Inspired by the success of sharing their facilities during the pandemic, independent schools across Australia are continuing to keep their doors open to their local communities, says Melbourne University’s Dr Ben Cleveland, who has been studying school-community connections for more than three years. “There’s a propensity for independent schools to want to be seen to be doing things in the public interest and not to be enclaves,” he says. “The reputational angle is increasingly important.”
During the lengthy lockdowns in Melbourne, schools opened their playing fields to provide access to outdoor spaces and some relief for locked-down communities, Dr Cleveland says. This open-gates policy has continued post-Covid in many cases, he adds. “People found it was largely quite productive.”
Improved community connections can also pave the way for smoother negotiations with local residents when school upgrades and construction are in the planning stages. With enrolments increasing, building renewal is on the agenda for most independent schools.
In the five years to 2021, NSW independent schools spent $3.9bn on land and construction. The expenditure is likely to be in a similar range per capita in other states. Upgrades and new building construction inevitably affect the local neighbourhood, and residents complain of construction noise and congestion, blocked views and overshadowed premises. Compromises and offers to share facilities can help smooth the passage of school upgrades.
Chris Duncan, chief executive of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA) and a former independent school principal, says schools have to manage relations with their neighbours extremely carefully, and early consultation is critical on major upgrades.
“You’re never going to make everybody happy because, particularly in well-established areas, a school that is going to be expanded is going to have implications for traffic, motor vehicles and everything else,” he says. “Some independent schools function 24 hours a day, they often have boarders, so they’re busy places. They want to harmonise those relationships as much as possible, the last thing they want to do is create any sort of enmity with their neighbours.”
Sydney Grammar this year came to an agreement with affected Rushcutters Bay residents, reportedly offering limited access to proposed new three- to four-storey sporting facilities to provide some measure of compensation for construction disruption and blocked residential outlooks. Negotiations began early with “comprehensive community engagement”, the school posted on its website, in order to provide residents with relevant information about the project and to “ensure their feedback could be considered”.
Dr Cleveland’s Australian Research Council project, Building Connections: Schools as Community Hubs, is looking at how school facilities can be shared with the community, rather than whether schools should share.
“All schools can be doing more, not only in terms of offering facilities but also partnering with other organisations to do that effectively,” he says, adding that sporting organisations and health and recreation providers can work with schools to set up effective sharing programs.
He says schools across Australia comprise a “huge public infrastructure sitting vacant much of the time”, but it can be difficult to push reluctant public schools, let alone independent schools, into opening their doors to the public. Principals and school boards fear vandalism and public liability issues and the security of students is of paramount concern.
The design of the school campus makes informal public access easier in some cases, Cleveland says, adding that careful and comprehensive planning is needed to ensure everyone is comfortable with opening the gates.
He notes that a number of independent schools in Melbourne share their facilities with local residents and sporting organisations, citing Methodist Ladies College in Kew as one that has a “long history of sharing their facilities” for sporting and community events.
For her part, North Sydney Mayor Zoe Baker thinks it’s time all independent schools shared their facilities – both sporting and cultural – with their neighbours.
“North Sydney has doubled its population in the last 30 years, but it hasn’t doubled the open space or community facilities,” she says. “Schools are closed for so much of the year and much of the week; there has to be a way to have that interaction.”
She has written to the relevant independent schools, which include Shore, Wenona, SCEGGS Redlands, and Aloysius, and she says they are “mostly open to the idea”.
North Sydney, Ms Baker points out, is perhaps the densest education precinct in Australia, with 16 primary and high schools in just under 11sq km, and these schools are constantly upgrading premises and erecting buildings.
They are some of the largest landholders in the district, she says, and there is some resident resentment because the schools don’t pay rates and only share their facilities on an ad hoc basis, often dependent on the goodwill of a particular principal.
Margery Evans, chief executive of the Association of Independent Schools NSW, pictured left, says many principals are willing to share.
“Many independent schools already make their facilities available for community use where mutually suitable arrangements can be agreed that resolve issues such as child protection, legal liability, cleaning, security, etc,” she says.