I have previously raised the question that perhaps it’s time to close UC Kaleen High School on the grounds that it is costly, under-utilised and increasingly redundant. Despite initial outbursts against my proposal it seems now there is some growing community support and political consideration to redirect the operational funds for the school into far more effective education alternatives.
Currently UC Kaleen High is running at 28% capacity with a population teetering around 200 students. If you account low attendance rates – amongst the lowest in the territory (84%) – the school is running at only 23.5% capacity. Only 174 students in a building made for over 800 kids. The school has been under-enrolled for the best part of 20 years and critically so for the past 10. This trend continues despite its feeder schools, Kaleen Primary and Giralang Primary bursting at the seams. Parents at feeder schools clearly don’t view UC Kaleen High as a viable, high-quality education provider for their kids. They attend the open night, consider the school, its curriculum and its governance, and overwhelmingly give it the thumbs down.
Whereas parents in the area have made up their minds, the government still lags behind public opinion. Understandably so, school closures are not politically popular. So here are some figures the government should consider. Per student UC Kaleen High is the most expensive school in Canberra. It costs the ACT taxpayer $31,576 per student which is twice the Territory average. The real figure however is closer to $36,000 if you factor in the high absenteeism. The school, built for 800+ but only supporting a quarter of its potential student base and has a running cost of almost $5.9 million per annum. Class sizes are in the low to mid teens however NAPLAN results show this has provided little benefit for students. The school’s results have plateaued and remain below the national average. In contrast, schools such as Wanniassa, which has a lower ICSEA value, are now outperforming UC Kaleen High despite having much bigger class sizes and half the per student funds.
Critical incidents at UC Kaleen High are significantly above average with numerous lockdowns occurring and in recent years the school has been in the media for bullying, fights uploaded to YouTube, and drug incidents. To counter the bad press the principal earlier this year courted the Canberra Times for a puff piece in which he claimed he wanted every student to find their niche. A worthy aspiration however one that unfortunately has translated to finding the school a gimmick– circus, model trains, sister schools, on-paper aspiration to be Belconnen’s school of the performing arts (though it hasn’t offered music or put on a play for the best part of a decade). The list goes on yet very little has materialised and what has occurred has been ephemeral and not worth the time or money spent.
A considerable amount of blame for the school’s underperformance lies in the school governance which the community has observed drive drunkenly from one gimmick to another, lurch from priority to priority, initiative to initiative, trying to do everything at once and falling in a heap over and over again. Parents observe teachers burn out and move on like a perpetual revolving door. The impact on students is that there are limited curriculum opportunities, and no continuity in learning as the courses they elected to do often no longer exist the following semester when it is time to teach them. You could handball this one back to the directorate but the school had a crack at the ACT budget autonomy trial, evidently botched it and was removed from that trial. Even rebranding to use the prefix UC a few years back did nothing but broadcast that the school was dysfunctional and its reputation beyond repair. Albeit in a polite way, much of this was supported in the school’s 2013 external validation reports (available on the school’s website).
There remains a hope among some that the new suburb Lawson will boost enrolments for UC Kaleen. However the large price tag for blocks in Lawson suggests there will be no increase in enrolments. The Canberra trend, as a recent Canberra Times article points out, is that wealthier families utilise the public system until the high school years and then send their kids to private schools. Given Lawson’s proximity to Radford and a bus line feeding directly into a number of Northside private schools it is unrealistic to think well-off Lawson parents would consider a school that hasn’t as much as a flute, let alone a French horn or trombone. As it is, most Kaleen parents who can get their kids into Lyneham High do so.
The $5.9 million that it costs every year to keep ghost ship UC Kaleen High afloat could be better spent on viable initiatives. For instance expanding Kaleen Primary or Giralang Primary or perhaps something even more practical, to upgrade and expand Melba Copland. Currently operating at 32% capacity Melba could easily absorb the Kaleen population. Melba Copland’s reputation is on the upswing since it started offering the International Baccalaureate and there is an opportunity here to forge a robust 7-12 school that can afford to provide a full range of curriculum options on par with Lyneham High, Daramalan or private schools. Melba’s split campus provides an even greater incentive allowing students continuity, a rite-of-passage and a place where year 11 and 12s can be symbolically apart from “high school”.
It is time for the ACT government to reconsider propping up unviable, underperforming schools that receive premium dollars but cobble together the barest minimum. Our kids deserve better. Insanity is said to be doing the same over and over again and continually expecting a different result. UC Kaleen High has had its chance to come back but it hasn’t and won’t. We are just throwing good money after bad and in the Territory’s current economic circumstances we can’t afford to do that any longer. Let’s get wise, get rational, no more Mickey Mouse, it’s time to channel our dollars into something better and more effective for our kids.