So-called school shopping has grown in popularity since strict catchments were relaxed in the late 1980s. Of 90 non-specialist, non selective high schools, 25 now have more than half of their students coming from out-of-area.
At Holroyd High, 87 per cent of students live outside the catchment, the highest proportion in Sydney. It’s a school that takes many migrants and refugees; students often go for the intensive English centre, then stay.
It also has an excellent reputation; until recently, it was led by renowned principal and human rights medallist Dorothy Hoddinott.
At Strathfield South High, 73 per cent of students live outside the zone, while there is a similar percentage at Plumpton High. At Marrickville and Arthur Phillip High, two out of three students are out-of-area enrolments.
Marrickville is becoming a popular co-ed option in an area with many single-sex public schools, while Arthur Phillip is at the key transport hub of Parramatta, and will soon move site to a new, designer high-rise school worth $227.5 million.
A high proportion of out-of-area students also suggests its local students are going elsewhere. In Marrickville, which has become relatively wealthy, many locals are opting for private schools such as Newington, Trinity Grammar and St Scholastica’s.
Some of the most popular schools have the lowest out-of-area numbers because there is such demand from within the catchment.
Those schools include Cherrybrook Technology High (home to celebrity maths teacher Eddie Woo), with just 14 per cent of students living out-of-area, The Ponds High (17 per cent), which has grown rapidly since it opened in 2015, and Killara High (17 per cent), which consistently performs well in the HSC.
Maurie Mulheron described the high number of out-of-area students across the public secondary system as “a serious problem. It means [those schools] take kids away from another high school.
“The creation and existence of specialist schools has given people the false notion there’s a hierarchy of choice. And then the last choice is the local school. Secondary education in NSW has really been in a difficult position because of this hierarchy of choice.”
But Ms Hoddinott said parents had come to expect choice in their children’s schooling. “Once a government begins a policy, it’s very difficult to go back,” she said. “People would go into the private system if that sort of thing happened.”
Myriad factors prompt parents to apply for schools further afield. They can include a school’s links to transport, the kind of support and subjects it offers, its results, and its reputation.
School shopping is more prevalent at secondary than primary school because older students can travel independently, and parents are more likely to consider factors such HSC performance.
Chris Presland from the Secondary Principals Council said research showed that many families were aspirational in relation to their child’s education, and sought schools with greater levels of social advantage than the area in which they lived.
“What you see happening, particularly in a big metro area like Sydney, is people are realising you don’t have to pay a fortune for a good education by going to a private school. You can get to a public school in a higher socio-economic area,” he said.
“People have an over-inflated idea of the differences between schools. Mostly it’s garbage. The truth is there’s very little difference.”
Some parents go to great lengths to access a high better school. Some move to the catchment in order to ensure their child a place, pushing up real estate prices in suburbs such as those surrounding Cherrybrook High.
About 60 per cent of secondary students in NSW attend public schools, while the remainder attend Catholic or independent schools.
Mr Mulheron said the NSW Department of Education needed to put more resources and effort into the transition from primary to high school. “There is no data on where children go to high school when they finish at the local primary.
“We need to collect that data, see where the leakage away from the local primary school and fix it. Parents feel they have to shop around, be worried about high school, gossip at the gate. We could do this so much better.”
Chris Bonnor from the Centre for Policy Development said schools were required to accept all applications from inside their catchment zone but could then take their pick of the students applying from outside, creating de facto selective systems in some schools.
Belrose mum Giovanna Boccanfuso has already filled out the paperwork to apply next year for The Forest High School, where 61 per cent of enrolments are from outside the catchment zone. Many other parents at Allambie Heights Public School are doing the same, she said, because of the school’s good name.
“She really wants to go there as she wants be with her friends,” said Ms Boccanfuso. “It just seems to be more about the community than our local high school, and the kids there are relaxed and happy.”
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Highest out-of-area enrolments:
Holroyd High – 87 per cent
Strathfield South High – 73 per cent
Plumpton High – 72 per cent
Beverley Hills Girls High – 71 per cent
Arthur Phillip High School – 78 per cent
Lowest out-of-area enrolments
Heathcote High – 12 per cent
Cherrybrook Technology High – 13 per cent
Barrenjoey High – 14 per cent
Northern Beaches Secondary College Cromer Campus – 15 per cent
The Ponds High School – 17 per cent
Jordan Baker is Education Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald
Nigel Gladstone is The Sydney Morning Herald’s data journalist.
Sarah is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.