An elite education at a bargain basement price? Alison Barclay reports on why Melbourne families are scrambling for a foothold in the right school zone.
ONE would never dare ask The Age to hold the front page, but on December 17 the newspaper seemed to do just that for Morganna Magee.
‘‘Balwyn’s on a high,’’ it blared, atop a report about Balwyn High School’s stunning VCE results, with 35 per cent of its candidates earning an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank of 90 or above. ‘‘This is Melbourne’s most sought after school zone,’’ it added. And that, on the day of the auction of her father’s three-bedroom Balwyn home, was fine by Magee.
‘‘We were smack bang in the middle of the zone,’’ she says. ‘‘Even so, we were so worried about how it was going to go. Then, on auction day, The Age put out that front page and there was a huge crowd. Most of the people inquiring about the house were inquiring about the zone. It was wonderful.’’
Quoted at $660,000, the villa unit sold for $760,000 to a Malaysian businessman who plans to rent it out – probably to a family desperate to be ‘‘in the zone’’.
Balwyn High is not a selective school; neither are Northcote High, Camberwell High and Melbourne Girls College, or McKinnon, East Doncaster and Canterbury Girls’ secondary colleges. All are in areas that have other state schools, but a combination of consistently strong exam results, good student culture and impressive facilities – and a certain mystique, has lifted the status of these state schools to the equal of Melbourne’s poshest private academies – without the $20,000-plus annual fees.
‘‘It’s a private school education at a public school price,’’ says Richmond dad David Trounce, whose daughter Stella thrived at Melbourne Girls’ College.
‘‘Balwyn High really works to your strengths,’’ says school alumna Magee, now a professional photographer. ‘‘Balwyn was full of kids who wanted to do well and make their parents proud ... it was not cool to be a terrible student.’’
It’s not just about the VCE. Even primary schools such as Clifton Hill and Gardenvale in Brighton East have imposed a strict enrolment limit. The only certain way to win a place is to live within their incredible shrinking zones – a situation that creates remarkable distortions in the real-estate market and anxiety among families fearful of being shut out of a “good education” and of losing the right to attend their nearest public school.
In inner-city areas hit hard by school closures in the 1990s, pressure on the remaining schools has created an aura of exclusivity. Port Melbourne Primary recently imposed an enrolment cap of 450, saying it could not cope with all the applications from the school-less Docklands.
‘‘Real-estate agents know people are thinking about these things, and they keep up to date with the zones,’’ says Ian James, managing director of JPP Buyer Advocates. ‘‘In McKinnon, two identical houses, each on a 600 square metre block, one inside the zone, the other one street outside the zone – a $100,000 difference. With the average McKinnon price of $800,000–$1 million, that’s a 10 per cent difference.’’
In Doncaster, agent Chris Savvides of Philip Webb says a house in the East Doncaster Secondary zone will fetch 5 to 10 per cent more than one just out of it. As for rentals; ‘‘Our busiest time is the start of the school year. And the school does check addresses. They ask for proof of ownership, of a rental agreement, or a rates notice; they have to be strict, otherwise they’d have 2000 kids at their door.’’
The WPB Property Group, in its 2009 check of 519 Victorian secondary schools against home sales data, found properties within 2km of zoned schools cost 10 to 15 per cent more. ‘‘In most suburbs this represents a minimum price tag of an additional $60,000 and in some instances can add hundreds of thousands of dollars in value to a property.’’
A mother of a Gardenvale Primary student was astonished to meet an investor who owned several flats he rented to new migrants who had heard about the East Brighton school’s reputation. The flats are leased short-term through migration agents and are not available on the market. There’s nothing illegal about it, but there’s also nothing to stop people moving out of the zone after they secure their foothold. ‘‘It upsets me, because we are within 1km of the school yet other kids are coming from so far away,’’ says the mother, who had to petition to get her child into prep after the school shrank its zone and left her family just one house outside it. ‘‘My daughter’s good friend lives 5km away. Some live in Malvern or Chadstone. It is ridiculous. You have people driving all over the suburbs because they don’t want to go to their local school.’’
Why the hysteria? ‘‘I don’t know. Gardenvale is good, but is it exceptionally better than the others?’’ she asks. ‘‘Once there’s a vibe or feeling that one school is better than another, people will drive all over Melbourne to get there.’’
Academic Daniel Edwards found in his 2007 PhD thesis that students in wealthy areas such as Balwyn usually had parents with ‘‘superior financial resources’’ who valued education. ‘‘Money can buy effective out-of-school tutors and comprehensive pre-exam subject review sessions at many of the major universities,” says Edwards. “It can also help to make the home environment more conducive to study. Wealthier parents can provide up-to-date technology (personal computers, printers, high speed internet) and space within the home for a distinct study area.’’
