News / Education

School looks to life beyond Sydney Road

Community School prepares to move to new buildings after 50 years on Sydney Road

Mark Phillips
Friday, December 16, 2022

WHEN the academic year finished on November 25, it also marked the end of an era at Sydney Road Community School. 

After half a century based inside a 150-year-old former Wesleyan Church hall on Sydney Road, the school will begin 2023 in brand new, purpose-built premises a couple of hundred metres away on Glenlyon Road. 

The school has been forced to relocate by the end of its lease in Sydney Road, but the move will deliver brand new facilities for the student population of about 95. 

“It’s bittersweet, isn’t it?” said Irene Savakis, co-principal at SRCS, in a half-empty office while packing up carried on around her. 

“We’ve been here a very long time and no-one likes change and no-one likes to move. But the positive is we’re going to a purpose-built facility, while this [building] was built in the 19th century for a Sunday school as it was done then, not for a 21st century secondary school.” 

Sydney Road Community School co-founder Gil Freeman and one of its first students, Justin Oakley.

The Sydney Road Community School was founded in 1972 in the spirit of its counter-cultural times by parents and educators from nearby Moreland High who wanted to establish a radical alternative to the mainstream education of the day – or, in the words of its key early driving force, Gil Freeman: “turn the curriculum upside down”. 

Over the years, it has provided a safe learning environment for students who are at risk or do not fit into the mainstream schooling environment and has outlasted all of the other Brunswick-based secondary schools that were around at the time. 

The signs that SRCS is different from most other secondary schools are everywhere: there is no uniform policy, no staff room, no school bell. But perhaps the best symbol of the school’s approach is Sydney, a placid 10-year-old Labrador-Collie cross who is part of the furniture as the student well-being and therapy dog. 

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Speaking at a special farewell event held on December 7 in the school’s hall — a Victorian era Sunday school which some jokingly say reminds them of the layout of a prison with its high vaulted ceilings and quirky classrooms that run off a curved balcony overlooking the interior of the building — Mr Freeman said the ethos of SRCS was modelled on “free schools” in the United States with a more casual approach to curriculum and discipline, collaboration and open-ness between year levels, and unconventional classrooms. 

It began at the start of the 1972 school year with 88 students and three teachers, but for its first six months had no permanent home, Mr Freeman said. 

When they arrived to begin the school year in 1972, the hall – which was already almost a century old – was still full of painters and decorators so its first home was the education faculty at Melbourne University. That lasted for just two weeks, before the school was on the move to empty buildings recently vacated by the I.L. Peretz Jewish School in Drummond Street, Carlton North. 

They spent the next five months there before finally moving into the refurbished hall in Sydney Road on July 26, 1972. 

The new building was draughty, full of cobwebs, and had a rodent problem, but once they settled in, the school became “a beacon of light” for progressive education that had outlasted other local secondary schools including Moreland High and Brunswick Tech. 

“This is a fantastic school with an enormous reputation for progressive education,” Mr Freeman said. 

Former students, staff and family members gathered inside the school hall for the farewell event on December 7.

At the same event, Lyn Scott, a former principal at SRCS during the 1990s and 2000s, said the school building — and particularly the shared space of the hall — had helped to shape its ethos. 

“It allowed those staff and students to leave behind corridors and lots of closed classrooms, instead it encouraged us to think outside the box as we manoeuvred around the unusual spaces we had,” she said. 

“For many, it’s a welcoming and safe haven.” 

Justin Oakley was was among that first student intake in 1972 as an 11-year-old and remembers the school having a very liberal attitude to things such as hair length and cigarette smoking, and having a philosophy of democratic schooling which included weekly meetings at which everyone – staff and students – were welcome to contribute.  

“I was only 11 on day one when I came here straight from a rather strict Catholic primary school — what a contrast this was … coming in here felt like something out of Alice in Wonderland with all the doors, you didn’t know where they all led,” he said. 

He credits one of his early teachers and the school’s open curriculum to introducing him to philosophy and leading him down the path to his career as a professor in bioethics at Monash University. 

“Sydney Road is a very special school in the sense that what we’re able to do here is offer students the opportunity to be successful and we look at them as individuals and we don’t try to fit these square pegs into round holes.”
– present day co-principal Irene Savakis

Today, Sydney Road Community School offers a mainstream curriculum, including VCE and VCAL, but it remains geared to providing an education to students for whom mainstream secondary school is not the right fit. 

For many this is about providing a safe place and supportive environment after an unhappy experience at school elsewhere. Some students have had difficult home lives, others are autistic or have mental health issues, and there are a range of supports at hand, including youth workers and, of course, Sydney. 

“I think Sydney Road is a very special school in the sense that what we’re able to do here is offer students the opportunity to be successful and we look at them as individuals and we don’t try to fit these square pegs into round holes,” Ms Savakis said. 

“Sydney Road can make such a difference to their lives and they can see that they can be successful when they come into a space that is safe for them and they’re treated with respect.” 

While no smoking is allowed on the school grounds these days, there continues to be no uniform policy, teachers share the open space common area with students, free cooked lunches are provided to all students and staff every day, there are no fees, and classes are composites of different year levels. 

While some of the school’s intake begins at year 7, other students arrive at Sydney Road after struggling to fit in at other schools or dropping out of the mainstream education system. 

That was certainly the case for Jade O’Sullivan, who arrived at SRCS in 2015.

“I don’t think I would be the person I am today if it wasn’t for Sydney Road,” she said. 

“I was allowed to be myself and flourished in a way I couldn’t at a mainstream school. I actually enjoyed coming to school and believe it or not I hated school [before she joined Sydney Road] … It was always really exciting and fun and I loved the opportunities I was given here.” 

Teacher’s aide Betty Apostolopoulos, who is retiring this year after 22 years at the school, with therapy dog Sydney. 
An artist’s impression of the new school buildings. Image source: Victorian School Building Authority

The school buildings were bought by Brunswick real estate agent Nelson Alexander in 2007 but it was not until 2013 before the search began in earnest for new premises. 

The last few years have been a scramble – when Melbourne first went into lockdown at the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, SRCS still didn’t have a future home. 

The architect for the new school was given a brief to preserve what makes SRCS unique as well as to design a contemporary secondary school campus. 

The new school in Glenlyon Road will retain the open plan central hall which is its heart, but the move will deliver improvements that were not possible in the old buildings, including conventionally rectangular shaped classrooms and better facilities for music, science and art.  

And while they have lost some outdoor playground space, the new, modern buildings will also be easier to heat and cool than the 150-year-old school on Sydney Road. 

“It was really important we didn’t move just the furniture, but the culture came with us,” Ms Savakis said. 

 “The architect has worked really hard trying to recreate what we’ve got here and they’ve done a pretty good job. 

“Of course, there’s anxiety among the staff and students, but once we move and have settled in, people will appreciate what we’ve gained.” 

Both Ms Savakis and her co-principal, Tessa Abbottsmith Youl, will be continuing the roles at the new campus that they have held since 2018. 

As for the buildings on Sydney Road, they are listed on the Victorian Heritage Register, and the school’s current and former community will be watching closely to see what the owners do with them.