Ballarat schools lure Melbourne families

Wendy Gordon and her year 8 daughter Pia, outside Clarendon College in Ballarat. The family moved to the regional city to take advantage of more-affordable, high-quality private schooling. Photo: Kyle Barnes

Wendy Gordon and her year 8 daughter Pia, outside Clarendon College in Ballarat. The family moved to the regional city to take advantage of more-affordable, high-quality private schooling. Photo: Kyle Barnes

There's a popular perception that tree-changing is a phenomenon driven primarily by middle-aged, middle-class Melburnians priced out of inner-city real estate and disenchanted by the delights of a latte and biscotti in Brunswick St.

Increasingly, however, some city residents are upping sticks and heading to the provinces because of another, less self-centred motive: educational opportunities for their children. 

In Ballarat, long-established private schools such as Clarendon College, St Patrick's College, Loreto, and Ballarat Grammar are all educating the kids of voluntarily uprooted urbanites. 

There are many reasons behind the outward drift, but one – albeit rarely the only – stands out: fees.

The  century-old independent schools of Ballarat and Bendigo provide all the academic grunt, dreaming spires and old-school-tie networking that characterise their metropolitan equivalents, but at a considerable discount.

Year 9 tuition at the Ballarat and Queens Anglican Grammar School, to use its formal name, costs $15,020. The same year at Caulfield Grammar requires an outlay of $24,855, while Melbourne Grammar will send a bill for $27,000. In last year's VCE results, Ballarat Grammar had a median study score of 33, as did Bendigo's Girton Grammar, with 14.14 per cent of students achieving scores of 40 or above. This put both  regional schools on a par with Wesley, Brighton Grammar, St Michael's Grammar School and St Leonard's College. 

For parents on a budget seeking a high-quality academic education for their children, that level of outlay – and outcome – can be pretty persuasive. The cost-benefit analysis for regional schooling, however, is more complex than a simple exercise in adding up term fees. Other economic imperatives also come into play.

According to the Real Estate Institute of Victoria, the median price range for a house in Ballarat tops out at $342,000. In Bendigo, it reaches $485,000. In Glen Waverley, it's $1.18 million.

While not the primary driving force, it was the price differential that made a considerable impact on former residents of the Glen, Mark and Adele Amory, when they started to ponder how best to optimise educational opportunities for their daughter Sophie.

Sophie, 7, is happily ensconced in year 1 at Ballarat Grammar. The Amorys are just as happily ensconced in a gracious bluestone house in Mount Rowan on the outskirts of the city.

"There's certainly more opportunities for Sophie's education here than we could have afforded back in Melbourne," said Adele.

"She was 2 when we decided to make the move, and we had a few choices for quality schools here. We looked at Clarendon and Loreto, as well as Grammar."

The reputation of the school and the affordability of housing were compelling arguments for leaving the Big Smoke, but for Adele and Mark there was also a third, less quantifiable reason.

"It was about lifestyle, too," said Adele. "We wanted more space for Sophie to move around in. We wanted her to be able to see the stars at night. And we wanted her to grow up in the country – country people are lovely! They have quite different behaviour patterns to city dwellers."

It's an observation that Angus Carr, now of Surrey Hills, wouldn't quibble with. Mr Carr's daughter, Daisy, will start secondary school next year and her father is keen to shift to Ballarat before the academic year kicks off.

"Ballarat is a big, vibrant town," he said. "You can rent a nice three-bedroom house for around $260 a week. It's only an hour or so to commute to Melbourne if you need to. In Ballarat itself you're never more than 10 minutes from anywhere – and peak hour lasts 12 minutes."

For some people, commuting to Melbourne is the principal drawback to moving to the regions. Travelling to and from the city costs money and, more significantly, takes time. For those not able to work locally, however, elegant solutions occasionally present themselves.

"About 10 per cent of our students live in Castlemaine," said Girton Grammar's Matthew Maruff. "Mostly, their parents moved there from Melbourne, attracted by the town's strong arts community. Every weekday, the kids come north to us and the parents head south to work."

For some parents, the shift to the Victorian goldfields entails a journey a bit longer than a short jaunt north up a freeway. A few months ago, Wendy and Darcy Gordon and their two children relocated to Ballarat from Bangkok.

The Gordons' daughter, Pia, had been studying at the Harrow International School in the Thai capital – with which Clarendon Collage has a partnership arrangement. When the decision was made to move to Australia, the Ballarat school seemed a natural choice.

Clarendon was Victoria's top-performing regional school at VCE level last year, with a median score of 36, and 26 per cent of its 233 students scoring 40 or above in subjects. This puts it on a par with Mentone Girls' Grammar, MLC and Firbank Grammar. "We wanted a top-notch school with a strong academic reputation, good sports and a sense of tradition," explained Wendy.

"Clarendon was perfect for that. In many ways, I suppose,  Ballarat chose us rather than the other way around but I think we've been very, very lucky."

The luck didn't end with Pia's enrolment into year 8. Mrs Gordon is an experienced English and literacy teacher and was offered the chance to join the staff at the College.

Matthew Maruff says tree-changers add to the diversity of his school population. For all the elite regional schools, the incomers represent a change-up that is more than geographical in origin. The comparative affordability of education and housing attracts people who are not culturally accustomed either to fee-paying schools or to the religious tenets that underpin them.

"For us, it was all about the standard of education available for Sophie," said Adele Amory. "Neither faith nor philosophy came into it."

It's a similar story in Bendigo.

"Over the past five years we've had 207 inquiries from parents in metropolitan areas about sending their children here," says Matthew Maruff, principal of Bendigo's Girton Grammar.

"Out of that number, the better part of 100 have made the move – from Melbourne, other Australian cities, or overseas."

Girton, with a student population of 1185, year 12 fees of $12,604 and a place in the VCE tables alongside city schools, isn't the only regional independent school exercising a certain magnetic attraction on city dwellers.