As for fee-paying international students, they chose schools ‘‘predominantly located in the inner eastern and southern suburbs’’, bringing revenue useful for upgrading facilities and increasing these schools’ magnetism.
“We chose McKinnon because of its new year 7 building, which is excellent,” says Jenny Roberts, who has rented in McKinnon Secondary’s tiny four square kilometre zone while her house is being built to ensure her son is eligible for enrolment.
Albert Park College, which re-opened last year after being completely rebuilt, received more than 300 applications for 150 year 7 places this year. “Straight out of the docks, that school has gained a really good reputation,” says Albert Park estate agent Greg Hocking. “I’ve been fielding calls from people in various suburbs looking to move to Albert Park and get their kids in there.”
Why the rush? ‘‘It is to do with the culture the new college set out to establish,” says Hocking. “They have new buildings, a new uniform, and they constantly monitor the students in and around the area. It used to be pretty ordinary, with the students sitting around having a cigarette and looking pretty bedraggled, a lot of them. This [rebuild] has turned the school around.’’
Foreseeing a much higher population, the state government has conducted a feasibility study on a new school for Port Melbourne or Docklands. Higher density is also affecting Doncaster, tipped to have 4000 new apartments by 2020.
In 2009 East Doncaster Secondary College principal John Handley had to apply to the education department for an enrolment cap, and is nervously eyeing ‘‘very, very large’’ primary schools. ‘‘It has to do with how many kids you can physically accommodate on the site,’’ Handley says. ‘‘But I don’t think the enrolment ceiling has made the school desirable. I think it is because the school has consistently had a high performance in student learning and a good community focus. What attracts families to schools is the quality of education, the degree of security the students feel, how they interact with their peers and the climate of the school.”
Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals president Frank Sal says enrolment caps tend to be self-fulfilling: ‘‘There’s a mystique that attracts people. The schools have done something good to start off with, to develop a reputation. They have one or two good programs, or a year when they get good results. They get an influx and they impose a cap. It is not necessarily good for the schools around them, which may be just as good.’’
Sal disapproves of schools creaming the top students from other areas once local places are filled. ‘‘If they have space, they should be taking kids next to the zone. But many of these schools give offers to the kids they want to come to the school.’’
This privilege is causing grief in Murrumbeena, where students say they should be allowed to attend McKinnon, their closest school. In three weeks last year, 3000 people signed a petition asking the state government to give Murrumbeena-Oakleigh a similar school. McKinnon’s assistant principal, Ashley Evans, says the school used to accept some out-of-zoners into its accelerated maths and science programs, but no longer has the capacity.
Urban legend has it that many elite state schools, including McKinnon, ask students to leave if they are unlikely to achieve high VCE marks in a bid to protect their reputations. But Evans vehemently denies it. ‘‘That’s not true. There may be a handful of students for whom VCE is not the best option, and a more technical education would suit them better. But certainly we don’t ask students to leave.’’
Jenny Roberts and her son chose the school for its superb music and sports facilities as well as its VCE results. But Roberts was almost tripped up by McKinnon’s zone rules when she bulldozed her house, just as her son was about to enrol in secondary school. ‘‘You can live through a renovation but you can’t live through a demolition,’’ says Roberts, who quickly had to rent a townhouse in the zone so her son could enrol.
She wonders whether the zone’s big new developments – such as the 50-house Clover Estate – will prompt McKinnon to shrink its catchment further. ‘‘In 10 years we might be out of the zone!’’
Sometimes there are ways to crack the zone rule. Curriculum claim, by which a student seeks admission to a school teaching a particular subject, is well used by aspirants to Northcote High, which has a French program. ‘‘Fairfield and Alphington are turning into a huge French-speaking area,’’ says Fairfield mother-of-two Fran Cusworth.
Clifton Hill Primary, which teaches French, is a ‘‘feeder’’ school, but this is just one reason for its legendary popularity. One parent, who did not want to be named, said the area’s middle-class families tried to avoid schools with lots of new migrants, where teachers’ time was taken up with language tuition and welfare work.
Under Geoff Warren, its principal of 23 years, Clifton Hill earned a name for high achievement and is now bulging – its cap is 500, but 550 attend, about 60 per cent from outside the suburb. ‘‘We use every nook and cranny and have higher class sizes than we prefer,’’ says Warren, who is aware of how ‘‘the car park mafia’’ swap tips on how to jump zones into a school of choice.
Sal despairs of what the competition will do to the state school system. ‘‘The notion of all kids going to their neighbourhood school – as long as the schools are funded in the same sort of way and you get a normal (socioeconomic) distribution of kids – would give a much better outcome for schools, the economy and society. But we are creating a very stratified system of schools.’’