification (relevant to 3D)

I respectfully call on the State Government to slow down in making this decision, to seriously consider the inherent problems of selective-entry high schools, to give greater weight to active transport factors in deciding the location and catchment of the new school, and to empower and collaborate with residents rather than treating us as though we are not capable of making intelligent decisions ourselves.



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