By Verity Webb

    I had a Utopia moment last week after attending a workshop about the Footscray Learning Precinct (FLP).

    The workshop was quite awe inspiring. The Victorian School Building Authority (VSBA), Maribyrnong City Council and others had an ambitious schedule of questions to elicit feedback from the (mostly) parents and teachers who’d volunteered to participate.

    Before we discussed each topic there would be a short, expert presentation. Then we’d chat, scribble and stick. At the end of the night our contributions were collected for dissemination among the various FLP committees.

    There are five committees trying to work out how the FLP will function, including a Vision and Leadership Committee, a Buildings committee and a Pedagogy (teaching) committee. And the starting cost is $15 million dollars.

    All the presenters were buoyant. Maribyrnong Council staff. Academics. Education Department representatives. Architects. Local MPs. There was a palpable buzz in the room.

    They used descriptors like ‘world-first’ concepts,’ ‘integrated learning’, ‘life-long learning’, ‘iconic’ and ‘vertical education.’ We gave feedback about teaching our children to be good citizens and providing them with proper indoor sports facilities. It was a hectic 90 minutes. The moderator had a tough time keeping us on topic and of course, we ran late.

    As I left my head was full of possibilities but something was niggling me.

    I’d asked several questions through the night about the separate campuses, even though it wasn’t a topic for discussion. I asked how the separate campuses delivered on the three main objectives set by parents: more school places, more choice and STEM focus?

    I was told “…..don’t think of it as buildings. The buildings are not the important bits. What we’re doing now are the important bits. The kind of learning we want, the kind of citizens we want to nurture, how we’re going to support students and teachers through the transition period – these are the things that are important.”

    I asked if teachers would have to choose between junior and senior subjects because the campuses are so far apart. I asked if students would end up choosing subjects according to where/which campuses they were on, because it took too long to get from one to another?

    I got the same answers as above. “The buildings are not the important bits.”

    I asked how the FLP had become the solution to the request for a new high school. The local Education Department representative gave an enthusiastic response about it being better value in the long term because buildings would have multiple purposes.

    Local MP Marsha Thompson acknowledged the work of the SKY group and said how exasperating and frustrating the wait had been and how finally, rather than merely offering a new high school, the government had committed to this amazing, ambitious vision.

    I tried to be enthusiastic. I tried to dampen my cynicism.

    Then I watched Utopia. And I realised what the niggle was. It’s the recent episode where Tony outlines modest requests from technology start-ups to encourage innovation and Rhonda and Jim disparage the suggestions as immature and uninspiring. All we asked for was a high school to accommodate Yarraville and Kingsville and Footscray primary school students. Ten years later we’re going to get a co-ed Gilmore Girls College for years 7-9, a new multi-storey campus for grades 7-9 and Footscray City College for years 10-12.

    There will be a few hundred more student places. However, there will still be only one high school – and now it will be split over three campuses three kilometres apart.

    And it’s taken 10 years. And the money already spent on con$ultant$ and academic$ and architect$ has been considerable. Despite this, the expert$ have no idea how students and teachers are going to navigate three campuses. As a parent, a voter and a taxpayer, I feel my request 10 years ago was practical and simple. After attending the workshop I’m shutting my taxpayer wallet and tearing up my ballot paper. Politicians, bureaucrats and consultants can call it whatever they want. They can pretend that after 10 years of wilful neglect they’re now delivering something ‘iconic’ and ‘world-first.’ Stripping away the hyperbole, what I see is an educational shambles cobbled together from two existing buildings and one new campus that can be built as fast as possible to get runs on the board before the next election. The experts don’t want us to concentrate on the buildings.

    Because if you concentrate on the buildings, you realise FLP is covering up a flop.

    Footscray Learning Precinct. Flop?

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