Blink and you might miss Randazzo Park in Albert Street, Brunswick. It’s small and unprepossessing. But at least it’s public open space – rare in the inner north – and besides, what better place to watch the cranes? Cranes on building sites that is, as the building boom ramps up nearby.
It’s peaceful in Randazzo Park, nestled between rows of townhouses. But it never used to be. Either side of you once stood Brunswick Primary School and Brunswick East High School, and lunchtimes must have been raucous affairs indeed. They were both demolished in the 1990s to make way for townhouses, on the assumption that children would never return to the area.
Brunswick East High School was merged with Brunswick High School and Brunswick Technical School to form Brunswick Secondary College. While the College is now thriving, it is located in the former technical school buildings in Dawson Street. But Albert Street is silent on its state education past.
Brunswick Primary School was merged with Brunswick East Primary, a red-brick classic some distance away. Brunswick East Primary is also thriving, although starting to experience the over-crowding which is now typical of inner suburban schools. But Albert Street is silent on its state education past.
There is an extra dimension to the loss of Brunswick Primary, which was one of the original Victorian schools opened in the 1870s. In 1972, the Education Department acquiesced to local requests for the Henry Bastow building to be replaced by something bigger. So when the Kennett Government closed the school in the 1990s there were no heritage issues surrounding the bulldozing of a 1970s pre-cast concrete monstrosity supplied by the Housing Commission. Ironically, if the Bastow building had not been replaced it would have had heritage listing, and been converted into apartments, as occurred with South Melbourne (Dorcas Street) Primary and Yarra Park Primary.
For the record, Victoria was the first state to enact heritage legislation. In 1974. Too late for Brunswick Primary’s Bastow building. And today, visitors to Brunswick East Primary are intrigued by the presence of another school’s Great War Honour Board in its foyer.
Meanwhile, back in Albert Street you don’t know any of this. But you might remark upon the number of families with school-aged children you see. And then there’s the cranes, dancing gracefully overhead.
What have we learned from the past? Let’s see now:
- Ensure that fine old school buildings acquire heritage listing at the earliest opportunity.
- Revisit the heritage listing regularly on a category basis. While original Henry Bastow schools have been heritage listed for years, red-brick schools from the 1890s to 1920 are protected by council determined heritage overlays only. It is time for a general review.
- The memories of the lost schools must be formally acknowledged, whether it be in Albert Street, Brunswick, or in Highland Avenue, Oakleigh East or in a rural picnic ground.
Coburg High School began life as Coburg Higher Elementary School in 1912, the first post primary school in Victoria. In 1916 it was rebadged a ‘high school’ and moved to its new building in Bell Street. During its 80 years it was extended and expanded, with an array of architectural styles.
For much of its history the school was known for its high scholastic standards. In the post war period it was a magnet for students from Commonwealth countries in the Asia-Pacific region. However, by the mid-1990s declining enrolments in the inner northern suburbs saw Coburg High School merged with Preston Technical School and Coburg East Primary School. The resultant Moreland City College was located in the old Coburg Teachers College site, until it was closed in 2004.
The High School for Coburg campaign highlighted the extraordinary number of local secondary schools closed in the 1990s. Apart from Coburg High there were: Hadfield High, Newlands High, Moreland High, Coburg Technical School and more. That it took so long for the Coburg campaign to succeed shows the serious flaws in the Education Department’s planning methodology.
While we should celebrate the tireless efforts of Cate Hall and others to rectify the Coburg education ‘black hole’, a ghastly reminder of planning failures remains in Bell Street. Anyone who frequents the Moreland Town Hall is aware of the weed-infested eyesore across the road: what’s left of the former Coburg High School.
Following its closure in 1993, the once well-regarded school was sold by the Education Department to developers for about $900,000. Since then the site has been on-sold four times, most recently for well in excess of $10m. And every time it’s on-sold the new owners expand the scope of their proposed development to justify the initial outlay. Over the years the heavily vandalised buildings were eventually demolished, leaving a wasteland with only one winner: the whipper-snipper guy.
Here is an opportunity to really learn from the past. Let’s tick them off:
- Resist the temptation to sell such sites at bargain basement prices. Governments will never be able to afford to buy them back years later once demographic change brings the children back. And they will return: it’s in our DNA.
- If the buildings have heritage status, then reuse them for another purpose until the children return.
