Schools in Sydney– architecture, gardens & playground design

Posted on November 9, 2009


Today I went on a Road Trip to look at schools in Sydney.

The children liked the little Steiner school at Castlecrag best. It’s probably my favourite school in Sydney, only for K-2 but so gentle and sweet. There are lovely trees on the property.


Playground location of the school

The kids jumped out of the car and explored. A friend’s boy who was cranky and wanting to go home snapped out of his bad mood immediately when he saw the lovely garden and play equipment. It is a child-centred playground and they know it:

  • Beautiful water sculptures, which the kids would have played happily with for hours
  • Wooden climbing frames, designed with lovely organic shapes
Climbing frame

Climbing frame


  • a big sandpit to dig and play in
  • Soft gentle sensitive rainbow coloured fabrics in windows
  • Hand knitted  toys in windows at children’s eye level
  • A garden with peas, broad beans, spinach, silverbeet, parsley and pansies ready to harvest. Sunflowers on their way.
  • The verandahs have polished wooden floorboards, varnished in a warm golden colour, with little wooden seats.


“The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility.
These are the three forces which are the very nerve of education.”

Rudolf Steiner

My boys did say that, “You can’t play soccer there.” They like a big soccer field.

My 5 y.o said, “On another Sunday can we go to that school again? I found a strawberry plant. I just want to see the strawberries because that spikey one didn’t look ready.”

When I drove past other state schools, the kids immediately knew whether they liked them or not from the outside. “Where’s the garden?” they asked of one which was completely covered in asphalt.

On our Sydney Road Trip we visited Killara High School because it has a good reputation. I’m not sure who told me or why, but several people recommended it, so I walked through the gates and had a look around.

  • Huge grassy oval surrounded by gum trees opposite the school.
  • Lovely gum trees
  • 20 magpies stood around me- the black & white birds in this picture
Killara High School

Killara High School

  • A high black fence- many schools have Brunswick green ones
  • Stock standard NSW Government School architecture
  • Dull, metallic, unfriendly, gaol-like dark Brunswick green, brown or silver steel.
  • There are few curves, no vegie garden, no fruit trees

Why don’t state schools have organic shapes in their architecture?

I know state schools which have secured the Federal Labor Government’s Building the Education Revolution (BER) grants, where there was little choice but the standard pre-fab hall which is manufactured off-site, with massive roller doors and few windows. Plans I’ve seen remind me of an aeropolane hangar with a COLA outdoor shelter attached. They’re not cheap- between $1 and 2 million and they have to hurry up to get them put in place by a certain date.

I spoke to a builder who has read the information on the BER website closely: . There is a 19 page document called, ‘Building the Education Revolution Guidelines’

He said private schools get total flexibility in being able to spend the money any way they want within the parameters of building. He said government schools have a lot of limits because they have to be DET (Department of Education and Training) approved. Amongst the ‘Conditions for Funding’ it states:

“Design templates or configurations must be used by states, territories and BGAs, wherever possible. Consideration will be given to a school that has a preapproved design ready to build, or can demonstrate that non-use of a template is reasonable, appropriate and that the building process can still be expedited and achieved in prescribed timeframes.”

I spoke to a builder in charge of 6 BER projects. He sounded frantic. He said the Catholic schools he is organising are having renovations and additions. The government schools are having halls with the same template, the difference is that one is having toilets and the other isn’t.

The 1st builder I mentioned, said if schools wanted to object to the standard hall, they would have had to go into the third round of funding, which is apparently being cut.

“It was better to shut up and not object, so we got a hall. You have to play the game. If we’d objected to the hall we ran the risk of missing out.”

When I asked him about the design of the hall he said, “form follows function. It’s a hall.”

Why is bureaucracy so rigid? “In future they might have more environmentally sensitive designs. It doesn’t have to be that way,” he said.

Why do children in government schools get this uninspiring, insensitive architecture?

There seems to be two separate rules for government and private schools. I went up to a Spring Fair at a Steiner school in the Blue Mountains. They have funding from the BER to build a new performance hall. We had a good chat to the guy who’s creating it, an English builder who lives in the Mountains. He worked on the recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre for 5 years, which was built using rendered straw bales and thick wood beams held together with pegs. He’s a craftsman and he’s recreating that method at this school. There were so many architect-drawn plans and there had been so much community consultation. They cut down trees off the land for the beams and got free fill from local roadworks for their new driveway. They have used their money so carefully. The boys were learning how to make the long hexagonal pegs to hold the thing together using a special tool, it was great.

Where are the best high schools in Sydney which have these qualities:

Emotionally healthy principal, strength-based parent involvement, great programs in place, natural gardens, spacious grounds,  Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) families and healthy food at the canteen?

Which primary schools and high schools (preferably co-ed) do you recommend and why?

Posted in: Children