Leanne Baldi’s older children will be split across three high school campuses from next year. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Rhiannon Tuffield)
Victoria touts super-school merger as ‘revolutionary’, but parents think it’s a disaster
Thousands of families in regional Victoria are increasingly concerned about student welfare as the State Government pushes ahead with its plan to merge four high schools into one.
- The Victorian Government says the school merger will result in more resources due to a bigger student population
- Parents are concerned because the merger will shut down three schools and leave Shepparton and Mooroopna with only three alternative secondary school options, two of which are private
- Major changes begin from next year for students when construction begins. The Department of Education is yet to announce plans for bus route, uniform and curriculum
One parent is Leanne Baldi who lives in Shepparton in northern Victoria where the “revolutionary” plan to reset education is about to overhaul the current way of living for families like hers.
The Shepparton Education Plan was introduced by the State Government to shake up poor education outcomes.
It includes a merger of Shepparton and Mooroopna’s four public high schools — Shepparton High School, Wanganui Park Secondary College, Mooroopna Secondary College and McGuire College — to form a single-campus secondary school by 2022.
From next year, students will move from their existing school campuses and be dispersed across three sites as contractors upgrade the current Shepparton High School, which will accommodate about 3,000 students.
But Ms Baldi, and many other parents, are worried.
Merger strips parents of choice
The transition period will mean a 30-kilometre or at least 40-minute round trip each day for Ms Baldi.
The alternative is spending thousands of dollars in fees if she opts to put her younger children through private education.
“There’s no choice left for the community, everyone will be in this one designated area.
Ms Baldi has serious concerns with the multi-school merger. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Rhiannon Tuffield)
The merger will leave the region with three other secondary school options, two of which are private.
“Not everyone here can afford private school and if I’m expected to put all of my kids through private schools, I’m way out of pocket,” Ms Baldi said.
The Shepparton mother said the merger also raised concerns about bullying, learning disruptions and diminished school culture.
“The Year 7s are the ones that are going to suffer the most — they’ve just learnt their surroundings but will now have to move constantly.”
The plan felt like it had been sprung on the community, she added.
“During the consultation, they asked questions like, ‘Do you want extra funding and improved facilities?’ — of course we do,” she said.
“They didn’t ask if we wanted four schools to become one.”
Students fear bullying culture
Mia Ruggi moved to McGuire College last year after what she described as severe bullying at the hands of her classmates.
The Year 8 student has settled into her new school, made close friends, and is enrolled in the Select Entry Accelerated Learning (SEAL) program for academically gifted students.
The Shepparton Education Plan has not yet revealed a plan for SEAL students and Mia feels her academic output will decline.
“I had a problem with bullying — you try to get away from it and it’s impossible,” she said.
“I’m nervous because I came to this school to get away from people that bullied me and now I’ll be put back with them.”
Shepparton student Mia Ruggi moved schools due to bullying. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Rhiannon Tuffield)
Wanganui Park students and sisters Taylor and Malika Baldi said they were also concerned about bullying.
“One of the main reasons why the school will not be a great thing is because parents move their kids away because there’s kids that are bullying their children, and now they can’t do that,” Taylor said.
“I’m sure the four schools [individually] already have many fights and bullying going on as it is.”
Year 7 student Malika was apprehensive about the transition.
“I’ll be staying at Wanganui next year then going to Mooroopna, and if it’s ready I’ll be going to Shepp High and if not, back to Wanganui,” she said.
“It’ll be hard to think about school when there’s heaps happening around you.”
Wanganui Park Secondary College students Taylor and Malika Baldi. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Rhiannon Tuffield)
Department responds to criticism
Parents against the merger have demanded plans for the school be paused mid-build and a petition — to be tabled in Parliament this week — has requested the school not go ahead.
The parents’ calls for action came amid increasing public backlash and revelations that concerned teachers were being gagged from speaking out against the school publicly.
Education Minister James Merlino rejected calls to halt the school and denied claims the Department had not properly consulted with the community.
“Clearly there are parts of the community that are concerned, it shows people care deeply about their kids’ education and that is why I will continue to listen to them and act on these concerns,” he said.
“We will be making more announcements in coming weeks to address more of these issues as they are raised.”
The Independent Member for Shepparton, Suzanna Sheed, said it was too late to halt the school, almost two years after plans were announced.
“There’s room for movement in some areas but there’s no way from my point of view that I would ask the Government to go away and abandon the Shepparton Education Plan,” she said.
“I believe we have to make this work for the community.”
Calls for community support
Mia Ruggi’s mother Sarah says a lot of parents are concerned about bullying at the new school. (Supplied: Sarah Ruggi)
Mia Ruggi’s mother Sarah, said she believed the Government was not considering the mental health needs of the students.
“It leaves our children in a position where they have to go to the same school with their bully and that’s something not any child should have to face,” she said.
“If they don’t feel safe they’re not going to learn.”
Ms Ruggi, who has been employed in support roles across the region’s schools, said fixing Shepparton’s poor educational outcomes ran deeper than funding a new school.
She said there needed to be a focus on addressing family violence, homelessness and unemployment, which often led to dire outcomes for affected children and teenagers.
“For Shepparton being a lower socioeconomic area, it definitely starts in the community and in the home, but those are areas that tend to get put on the side burner.”