The Rise of High-Rise Schools in Australia

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Ever seen the movie the Fifth Element? Vision of a futuristic multi-levelled world where cars no longer drive with four wheels on the ground, but soar within narrow vertical channels between buildings (see image below). Not that long ago this world of Le Courbusier’s machines for living seemed nothing more than a fanciful (and some might say failed) experiment in social housing, something that happened in Hong Kong or Shanghai NOT in Australia.

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It began the other day with a random campaign that popped up whilst doing research about parents protesting the proposed relocation of Perth Modern School into a 25 storey high-rise with no visible consideration for open space. It seems crazy in Australia (the land of ‘sweeping plains’) given the volume of available land, but it seems the Perth project is not a one-off and in the larger metropoli of Sydney and Melbourne several of these are already open or underway in terms of planning etc. This folks, as our cities (particularly our inner cities) become more dense with population is going to be our future. The Le Corbusiers of the 21st century rising up (see images below).
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Now I have no objection fundamentally to classrooms in high or even primary schools being on multiple levels- kids learn equally as well in classrooms of either kind. My concern is about the open-space component that has always been a primary asset of any school.

Space to play, space to play sport or games, space to experience the elements, to breathe fresh air and sunshine!

To be fair many of these proposals do consider open space, but open space as a rooftop or terrace (or worse an indoor area) is not the same as a school yard with all the love, wear and tear, history and culture of years and years of occupation. I understand that sports fields and trees, play equipment, paths and furniture all cost money and take resources to maintain, but surely that is returned three-fold in terms of healthy well-rounded students?

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Haileybury College, a private school in Melbourne has just recently opened its doors in King Street, West of the Melbourne CBD (see images below). It is 10 storeys high and boasts rooftop gardens and sports courts and an indoor running track. Open space for its primary students (yes it has students from Year 7-12) is the Flagstaff Gardens opposite. I applaud the idea of broader city connection by the teachers and students, but question its practicalities. The gardens set aside as public open space for the people of Melbourne was never intended for use by multitudes of school children and what about the other residents, office workers and others (some rate payers to the City of Melbourne who maintain it) who may also want to use the facilities at the same time. My other misgiving is that we already currently have enough issue with the liability / paperwork / supervision issue teachers have around excursions, so what if classes going to the Flagstaff Gardens regularly is nothing more than well-meant intent?

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In the recent Perth Modern School campaign, questions have been raised around where kids will kick a football or what kind of issues will that bring to traffic below. Sounds amusing (see campaign logo below) but I think its a fair call to say that the opportunities for kids to develop gross motor skills and become the sports stars of tomorrow may be visibly reduced. Not to mention the already omnipresent elephants in the room; obesity and myopia (sort-sightedness) and their counterparts diabetes, asthma, ADHD, Vitamin D deficiency etc. Our kids already have enough to contend with.

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To be fair to the high-rise schools, Haileybury claims to be lean and green, with children catch public transport to school each day or walking with very few instances of car-drop offs. Again all sounds good, so long as that actually is what happens….we are very conditioned in using our cars in Australia, inner-city or not.

So what’s the answer I hear you say. Well to be honest I don’t know. Based on our current growth and our government’s desire for it, I can’t see it abating any time soon and development in our cities is going ahead in large leaps and bounds, but something’s got to give.

I don’t speak naively either, but as someone who worked for a period of time in Osaka, Japan in a multi-storey early years school for children 0-6 years. The outdoor play area (for close on 70 kids) was synthetic and pitiful, equipment and toys non-existent and accidents frequent. We had an indoor gymnasium connected to the outdoor play area but it was often used by other classes and as such unavailable and not particularly suitable for extending the play area. The reason for this….academic learning came first and everything else was unimportant or insignificant. This is an educational philosophy revered by the west for its achievement on standardised tests and many think something Australia should be aspiring towards.

Peter Gray quotes Jiang Xuequin (a prominent Chinese Educator) in talking about the Asian Education System in his recent article ‘The Play Deficit’ in Aeon Digital Magazine. “The failings of the memorisation system are well known: lack of social and practical skills, absence of self-discipline and imagination, loss of curiosity and passion for learning….one way we’ll know were starting to succeed is when those scores (on standardised tests) come down”.

Let’s not forget in all of this that children’s health and wellbeing, curiosity, passion, connection and most of all the opportunity for autonomous, self-directed learning is at the centre of quality education. The school yard is a classroom for life and academic achievement in state of the art, architect designed buildings will only carry kids so far.

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