- If the buildings have no heritage value, then demolish and convert the site to public open space. There’s not enough open space in the inner suburbs and even if it takes only 10 years for the children to return, that’s 10 years of better health options for the community. Ten years: think about it.
Ten years. Meanwhile, it’s been 23 years since anything meaningful happened at the former Coburg High School site.
Moreland High School opened as Moreland Central School in 1947 on The Avenue, Coburg. It became a High School in 1953 and in the years that followed the original red brick building was augmented with grim Soviet style extensions.
It closed its doors in 1991 and was acquired by Kangan Batman TAFE (now Kangan Institute). The Moreland campus offered courses in community services, health, language studies and business. Then in 2011 the Kangan Institute closed the Moreland campus and relocated to more suitable, purpose-built facilities at Docklands. It has remained boarded up ever since, with vandalism clearly evident.
Kangan Institute is currently negotiating site disposal with the Education Department. The site is protected by a heritage overlay – typical of red brick schools in Moreland – and in 2014 the Institute approached Moreland City Council to have the land rezoned. While this was rejected at the time, it was on the grounds that no community consultation had occurred. But Council recognises that the site presents “significant redevelopment opportunities” and may take a different view next time. Council may not own the land, but if it stands firm against rezoning overtures then the planning debacles made in Prahran, Richmond and Coburg may be avoided.
When you look at the sorry state of the old school in The Avenue, complete with boarded up windows, graffiti, smashed glass and general decay, you can hear shrill voices behind you. They come from the Kids On The Avenue Children’s Centre across the road. It’s an odd contrast: the vitality and excitement of pre-schoolers on one side, and the silent ghost school on the other. Hardly an aspirational message for the little ones.
What have we learned from the past? Let’s see now:
- Developers would love to acquire such a large site if it went to market. But it should be retained to help address the looming shortage of schools in the fast growing inner north. Sell-off enthusiasts should catch the Route 19 tram up to Bell Street and spend some time at the old Coburg High School site. Never again.
- The heritage overlay would apply to the original red-brick building, and not the later Soviet style concrete additions. This means that the latter could be demolished to make way for invaluable public open space, while the heritage building could be used as a community facility.
- Moreland City Council should seek to elevate the heritage status of the red-brick schools in the district by applying to the Victorian Heritage Register (VHR). Heritage overlays offer zoning protection, but full registration ensures that historical plaques will be added.
- However, if a new coherent planning model was introduced, then the heritage building may be converted to apartments a la Dorcas Street Primary School. But ‘coherent’ means that Government, Council, developers and the community are satisfied that education infrastructure requirements have been addressed in the long term.
- North Melbourne
In 1990 there were three primary schools in North Melbourne, but now there’s only one. The surviving school, in Errol Street, is experiencing a massive surge in enrolments, thanks to the resumption of population growth fuelled by a development boom.
Today, North Melbourne Primary has well over 700 students, and is forecast to reach 2,166 in 2031. Corridors have been turned into makeshift classrooms and children are forced to sit on the floor. And while relocatable buildings are being installed, this is a band aid solution to a systemic problem. It’s also a solution that consumes the playgrounds so desperately needed by growing bodies.
So what happened to the other primary schools? The buildings are still standing, but they’re no longer child-friendly. West Melbourne Primary was acquired by the Salvation Army and became its Flagstaff Crisis Accommodation centre. And the Boundary Road School is now DLS Food Laboratories, although visitors may be confused by the retention of the “North Melbourne Primary School 2566” signage.
History footnote: Boundary Road was originally an 1883 red-brick classic, but was demolished by the Education Department in the 1970s and replaced by a ‘modern’ structure. There was no heritage legislation to protect it at the time.
Back in Errol Street, families want more than a relocatable future. When will there be a Docklands school to ease the pressure on North Melbourne Primary? Possibly, maybe, if the School Provision Review of the Docklands Area is any guide. Although whether many people view education in terms of ‘market shares’ is questionable.
Yet the consultants using highfalutin language persuaded the Victorian Government that not only a Docklands school was required, but a second primary school in North Melbourne as well. The October 2016 announcement was short on detail for the latter, with the Docklands school the immediate priority. So “over the next few years” will have to do for the time being.
Fortunately, a second North Melbourne primary school is staring us in the face, for in Queensberry Street sits the former Hotham State School (no. 307). This 1882 red-brick classic was closed in 1935 and used for a variety of purposes thereafter. In 2009 it became the Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership, an Education Department body. How ironic. Well, here’s a chance for the Department to show some educational leadership: move the Bastow Institute and re-establish a primary school on the site.
