It means that parents flock to some schools, but bypass others, leaving some bursting and others struggling. And from a policy perspective, spending further billions of dollars on new schools is hard to justify while classrooms at other schools sit empty.
A failure to apply the enrolment policy consistently has also led to a patchy system.
Most principals obey enrolment rules, but some indulge in what their peers describe as empire building, or taking too many non-local enrolments – and selecting the most high-achieving ones – to build their own population and prestige. Effectively, that means some schools are robbing others of their best students.
So from the department’s point of view, a crackdown makes sense.
But curtailing choice will not go down well with families. Principals are worried about some elements of the changes, but those most upset will be parents, who in some cases will be told their child cannot have a place at their chosen school.
Some schools were already closed to non-locals or siblings due to popularity or space constraints, especially high schools; excluding demountables from the calculation of a school’s population cap will put more schools in that category.
Out-of-area students will still be accepted at schools that are below their cap, and current students will not be affected.
This would be an easier policy to defend if all public schools were equal. But they are not. Reputation is a spurious way to choose a school, but other differences between public schools are real and worrying to parents.
Some have brand-new, state-of-the-art buildings; others haven’t been upgraded in decades. Some have outstanding principals who inspire their teachers, which translates to high-quality learning for students; others don’t.
The other challenge in selling this policy is the question of how schools in rapidly-growing areas will accommodate their local populations in their permanent buildings. The answer will likely be changing catchments to usher kids into emptier schools.
In the eastern suburbs, for example, Coogee South, Coogee, Clovelly and Bronte primary schools are full. But enrolments at the newly-upgraded Rainbow Street, which has a capacity of 1000, are falling, and are now below 400.
To fix that problem, the Rainbow Street catchment could be enlarged, which will be particularly upsetting for families who bought a house because it was in the Coogee Public zone. (If a child is already in a local school and their catchment is changed by the department, their sibling can still attend that school.)
A consistent and clear approach to enrolment makes sense, but it will trigger legitimate parent angst. And the beneficiary, at least in the short term, may be Catholic schools, as parents exercise choice by opting out of the public system altogether.
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Jordan Baker is Education Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald