Published at The Conversation, Friday 22 January

Australia’s population is booming. With it will come more school students – an estimated 650,000 more by 2026, an increase of 17% from today. Many new schools will be needed. Planning new schools is a long-term game: a child born today will start school in 2021 and complete year 12 in 2033.

How well are our planners doing? Will there be a shortage of school places? As a parent or a prospective parent, should you worry? The answer depends very much on where you live.

High-level demographic analysis can help us see the big trends. However, the issues can be very local, including how full your local schools are now, and school zoning regulations.

How many new schools, and how much will they cost?

To accommodate these extra 650,000 students, some 400 to 750 new schools will be needed. (Currently, there are about 9,400 schools in Australia.) Most will be primary schools – about 250 to 500.

Between two-thirds and three-quarters are likely to be government schools, with the remainder being either Catholic or Independent.

It costs about A$15 million to build a relatively standard primary school and more than twice as much for a secondary school. State governments will therefore need to find about A$6-11 billion to build government schools, close to a billion dollars every year on average. This is on top of the costs of maintaining existing schools.

At least in New South Wales this will mean a big uplift in investment. It has been reported that the NSW public school system is facing a A$7 billion shortfall in infrastructure spending over the next two decades.

By way of context, governments spent about A$41 billion in 2013-14 on running schools.

Where will the new schools be needed?

Over 90% of Australia’s extra students will live in our four large states.

Queensland has the fastest growth rate, followed closely by Victoria. Victoria, NSW and Queensland will all have about 170,000-180,000 new students. Western Australia will have about 60,000 new students. (As an indication of how population estimates can change, the forecast growth rate in Western Australia dropped from 32% in a 2013 ABS projection to 17% in WA’s own projections in 2015.)

Of the smaller jurisdictions, Australian Capital Territory is growing most rapidly. The Northern Territory is next, but the remoteness of many students complicates planning. South Australia is growing more slowly but will still add 30,000 students, while Tasmanian growth is virtually flat.

Longer-term trends also matter, because they affect the mindset of planners. Queensland and Western Australia have had growing populations for decades. By contrast, NSW and Victoria had 20 years of low or no growth in student numbers during the 1990s and 2000s. Many schools were closed and the land was sold off. But student numbers are now set to grow for the foreseeable future. Permanent solutions are needed, not just fleets of portable classrooms.

How do the issues differ in different locations?

Growth rates are highly localised, reflecting the development of new suburbs, and evolving patterns of where Australian families live. Using local government area data, I analysed where student population growth will be highest over the coming decade. Different states show very different patterns.

Most of the new schools will be needed in the outer-growth corridors of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth; the big Queensland cities outside Brisbane; and the resurgent inner city of Melbourne and to a lesser extent Sydney.

Each location has different planning issues.

In the outer growth corridors of big cities, communities are being formed from scratch. They are often full of young families, attracted by cheaper housing. But jobs can be scarce and commutes long. Unless good social networks develop, dreams of a better life can turn sour.

Schools play a central role in building community fabric: good schools help new suburbs grow into strong communities. The good news is that governments are very aware of this. Innovative models of primary school are being trialled, including integrated childcare and health facilities.

It helps that buying land for schools in such areas is cheap. However, just keeping up with the growth can be tough. In Wyndham, south-east of Melbourne, 100 new classrooms will be needed every year for the next decade.

Each big Queensland city has different planning issues. Ispwich, west of Brisbane, will have more new students than any other local government area in Australia. While the city itself is long-established, new housing developments are driving massive growth.

The Gold and Sunshine Coasts, have been growing for decades; planners have no excuse if new schools are not factored in. Meanwhile, Queensland’s regional cities are subject much more to local economic cycles, including tourism, construction and mining. This is hard to plan for.

Forecasts of student numbers are most unpredictable in mining boom towns. Unpalatable as it may sound to some, maybe this is the one situation where portable classrooms are the best solution. When the population moves, the classroom can move too. In the best cases, mining companies provide substantial support for community infrastructure.

In the inner city, the big issue is the cost and scarcity of land.

Australians are choosing to live closer to the city, lured by shorter commutes and access to more jobs. Many stay when they have children, especially in Melbourne and Sydney, rather than moving out to the suburbs. (The number of students in inner Brisbane and inner Perth is growing much more slowly.)

Governments have been much worse at planning for the booming number of inner-city children. For example, Melbourne’s Docklands still has no school.

School spots are also scarce in the lower north shore of Sydney. One of the hotspots is the North Ryde Station Urban Activation Precinct, where no new school was planned despite an expected 24,000 new residents moving into the area. At least in that case a previously closed school site is available.

Worse is to come, especially in Melbourne. Melbourne’s five most central local government areas will each see a 30% to 60% increase in student numbers over the next decade.

The mini-baby boom that started in about 2006 will hit secondary schools in 2017 or 2018. Many schools are already overcrowded. Too few new schools are planned, although more are reportedly in the pipeline.

Why does poor planning matter?

Poor planning is clearly a big issue for parents who struggle to find a local government school for their children. Many feel forced to pay non-government school fees, or travel a long way to access a school.

There is also some evidence that overcrowded schools have a significantly negative impact on student learning.

But it is not just those directly affected who should care. Poor school planning costs taxpayers big bucks, especially in urban redevelopment projects.

A stark example of this is Fisherman’s Bend, Victoria’s largest urban redevelopment. More than twice the size of Docklands, it will eventually require about six to ten government schools. Yet when it was rezoned overnight in 2012, no land was set aside for schools. The price of land has risen fourfold since rezoning.

The Victorian government will have to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to acquire the land for schools. Better planning could have paid for dozens of schools in outer suburbs where land is cheap. This is waste on a massive scale.

Our current decision-making processes are not set up well. Long-term planning plus varied growth rates lead to political issues.

Local politicians in high-growth areas like to announce new schools and cut ribbons – as do education ministers and premiers.

Treasurers who face budget pressures may argue strongly to limit investment. Politicians in slow-growth electorates may be reluctant to see infrastructure money go elsewhere. Short political cycles mean that a minister who decides not to build a school may be long gone by the time it becomes critical.

Local groups have been vocal about the need for new schools in their areas. Increasingly, groups like Our Children Our Schools are banding together. Community campaigns are even more effective when backed by hard facts about the number of pre-schoolers or primary students already in the system.

Should you worry?

As a current or prospective parent, whether you should worry about school shortages depends entirely on where you live.

Inner-city parents in urban redevelopment zones are the most likely to have problems getting their children into a government school, followed by young families in outer growth corridors.

Many other parents will live in local government areas with low or no growth, and wonder what all the fuss is about.

As a taxpayer, you should definitely worry about whether schools are being planned effectively. Poor planning places a large and unnecessary burden on state budgets.

The way forward is to depoliticise the planning process, in part by increasing the transparency of detailed supply and demand forecasts.

The focus of our politicians should be on how to improve the quality of schooling for every Australian student, not who gets to cut what ribbon.

The Conversation