What have we learned from the past? Try this:
- Don’t rely on consultants. Staff up the Education Department with suitable proactive planning skills, so that ‘surprise’ school census figures are kept to a minimum. The skills are available: just ask the Our Children Our Schools alliance.
- The High School for Coburg campaign was resisted for years, with the government of the day insisting that parents use distant (renamed) secondary schools instead. Reason eventually prevailed, and the new Coburg High School is filling fast. Memo to the Education Department: don’t make the same mistake in North Melbourne.
- The Bastow Institute could be moved, thereby freeing up an ideal site for a desperately needed second primary school in the North Melbourne area.
Upon approaching Orrong Romanis Reserve in Orrong Road, Prahran, you may notice a curious shield in the pavement. What does ‘TO GREATER THINGS… 1967’ mean? The playing fields suggest an answer, but you’d be wrong. For this is where Prahran High School once stood. Demolished after its closure in 1996, the concrete shield is all that remains. At least the site was converted to public open space, a rarity in the inner suburbs.
So Prahran was without a secondary school when urban renewal saw the children come back. They filled the few remaining primary schools and by 2010 it was clear that a planning debacle had occurred in the 1990s. Politicians of all flavours started looking for available land to build a new school, in an area where land values had skyrocketed.
A bizarre solution was announced in 2014, when the Napthine Government earmarked $20 million to build a new school through co-location with the Victorian College for the Deaf on St Kilda Road. This plan didn’t last long: once neighbouring Wesley College purchased a fraction of the site for $19 million, the new Andrews Government abandoned the co-location idea altogether.
But the 2014 proposal was problematic on other grounds. In particular, the likely negative impact on deaf students if a secondary school was co-located. Despite all good intentions, children with special needs would be swamped by the large and growing secondary school population. This happens. Ask parents of ASD children about special needs support in Victorian Government schools, and they’ll tell you it’s almost unobtainable. The Victorian College for the Deaf made the right call, as did the Andrews Government.
Now a new solution has emerged, with a feasibility study underway to convert the former Swinburne University site on High Street into a High School. While it’s good to see more level-heads have entered the picture, concerns remain. The first is scope, as an enrolment capacity of only 650 students is going to be exceeded very quickly. The second is time, as the community consultation phase means the new school is still years away. And the third is open space, or lack of it.
TO GREATER THINGS? Former Prahran High School students must shake their heads in wonder at their reunions. At least Orrong Road has some decent parkland these days.
What have we learned from the past? Let’s see:
- Governments must expect that land values in the inner suburbs will continue to increase at a dramatic rate. Any school site sales are likely to prove economically unsound in the long run.
- Government schools should be built where they are needed without compromising the education of children with special needs.
- The conversion of a former school site to public open space clearly benefits the local community. However, treating it as a temporary measure could be problematic. Reclaiming the land to build a school may yield a public outcry that kills the idea.
Preston Girls High School opened in 1928 in Cooma Street, Preston. The original red-brick building and additions are surrounded by ample playing fields. It closed in 2013 citing unsustainably low enrolments, but the booming enrolments in the local primary schools told another story. Clearly, a coeducational secondary school would be required in Preston within a few years.
Fortunately, the Education Department appeared to have learnt something from the High School for Coburg campaign. In June 2014, the Department announced that the former school would be retained in order to be relaunched as a co-educational secondary school sometime in the future. The recently formed High School for Preston campaign was delighted with the news, coming only a month after the State Budget finally provided funds for building the future Coburg High School. In an election year it appeared that inner suburban government schools had finally achieved pork-barrel status.
Long written off as Labor Party strongholds, the gentrification of the inner suburbs has changed the electoral map. Many seats are now marginal, with The Greens, Labor and the Coalition engaged in a fascinating tussle for control. Government schools are now a hot topic, and it’s about time.
In November 2016 there was a strange media event on the steps of the former school, when the Education Minister announced that it would indeed be reopened as a co-educational high school. But we knew that. Telling the assembled guests that “subject to budget decisions” it would not re-open until 2019/2020 at the earliest is not much of a story. Maybe they’ll reconvene during the 2018 election campaign for an update.
What have we learned from the past? Let’s see:
- Timing is everything. Preston Girls High School closed just as the primary schools in the area were running out of room. This made it easier for demographers to avoid the mistakes of the 1990s and allowed the Education Department to let the former school ‘lie fallow’ for several years.
