'School shopping': The trend leaving Sydney's high schools half-empty
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'School shopping': The trend leaving Sydney's high schools half-empty

Amid a $6 billion building boom to tackle population growth, dozens of schools sit half-empty with space for thousands more students.

These once-bursting schools are struggling to attract enrolments as parents embrace "school shopping" and choose to send their kids to private schools and public schools outside their catchment.

Recent Department of Education figures show there are 43 Sydney schools with a utilisation rate of 55 per cent or less, including more than a dozen high schools. A rate of between about 75 and 100 per cent illustrates an efficient use of space.

Another 52 schools operate at between 56 and 65 per cent.

Secondary schools are a particular problem in gentrifying suburbs, where studies have shown that middle-class families worry about sending their children to schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged students.

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In the Maroubra area - which neighbours the marginal seat of Coogee, where Labor has pledged to build a new school if it wins government - there are three public high schools sitting at 50 per cent utilisation or less.

At Randwick Boys' High, also inside the seat of Coogee, there are 634 students in a school that could take twice as many. Meanwhile, nearby Rose Bay Secondary College is at capacity, and Randwick Girls' is thriving.

At James Cook Boys Technology High, there are 44 classrooms for just 245 students. It's a similar story at Riverstone High School, Georges River College in Hurstville, and in several boys' schools in the Canterbury-Bankstown area.

Christina Ho, from the Centre for Policy Development, has studied the way some parents moving to gentrifying suburbs avoid schools that are perceived to have high numbers of disadvantaged students.

"This [situation] was created by governments pushing the policy of school choice," she said. "That has ended up with a strong mentality that you need to go school shopping. Just going to the local school is no longer sufficient.

"A school that loses enrolments will lose funding - it will start to look like a declining school."

The government is spending $6 billion over the next four years on 170 new and upgraded schools, as public school enrolments are predicted to surge by 21 per cent, or 164,000 students, by 2031.

But head of the Secondary Principals Council, Chris Presland, said it made sense to use existing capacity, too.

Principals were given resources to promote their schools and bust myths in the local community. "Good or bad reputations are largely illusionary," Mr Presland said. "The variations between schools are so much less than parents think."

Low student numbers don't necessarily mean the surplus classrooms sit empty, as principals often use them for added learning spaces or rent them out to approved organisations to raise money for the school.

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Opposition education spokesman Jihad Dib says more could be done.

"What is the department doing when one is under capacity and the other is not?" he said. "When one has a reputation and one doesn't? People are making the choices not to send their kids to those schools."

A spokesman for the Department of Education said every NSW public school was a great school, and, when addressing perception issues, encouraged parents to visit their local school when deciding on a school for their child.

"Many of our schools work in partnership with universities, industry and organisations focused on improving educational outcomes," he said.

Continue the conversation at our SMH Student Facebook group.

Jordan Baker is Education Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald

Nigel Gladstone is The Sydney Morning Herald's data journalist.