School's back: but engagement is about to join in

The offer - for the new inner city high rise due for completion by end 2020

No doubt you’ve breathed a sigh of relief as your kids have returned to the routine of school. But the challenges facing our schools are prompting a commitment to engagement from our state government departments and we’re heard some interesting stories from participants in IAP2 Australasia’s Certificate in Engagement.

At our inaugural Engagement Essentials and Engagement Methods at Wangaratta last year, a participant from the Department for Education and Child Development SA, explained quite different methods of engaging parents in remote areas. Apart from the distances involved in getting children to the school, many parents have had such a negative school experience that they won’t go to events that most of us take for granted, such as parent/teacher meetings or catch up with parents. “In one area that had a set of parents who agreed to be the ‘go-between’ between the parent and the school. It took two years for the parents to gain the confidence to come to the school, initially standing outside the gate and finally coming into the school grounds”. Some things – like a gate – can be symbols of so much more.

The students became advocates as well. In one school the students baked cupcakes that they could take home and could eat when their parents had signed a form or reviewed homework. Eventually some parents did come to the school gate and would speak to the teachers there. An engagement resource developed for schools is Involve Us.

Cross-agency planning imperative for education

‘A suite of failures (in education infrastructure planning) patchy demographic data, school closures in the 1990s and outdated assumptions, such as that families moved out of apartments when they had children – were combining with immigration growth and a surprise increase in public school enrolments, to create an infrastructure problem’, argued a recent article on the state of NSW school accommodation. “State schools go back to the future with classic design” Baker, 2019).

There are many interrelated issues in education: the ‘doughnut’ or pod-like architecture of the ‘60s rollout led to jostling and accidents as students pushed through narrow walkways on the changeover of lessons. Baker (op cit) cites the evidence of the design of the toilets. Apart from the activities we all know that happened behind the toilet blocks, the half doors lead to embarrassment, bullying and ultimately female students choosing not to drink water at school and therefore becoming dehydrated, affecting the ability to concentrate. Health and wellbeing issues have become part of engagement conversations regarding the new schools.

Starting from a blank canvas

In urban areas it is the lack of space for new or rebuilt schools that have prompted Education Ministers to require the involvement of students, parents, neighbours, local business in the design process. In new outer metropolitan residential developments it can be much easier. Developer, Lendlease, for example, has long championed the benefits of collaborative design (a true ‘Empower’ approach) because of the need for, and cost of, providing new schools in areas where the State Governments have not planned for new State schools.

In its Mawson Lakes SA development, the school was a multi-purpose facility, used as classrooms during the day, with walls pushed into a central core producing a community facility used at night and on weekends (even for weddings!). More importantly, the school was right in the centre of the town. The school canteen was a commercial coffee shop so there were always adults nearby and being co-located with apartment blocks meant that there was a level of public oversight of children.

You can see how such a concept requires a lot of engagement with state and local planners, designers and local businesses. In other locations, new schools of different faith denominations contributed to the cost of the shared state-of-the-art sporting facilities which were used by the community at nights and on weekends.

Going up at school

The lack, or cost, of ground space in inner urban areas has led to the first ‘vertical’ school in NSW which is expected to finally cost $325m up from an original budget of $100m. Apart from finding thousands of archaeological items that delayed construction, it has revealed other issues, such as problems with moving students between classes in lifts. Construction overruns have led to students being temporarily…for some months… accommodated in demountables. Engagement practitioners can understand the pressure that the principal is under, probably shifting to the left (‘Inform’) of the IAP2 Spectrum with much-anticipated updates. ‘There are a lot of lessons in Arthur Phillip High’, reflected the CEO of School Infrastructure NSW – let’s hope the next 154 projects benefit.

New thinking and new challenges

The Victoria Government is developing new school infrastructure design concepts, outlined by a team of five participants in Strategies for Complex Engagement. The Government is looking at replacing dilapidated regional primary and high schools with a user-focused K-12 facility that will take 2,500 students. Not only do ‘all of the above physical’ issues apply but there is a CALD (cultural and linguistically diverse groups) and refugee social impact overlay. This regional area is now home to many groups, such as from Africa and Afghanistan, where the concept of ‘going to school’ for 12 years would be novel, let alone the whole concept of how education happens, let alone having hundreds of other students doing the same thing at the same time… What a change!

Education is a new frontier for Engagement – we look forward to hearing more about these ‘user-driven’ learning facilities.

Makeshift accommodation in an old community centre.

Baker, (2019) State schools go back to the future with classic design Sydney Morning Herald, p. 22-23.

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