- How long should a public building remain unused, and does it matter? A full range of community options should be canvassed.
- Councils must ensure that district schools are considered for heritage overlays on an ongoing basis. Consistency among councils is to be encouraged.
Richmond used to have three secondary schools. Richmond Technical School and Richmond Girls High School were both located behind the Town Hall, while the coeducational Richmond High School was on Yarra Boulevard. All three were closed in 1992, and each had a different fate. Richmond Girls is now Lynall Hall Community School; Richmond Technical School is now a police station and a McDonald’s restaurant; while the Richmond High School site is now occupied by Melbourne Girls’ College.
What’s wrong with this picture? That’s right: boys have not had a secondary school in Richmond for over 20 years. And now there’s a lot more of them (a lot more girls too).
The Richmond High School Choices campaign was launched in 2006, but it took until 2014 for the issue to gain traction. The opposition Labor Party went to the election promising that Richmond would get a new coeducational High School. But even after gaining office, the realities of opening new schools in the inner suburbs always involves a major hurdle: how to find sufficient land when competing with cashed-up developers.
In 2015 the Government announced that land had been identified behind the old Richmond Town Hall, close to where Richmond Technical School used to be. More recently, an additional site became available on nearby Highett Street, a site that once housed Richmond Central School (closed 1987).
While the opening of a new High School in 2018 is good news for the people of Richmond, we note that it will double as a community facility. The same will apply to the new South Melbourne Primary in Ferrars Street, and can be expected to become a consistent feature of future school design. But we can’t help wondering how schools with broad community access will be able to comply with the new Child Safe Standards that came into force on 1 August 2016.
What have we learned from the past? Let’s see:
- Boys need secondary schools. It’s a legal requirement until they are 16. So governments must provide local schools for both genders.
- Inner city schools have finally become a political issue. Irate parents are becoming aware of this and the political parties will no longer be able to assuage them with platitudes.
- The new Child Safety Standards are aimed at managing the risk of child abuse in schools. New school design that incorporates broad community use of the same facilities will necessitate more stringent security monitoring. The associated costs and privacy considerations will need to be factored in to project planning.
- South Melbourne
How much would you pay for a heritage listed South Melbourne apartment? Plenty, I’m sure. Would you like one behind the market or closer to Kings Way? Talk about position, position. And the local schools are handy: you’d be living in one!
Here’s the conundrum. South Melbourne no longer has any operational primary schools, but you can buy a prestige apartment in either of the two closed in the 1990s. Both the Eastern Road (Emerald Hill) and Dorcas Street primary schools were closed due to declining enrolments, but their heritage status saved the buildings themselves. The Dorcas Street school is particularly striking: a Charles Webb design, it opened in 1881 and closed in 1996. Even though it has been converted to prestige apartments, the Victorian Heritage Register plaque out front acknowledges its proud history.
Now the gentrification wheel has come full circle: the children have returned to South Melbourne, but where are their schools? Not the former school they might live in, but one with teachers and students.
For several years the Two Schools Now campaign has been pushing for new schools in the inner south, where the population explosion has exposed the folly of planning decisions made 20 years ago. In 2014 the Victorian Government acknowledged their concerns by purchasing land in Ferrars Street for a new primary school. Planning is well advanced, with a school catering for over 525 students expected to open in 2018.
The site purchased is small, measuring little more than 5,000 square metres. That’s tiny by school standards, and so Victoria’s first vertical school design is on the drawing board. Sure, vertical schools may be de rigueur overseas, but we are talking about Australian primary school children. That’s right, five year olds in a five storey building! And as for the childhood obesity epidemic, there’s not much public open space at the industrial end of Ferrars Street.
There’ll be many more vertical schools to come in the inner suburbs, because available land is in such short supply. Still, it’s galling to note that we’ve been reduced to this, thanks to some appalling planning decisions in the 1990s. And it’s sad to reflect that the former Dorcas Street Primary School is only 200 metres from the future school.
What have we learned from the past? Let’s see:
- Being on the Victorian Heritage Register (VHR) saved the former South Melbourne primary schools from the wrecking ball. More fine old schools should acquire that heritage status.
- Although the VHR provides for a formal plaque to be placed on a building, the information included is mostly architectural. In the case of schools the plaque should be augmented with information about the people who attended over the years.
- If vertical schools are to become a feature of education in Victoria, then land acquisitions need to be carefully considered to optimise open space options. Particularly for primary schools.