A new high school for Coburg – what are the lessons?

Coburg's "Black Hole" - no high school for year 7 students (existing high schools in red - grey schools don't offer full service)

There’s a fascinating struggle going on between the Education Department and residents of Coburg about the need for a new junior high school in the area (see here and here).

The map shows what residents call the “black hole” and this story in The Age gives the history of high school closures in the area:

“The troubled Moreland City College closed in 2004. Coburg High School shut its doors in 1993 and is now the site for a planned 510 apartments. Newlands High School, now part of the Pentridge Prison development, folded in 1993. Moreland High School taught its final class in 1991 and is now Kangan Batman TAFE”.

The Education Department says there isn’t sufficient demand to meet the minimum size requirements for a junior high school and that there are others nearby with adequate capacity to take Coburg children from year seven. The residents argue that these schools are either too far away or unsuitable.

There are two existing high schools within the circle, shown in grey on the map, but they are not full-service schools. One is Coburg Senior High (co-ed, year 10 upwards) and the other is Preston Girls College (girls 7-12 only). The obvious “new junior school” solution is to expand Coburg Senior High.

I’m not concerned with the reasonableness of either side’s case, but I am interested in the issue of how far teenagers should reasonably be expected to travel to school. I also think there’s some insight to be had here into the issue of whether or not there is spare infrastructure capacity in inner suburbs.

My trusty GIS software tells me the “black hole” on the map is a circle of almost 4km radius. It is ringed on the outside by existing high schools, so the maximum distance any child living within the circle would have to travel would be no more than 4.5 km as the crow flies (I’m being conservative so I’ve added in a bit of extra distance).

Simple geometry shows that 75% of the area within the circle is therefore within 2.5 km of at least one existing high school and 90% is within 3.5 km of one.

What’s a reasonable distance to travel? My son takes two trains each way (about 11 km). My daughter, who starts high school next year, will take a train and a tram (about 9 km). Once you get beyond walking distance and have to use public transport to get to school, I can’t see that whether a student travels 2 km or 8 km matters that much.

And students seem to be travelling more. Something like a third of high school children now go to private schools and many travel from the far reaches of the metropolitan area. The State opened a third selective entry high school this year at outer suburban Berwick and another one will open on the opposite edge of town at Werribee next year. And there are specialist State high schools such as the John Monash Science School at Monash University and the Victorian College of the Arts at South Melbourne.

Coburg Senior High proudly points out that its students come from a wide variety of suburbs across the metropolitan area… from Melton, Williamstown, Middle Park, and Richmond to Carlton, Fawkner, Coburg, Ivanhoe, Kew and Pascoe Vale South.

What’s really important is the accessibility of schools by public transport and I’d be surprised if that’s a serious problem in the inner and middle ring suburbs around Coburg (the centroid of that circle is 8 km from Melbourne Town Hall). If it is then that should be tackled directly and the costs factored into the case for a new school.

This debate throws further light on my contention that there isn’t likely to be much “spare infrastructure capacity” in the inner suburbs. In addition to the arguments I’ve previously made, allowance also has to be made for the possibility that infrastructure that has an alternative use may very well have been sold off or converted long ago.

Another point is that even if there is spare capacity, new residents gentrifying an area may not find the existing infrastructure acceptable. They might, for example, be unhappy with the demographics of some of the existing schools’ student body and resist sending their children there. Or they might find the subject offerings too limited.

Or they might demand that high schools be geographically closer but nevertheless offer a full suite of services without regard to the traditional arguments about economies of scale. Existing spare capacity will thus end up only being notional if parents dismiss it out of hand.

My observation that spare infrastructure capacity in the inner suburbs is probably a myth is not an anti-density point of view. Regular readers know I favour higher densities within established suburbs. But some of the standard assumptions about redevelopment need to be reviewed.

In particular, there is need for a better understanding of the full costs associated with redevelopment. It might be that a more formal system of developer contributions to finance the expansion of existing infrastructure is needed not only in fringe areas but also within established suburbs.

There’re also some insights raised by this debate about economies of scale but I’ll leave those to another day.

7 Comments on “A new high school for Coburg – what are the lessons?”

  1. […] tension is the call by Coburg residents for a local high school. This is an issue I posted about a few weeks ago – parents are concerned (in part) about how far their children have to travel out of the area to […]

  2. […] I’ve discussed on a number of occasions the very high probability that whatever spare capacity existed in the inner city and inner suburbs has already been used up e.g. here, here, here, here […]

  3. […] greater loss of open space in the former). Nor it seems have they seen the number of inner suburban high schools that have […]

  4. A very old posting I’m aware, but I don’t believe I read it when it went up.

    A couple of points for interests sake if nothing else.

    Firstly, as you would be aware, this area is undergoing some massive urban redevelopment. There are hundreds if not thousands of flats that are getting fitted out ready to hit the market, and thousands more to come, some of that is up in the air again with the major developers pulling out, but hopefully we’ll see things get back on track and the project starting off again. In total there should be about 7,000 new dwellings in the Pentridge sight alone, with other sections of Sydney road on the precinct plan with the aim to get some residential development above and behind the shop fronts I believe.

    Secondly, the high-school in the middle that is gone has indeed been demolished, but that’s all that’s happened. The site is sitting, vacant, waiting for a developer to come in and do something with it.

    It seems to me, the sensible thing would be to build another school, or at the very least have the state government buy the land and hold onto it until another school is necessary. There might be some spare capacity in schools nearby currently, but if density is going to be increasing a lot it’s unlikely to be enough.

    Additionally having a school in the area might boost the property in the area a little, which may help with the commercial viability of the Pentridge sight.

    • Alan Davies says:

      It’s an interesting issue that seems to have gone dead with the change of government.

      The proposed redevelopment of the old Coburg High School site for housing is pretty advanced – see this earlier post (don’t know current status though) – so the option of using it for a school again is presumably gone.

      I’d be disappointed if the Education Department wasn’t aware of all the new housing in the pipeline and the implications for high school demand. I presume they’ve factored all that in to their calculations.

      But it’s highly likely there’ll come a point when spare capacity in existing schools is exceeded, The easy solution will be to cram more and more facilities onto existing schools, but eventually school communities will get jack of that. Just where would the government buy a new site suitable for a school?

  5. […] that some infrastructure no longer exists – it’s been  closed down or sold off. For example, four high schools have closed in Melbourne’s north over the last twenty […]

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