Several leading girls’ schools are buying tracts of land in the South West with backing from their foundations.
Private schools have made significant investments in regional campuses during the past few years, with leading girls’ schools responsible for the bulk of the recent activity.
In land terms, St Mary's Anglican Girls' School has been the biggest acquirer, almost doubling the size of its Metricup camp to 82 hectares with the acquisition of a neighbour’s 43ha farm for a reported $1.7 million.
But local rival St Hilda's Anglican School for Girls has invested more heavily in dollar terms, acquiring a 7.4ha property near Pemberton in 2019 for a reported $1.65 million, and then spending around $4 million to more than double its capacity to accommodate 150 students and staff.
The purchase by St Hilda's also highlights a reorientation in the purpose of some regional campuses, with the emphasis shifting to a more holistic integration into the education and wellbeing of the students, rather than being simply a place for outdoor adventure.
Among the boys’ schools, Trinity College was the only major school that appears to have made a recent investment in its facilities, with renovation work under way at its Camp Kelly bush camp in Dwellingup, close to where fellow Public Schools Association member Scotch College has its camp, as well as the state’s biggest private school, St Stephen’s School.
St Hilda’s principal Fiona Johnston said girls were about to venture to the new Yeagarup facility for the first time after COVID restrictions delayed use of the camp following the addition of three new dormitories to what was previously a cooking school.
Ms Johnston said the camp would play an integral part in the school’s Wandering Spirit wellbeing program, allowing the children to completely disengage from the usual distractions as part of the compulsory year nine rite of passage.
“That is quite a differentiator for us,” she said of the program.
Ms Johnston added the facility would be used as part of leadership courses and music retreats, as well as giving the students a chance to engage with the local community.
“Our food technology department is super keen to get down there and make connections with the industry in the region,” she said.
The $4 million expansion provided accommodation for 90 students and staff in three new dormitories, as well as an upgrade to existing buildings and the addition of a 950 square metre campground.
While perhaps a stretch to suggest there is a competitive edge to these developments by the girls’ schools, it is clear those that have invested feel they were at least matching their male peers, most of which have significant landholdings stretching back decades, albeit for the more traditional outdoor education experience.
St Mary’s highlights that its initial 39ha purchase at Metricup in 2005 made it the first girls’ school in Western Australia to run a dedicated outdoor education campus.
The new, significantly cleared site adjoins the school’s existing campsite, a more forested location that boasts a large recreation and dining area with commercial kitchen and four dormitories that sleep up to 112 students.
There’s also a separate camping ground that features eco tents, which can sleep up to 88 students and staff.
“We have been offering our primary and secondary students a wide range of programs and activities to experience risk-taking opportunities in a safe environment,” St Mary’s principal Judith Tudball told Business News.
Ms Tudball said The Lady Treatt Centre for Learning and Leadership was designed to make students comfortably uncomfortable, developing personal growth and resilience, which translated back into the classroom and in life beyond school.
“From the beginning, our focus has always been broader than the traditional adventure-based learning,” she said.
Ms Tudball said research showed the mental health benefits of regular access to green space for young people, and the school used the Metricup campus for expanding its wellbeing and mindfulness programs.
“We are also turning our attention to environmental programs and planning is under way to add experiences and studies on land rehabilitation and sustainability in the near future,” she said.
“Outdoor education remains an important part of St Mary’s at Metricup and our new adventure challenge course, a gift from the St Mary’s Foundation to mark our centenary in 2021, will open later this year, but it will also continue to be an important part of many other aspects of learning.”
The two schools’ purchases highlight the role of associated foundations to provide funds raised from alumni.
Last financial year, St Hilda's Foundation disbursed $2.4 million, the bulk of which was the conversion of half of a $4 million loan to St Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls to a donation to support the development of its Yeagarup campus near Pemberton.
St Mary's Anglican Girls' School Foundation also played a big role in funding the purchase of the Metricup land.
St Mary’s foundation chair Elizabeth Carr said the philanthropic fund bought the original parcel of land and it was fortuitous that an adjoining property came available last year as the school celebrated its centenary.
“Serendipity came our way in our 100th year,” she said.
Intriguingly, another leading girls’ school appears to have taken the opposite tack in 2014, selling a property used as a camp at Serpentine.
Property records show Perth College Inc sold the land for $520,000, 11 years after buying what was described as pristine natural bushland, for $90,000.
Like several schools, Perth College said it now opted for flexibility and partnered with an outdoor camp provider–The Outdoor Education Group–for delivery of age-appropriate outdoor experiences.
One outlier is Hale School, which purchased a 1,000sqm block in a new development in Exmouth, well out of the usual bus range for a camp.
It is understood the school does not use the site to accommodate children on camp but conducts expeditions in the area.
Business News understands it has been looking to expand its presence in the area by seeking to establish a bigger foothold on some land that could be used as a campsite and base for field trips to the area.
Hale is also understood to lease some land near Nannup for school camps involving its younger cohorts.