Are local schools the beating heart of our communities? Or are they underutilised public assets, closed out of school hours and off limits to local residents?
A new discussion paper on the extended use of schools released by New South Wales Labor asks these questions and raises a significant national issue. Australia has more than 9,000 schools, located in almost every community. But discussion over the best use of these key public assets struggles for public attention in policy debate focussed on big ticket transport and utility infrastructure.
The wider use of school facilities is far from a new issue. The relationship of schools and their surrounding communities has been a central concern of Australian education policy since the inception of public education in the nineteenth century. Making better use of school facilities outside the formal hours of schooling has been debated since at least the 1920s. In recent years, policies encouraging shared community services and educational partnerships, together with strains on the infrastructure budgets of education authorities and local councils, has rekindled interest in the topic. This financial stress may be heightened in coming years as a result of school funding decisions in the 2014 Federal budget.
So what do we know about the current use of school facilities for non-school purposes, and what are the issues to consider in advocating their wider use?
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Image: school kitchen, atm2003 /shutterstock