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Roberta Wooles has played with her three best friends every day since prep. But when she heads to high school in two years, none of them will go with her.
It’s a common story for children in Altona Meadows, in Melbourne’s southwest, which has three local primary schools but no secondary campus.
Allison Wooles with daughters Roberta, 10, Grace, 7, and Madeline, 5, want plans for a local high school revived.Credit: Luis Ascui
Every year, families are zoned to high schools in surrounding suburbs including Laverton and Point Cook. Parents face the difficult choice of a twice-daily, one-hour round trip along the congested Point Cook Road or M1 freeway, or sending their children on a quicker but arduous bike ride around the Cheetham Wetlands.
Many are forced out of the public system altogether, opting for closer private and Catholic schools.
The public Altona College is the preferred school for most families. It sits tantalisingly close to the Altona Meadows’ primary schools but has been given a restricted zoning despite a recent expansion, meaning it cannot accept students outside its direct catchment.
Parents in Altona Meadows have now revived a decades-long campaign to get better access to high school for their children, both through the introduction of new zoning to allow expanded enrolment at Altona College and eventually the construction of a local high school, which was once earmarked for development but never built.
For children residing in metropolitan Melbourne, their local school is usually the nearest government school in a straight line from the child’s permanent address.
The government can issue a non-standard school zone to align with geographical and structural barriers such as rivers and freeways.
Bordered by the Cheetham Wetlands, Skeleton Creek, Point Cook Road and the M1 Freeway, parents say Altona Meadows is a classic example of the provision.
But Kia Brusa, spokeswoman for the campaign, said their appeals to the state government were yet to produce any action.
Brusa said data showed Altona Meadows had higher student populations than Altona, Williamstown and Williamstown North, all of which had their own high schools.
“But our kids are basically going every which way,” she said. “It’s splitting up the community. We’re quite a tight-knit community geographically because we’re so contained. We’re quite disconnected from, for example, the Point Cook community, where some of our people are zoned, and even Laverton because it is on the other side of the freeway.”
Allison Wooles has three daughters; her eldest, Roberta, is in grade 5 at Altona Green Primary School.
Wooles didn’t want to send her daughters to a religious or single-sex school, but she’s planning to enrol all three at the local girls-only Catholic high school after being zoned to Point Cook.
For the personal trainer, who runs classes from home, getting two children to primary school in Altona Meadows and completing a return trip via the gridlocked Point Cook Road in time to run her business would be impossible.
The only alternative is a seven-kilometre bike ride for Roberta around the wetlands, which Wooles said would not be safe in her early high school years.
“I feel like the people that are doing this zoning, they’re just ticking the boxes like, yep, that’s the straight line … they’re not putting any real thought into the fact that there’s a massive creek dividing the two suburbs. There’s a highway and train lines,” she said.
“Why would you send Altona Meadows [families] into Point Cook when it’s already so gridlocked with traffic? We don’t need to be there. We don’t have a reason to go into Point Cook.”
Wooles said she was lucky to be able to consider a non-government school, which with three daughters enrolled would ultimately cost about $15,000 per year.
But she said she was sad for her daughter, who would start a new chapter in her life without her closest friends.
“She’s pretty heartbroken,” she said. “One of her friends… they haven’t even had a single fight, that’s how close they are. They’re like sisters … they’ve played together every single day since prep and … I just think, wow, they’re not going to be able to go to the same high school.”
Parents Victoria chief executive Gail McHardy said there should be no barriers for families to enrol their children in local schools.
“The department needs to be responsive to local community needs, especially with problematic planning and geographical barriers,” she said.
Data released to The Age under freedom of information laws last month shows 41 per cent of government school students attended a mainstream public school other than their local neighbourhood campus in 2022.
But an Education Department spokesperson said there were no immediate plans to change the provisions and current analysis showed schools surrounding the Altona Meadows area had the capacity to meet anticipated enrolments.
The information would continue to be reviewed annually.
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