Years ago, when we were feeling enthusiastic, my partner Johan and I used to walk past Vaucluse High School (VHS) for the exercise. The campus and classrooms looked familiar.
Utilitarian, but certainly not luxurious. Lacking the manicured lawns, swimming pools and building developments of private and religious schools, it nevertheless boasted a most precious resource. Outstanding students, staff and alumni.
The latter included the world famous film director, Peter Weir, Justice Stephen Rothman of the Supreme Court, politicians, businesspeople, sports champions and comedians.
However, the laughing stopped in 2006 when the school was closed at short notice. The land was sold for private development.
It is now clear that the only public high school on the peninsula cannot cope with the students or the parents who opt for public education.
How did this happen? Why was this excellent public high school closed down? Why was such an investment in our future exchanged for a one-off payment to the general revenue? What about the unvalued dividend on an excellent and available public high school?
I do not know which politicians and officials made this shortsighted decision, so quickly revealed as flawed. Or how long it will take to rebuild such a facility in an area with notoriously prohibitive land costs.
The biggest loss is not just that of an accessible school. It is the pressure that is exerted on parents to abandon public education and pay the costs of private and religious colleges.
As someone whose entire education was in public schools, I know how precious are the values that are taught in such schools — free, compulsory and secular. Attending Strathfield North Public School, Summer Hill OC class and Fort Street High in the 1940s and 50s, I had wonderful and dedicated teachers.
No discrimination against individuals or groups. Children of rich and poor parents mixing together and learning to respect each other.
No bullying of children because they are gay or have a different (or no) religion. This is an intangible price that has to be paid for the ill-considered decision to sell off VHS.
The sooner a new public high school is created on the peninsula, the better.
If I were a parent with school age children I would be as mad as hell about the situation we now find ourselves in. There should be accountability for this wrong.
Glancing through the latest issue of the newsletter of the barristers in Sydney, recording recent judicial appointments, I noted that three of the four most recent judges of our State attended public high schools: Turramurra High, Sir Joseph Banks High, Hurlstone Agricultural High School and Epping Boys’ High School.
Especially in an age of religious intolerance, the secular feature of public education is particularly precious. It protects diversity.
We should be strengthening this and not selling it off for momentary gain.
When I saw a promotional brochure for private and religious schools distributed with the Wentworth Courier, I wrote to the editor and urged inclusion in all such pamphlets of an information page containing contacts for all the public schools in the district. I still think this wold be a good idea.
Former judge Michael Kirby and his brother David Kirby QC, retired judge of the Supreme Court of NSW visit their old school.
However, there is now a big hole where previously Vaucluse High stood proudly. We need more people on all sides of politics who enjoyed the advantages of public education to speak up for the system that still educates two thirds of Australia’s citizens, increasing recently in primary schools.
The failure to implement David Gonski’s report on education funding, the recently admitted overfunding of many private and religious colleges and the underfunding of public schools calls out for change.
When 15 of the 20 members of the present Federal Cabinet were educated outside public schools, the likelihood of speedy change appears remote. The proportion on the other side of politics is only marginally better.
The Australian dreams of aspirational egalitarianism and advancement on merit are at stake here. When public education is underfunded and its schools closed or effectively made unavailable, the losses are ultimately borne by all citizens. That is why we must demand action. The right to universal public education is the precious right of every Australian citizen.
It needs to be quickly restored in the eastern suburbs where many of our country’s future leaders go to school.
*Michael Kirby was a Justice of the High Court 1996-2009.