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School Infrastructure

I read two very good articles from Peter Goss of the Grattan Institute today on school infrastructure. The first piece via The Conversation covers the challenge of schooling shortages on a national scale as a result of population growth. The second, a comment piece in The Age, specifically looked at Victoria’s issues: the lack of foresight in areas of growing demand – the growth corridors and inner Melbourne in particular – and the associated cost to government. This followed an earlier article from Henrietta Cook on the same issue.

It would seem obvious that government has not planned adequately for education in these areas. Regenerated inner and middle suburban areas that are once again home to school aged children highlight a lack of attention to need, or perhaps an assumption that families will accept transporting their children elsewhere for schooling. If the growth of groups like Our Children Our Schools is any indication, successive governments have misjudged the expectations of families.

On the other hand, it’s not misjudgment but a simple failure of planning policy that seems evident in the growth suburbs. In most of these areas it seems no land has been set aside for schools as development has occurred. Where’s the coordination within government? Why could this cost not have been borne by land developers? At the very least there should have been land set aside for schools and it should have been clearly linked to other infrastructure including public transport.

No doubt we’ll see non government schools take up some of the demand in these areas, which is a pity in some ways but probably inevitable. Does government take an active role in carving up provision between the government and non government schools or does it accept full responsibility itself?

In other areas we’ll see private-public partnership models adopted; a quick fix to be sure but also a very expensive one in the long term.

Under this sort of pressure government should also look at what rationalisation is possible among its existing schools. There might be an argument in rural Victoria to keep very small schools open, but the same logic doesn’t necessarily apply in all parts of metropolitan Melbourne. Since the Kennett years government have shied away from school closures but this may be looked at again, even if it’s through incentives for mergers. It’ll be a matter of managing public expectations and determining what balance of school size and local access can work best.

This is a problem Canberra can cheerfully ignore when it talks education, but one that is very real for state education ministers who have an inenviable job to do in balancing recurrent and capital funding needs in schools. Canberra has in the past stepped into the space of school infrastructure, but not always in concert with the states and not always with success. That would be a story for another day.