Stanhope / Hard lessons if schools collide with risky business

“In reflecting on the decision to funnel NSW children into a few low-enrolment ACT schools, I couldn’t shake the feeling it represents a form of discrimination,” writes columnist JON STANHOPE

MY instinctive reaction to the decision of the ACT government to segregate NSW children wishing to attend school in Canberra was that it was a mean and tricky thing to do. It was certainly not very neighbourly.

Jon Stanhope

Jon Stanhope.

The ACT government has identified a small number of “pathway” schools in north and south Canberra with low to very low enrolments of local children and has mandated that these few schools are the only schools that children from NSW may attend.

The first question to ask about this plan is why the identified schools have low enrolment. The issue is undoubtedly complex and one which all governments in the ACT have grappled with over time. It may be that apparent under-enrolment in a school is simply a reflection of an ageing community or changing demographic. However, I think we all know that the issue is far more complicated than that, particularly as it relates to the informal and at times intuitive way in which parents make decisions about the suitability or quality of a school.

Some schools do, regrettably, attain a negative reputation, almost always undeserved but which nevertheless results in many parents voting with their feet and enrolling their children anywhere but in that school. The impact on such a school compounds and may result in a process of residualisation, whereby those schools ultimately have higher proportions of children with higher or special needs and a school community that ranks well below the national average in the index of community socio-educational advantage.

Irrespective of or perhaps in light of this I could not, in reflecting on the decision to funnel NSW children into a few low-enrolment schools, shake the feeling that it represents a form of discrimination which I am not convinced is either justified or healthy and will inevitably cause resentment and bitterness.

It also occurred to me how true it is, especially in politics, that what goes around comes around. I know if I was from, say, Yass, Collector, Bungendore, Googong or Queanbeyan and my child was being discriminated against by the ACT government I would be straight on to the mayor of Yass or Queanbeyan or the local State member of parliament (one of whom is handily also the Deputy Premier of NSW) demanding their intervention.

If they asked me what it was I thought they might do to influence a change of heart in the ACT government I would suggest they look for an issue where the ACT needed NSW more than it needed them and preferably one which engaged the ACT’s hip pocket nerve.

They should look, for example, for an issue where the NSW government has the final say on a matter where the ACT is financially exposed. One possibility might be the role the NSW government will play in deciding whether or not to provide planning approval for the 5000 houses the ACT Government has contracted to build on land in NSW under the terms of the Ginninderry Joint Venture Agreement.

The joint venture between the ACT government and Riverview Development Pty Ltd involves a 60/40 division of costs, risks and benefits for 11,500 units of housing. It is proposed that 6500 of the houses will be built on land in the ACT purchased under the joint venture by the ACT government from Riverview and the remaining 5000 houses will be built in NSW on land owned by Riverview (Corkhills).

There is planning approval for the 6500 houses to be built in the ACT on land owned by the ACT government but, according to the Ginninderry Joint Venture web page, there is no approval for houses to be built on the NSW land owned by Riverview. In the absence of planning approval, the proposal at this stage, so far as the NSW land is concerned, can be fairly described as “speculative”.

Put simply, it is speculative in the way that the purchase of shares in Bitcoin or a bet on a greyhound are speculative.

I don’t know what if anything the joint venture agreement has to say about the consequences for the apportionment of returns to the joint venture partners if the NSW end of the deal doesn’t proceed.

However, if the 60/40 split endures irrespective of the failure to gain NSW planning approval for housing on the Riverview-owned land, with the consequence that no houses are built in NSW and all the benefits to flow from the joint venture accrue from just the land owned by the ACT, then it presumably follows that the ACT government could potentially be out of pocket by tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars.

If that is the case and the NSW government hinted that planning approval was dependent on NSW children attending school in the ACT being treated fairly and equally then I think, if I was the ACT government, I would be easily persuaded to discontinue treating children from NSW as second-class kids.

And there’s a thought, assuming the full development proceeds where will the children who will live in the 5000 houses to be built by the ACT government in NSW go to school? Yass?

Without digressing (too much), the decision by the ACT government to build 5000 houses in NSW does seem oddly inconsistent with the repetitive mantra from it about the urgency of the need for densification.

We are being told constantly of the need to stop urban sprawl so as to ensure that the suburbs of Canberra don’t extend to the border. All the while the Chief Minister, his Ministers and Greens coalition partners have been saying this, they have signed a contract and been actively engaged in the implementation of a plan to develop a massive housing estate on the other side of the border.

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