Signatures needed to save
public education heritage

Joan Lemaire
Senior Vice President

The building has immense educational, historical, cultural and architectural significance

Federation is seeking 10,000 signatures to force a debate in the NSW Parliament about the proposed sale or lease of the Department of Education building in Bridge Street, Sydney.

The Baird Government has proposed leasing the Department of Education building for 99 years for redevelopment for tourism purposes as a high-end hotel.

The petition to save the landmark building and our public education heritage was launched at a rally in Farrer Place, adjacent to the building, on March 14.

The petition to the Speaker and Members of the Legislative Assembly seeks to prevent the sale or lease of the building and ensure that it is maintained as a public asset for public education purposes. This could include its continued use as head office providing centralised leadership, resourcing, and administrative or other support for schools and TAFE colleges, and/or as a public school.

The Education building has immense educational, historical, cultural and architectural significance. It was designed as a symbol of the NSW Government’s commitment to, and responsibility for, the statewide provision of public education.

A 1902 Royal Commission found inadequate primary and secondary educational provision, overcrowded classes, untrained teachers and poor attendance. This was due in part to the different types of public and denominational schools. The push for significant improvements (a primary syllabus, recognition of the need for trained teachers and secondary education options), described at the time as “New Education”, was driven from the new head office of the Department of Education, which opened in 1915. The growth of public education was reflected in the expansion of the head office building to cover the whole site from Bridge Street to Farrer Place in 1967. The centralised support, leadership, administration and resourcing provided from this office were essential in the implementation of the next new direction in education, the Wyndham Scheme.

The Greiner government’s attacks on public education commenced in 1988 with the slashing of 2500 teacher positions, cuts to consultancy and other support along with devolutionary policies which saw the closure and attempted sale of the building in 1990.

The Greiner government’s policies sought to devolve government responsibility for the NSW public education system to individual schools. The return of the Department of Education to Bridge Street in 1996 was an acknowledgement of the failure of these policies and the need for centralised support and responsibility for the whole public education system.

The Baird Government’s Local Schools, Local Decisions policy and the attempts to sell and privatise public assets are reminiscent of the failed policies of the Greiner government.

Federation will build community support to oppose the loss of the education department building as a public asset which significantly contributes to our public education system through the cultural heritage preserved in this building including the rolls of honour for teacher soldiers and the Wilkins Gallery, celebrating the artistic achievements of NSW public school students.

The building’s architectural heritage includes the sandstone facades, marbled wall panelling, columns and stairs. But most importantly the building is the lasting symbol of the proud heritage of public education in NSW. The union will work with Unions NSW, other unions and community groups to save our public education heritage and its physical representation as the Department of Education building in Bridge Street.

Parkes Foundation's vision splendid of school in Bridge St

The Henry Parkes Foundation has offered a vision of a public school that would be a centre of excellence in pedagogy and democratic values, set up in the home of public education in Bridge Street.

This would continue the historic sandstone Education building’s association with public education and “bring new life and vitality” to the CBD.

In a formal submission to the proposal to sell off the historic buildings for commercial purposes the Foundation urged the State Government to consider the social history of the building that became the Education Department’s headquarters early in the last century.

“For all of their long lives [the Education and adjacent Lands building — which bears a statue of Sir Henry Parkes on its outer wall] have accommodated... ministries that have always been and will always be critical in a stable society,” the Foundation states.

The government had given no evidence to show how it could turn the Education building into a hotel without destroying its value, the Foundation added.

Think, instead, the Foundation urged, of a high school that would stand as a model for other schools, be a centre of excellence in pedagogy, research fellowship and technology use, be a living monument to the Australian values of collaboration and mateship and provide a “heart” to the CBD as students contribute to the human profile of city streets.

The school would include adult mentors from chosen professions and enlist community commitment in the spirit of “it takes a village to raise a child”.

It would value the student voice, promote conflict resolution and peace education through effective communication as core values, and be a “self-select” public school that students would choose to enter because of its ethos.

“Parkes was the greatest social reformer of the 19th century. We’re pushing ideas for social reform that he would have promoted if he were around today,” the Foundation’s Deputy President, Professor Peter Webber, said.

Sir Henry Parkes, known as the “father of Federation”, founded free public education in NSW.

- Dinoo Kelleghan