Victorian secondary schools face population squeeze as baby-boom generation comes of age

At Melton Secondary College, perched on the fringe of Melbourne’s north-western sprawl, teachers are forced to roster class heating and cooling.

It’s because the extra portable classrooms brought in to accommodate the student overflow are draining too much power from the school’s current substation.

“We have 40-year-old buildings with a capacity of 900 students and we’re now nearly 1,100 enrolments — and growing,” school council president Chris Papas said.

“There are only three state secondary schools in an area, with up to eight primary feeder schools … and we’re all bursting at the seams.”

It’s among the Victorian schools facing a big squeeze, as those born in the baby boom that began in 2006 reach high school this year.

“With secondary schools, the crunch has arrived and it’s going to get worse,” said the Grattan Institute’s school education program director, Pete Goss.

Melton Secondary College is feeling the squeeze so tightly that it’s had to remove student lockers from narrow, congested corridors to prevent a crush during lesson changes and breaks.

And it’s only set to worsen. This year, the school had 170 students begin Year 7 — next year, it will jump to 265.

At a tipping point

Within five years, Mr Papas believes the school is on track to reach up to 1,600 students.

Last week, Labor promised to build 100 new schools in Victoria over eight years, including in growth areas like Melton.

But the Government says only a third of the first 45 schools built will be secondary schools, and Melton City Council believes none of the first five promised for its municipality will be secondary level.

The Opposition is promising hundreds of millions in education infrastructure.

But Victoria isn’t just building more schools — it’s making them bigger.

At Manor Lakes P-12, south of Melton, enrolments are projected to grow from 2,000 at present to 3,000 in just five years.

Wyndham City Council, also in Melbourne’s west, is predicting “an explosion” in the number of secondary-school-aged children trying to get into its already “overcrowded” campuses.

“We’re now at that tipping point,” said Good Education Group’s Ross White.

“The focus needs to shift, whether that’s expanding the existing schools, more resources for existing schools or new schools.”

Mr Goss said the old days of having a single-storey school spread out across a big area are probably gone in Melbourne.

“And there’s nothing wrong with having multi-storey schools, as long as it’s designed with that in mind, and there’s still enough outdoor space for kids to play,” he said.

Map of Melbourne showing red and green areas. The dark red areas highlight the areas of Melbourne with the highest proportion of students in primary school. Source: Good Education Group

The mega-school phenomenon

Turning existing schools into “mega-schools” means going up, Mr Papas said — building multi-storey buildings on the existing sites, to give students access to more open space.

“If we had these mega-schools that were purposefully designed, I think it would be good,” he said.

“I think we’d actually save a lot of money over the longer term because you wouldn’t have to duplicate multiple services.

The Labor Government has already built a number of multi-storey “vertical” schools in Victoria, designed to fit more students onto smaller blocks of land.

The Opposition’s education spokesman, Tim Smith, said the Liberals, if elected, would seek the advice of a population commission on whether having more mega-schools is the best way to cope with ballooning student enrolments.

“There is a debate whether [large schools] are going to increase, improve student outcomes … there’s always a difference of opinion,” he said.

Victoria’s five largest schools (by enrolment)

Source: Victorian Dept of Education and Training, February 2018

Is bigger better?

Mr Goss said research showed student progress did not vary a lot based on school size, but there were pros and cons to having giant schools.

“When schools get bigger, they can actually really benefit,” he said.

“You can offer a wider range of subjects, you can hire teachers who are specialists in different subjects, and the diversity of extra-curricular activities can be broader.

“But it’s important that students in large schools don’t get lost in the mix — that every student has at least one adult who knows their name, knows what they care about, and makes them feel like they belong.”

With Victoria’s population continuing to surge at a breakneck pace, decisions will need to be made quickly.

Mr Papas said while the Government had funded a new administration building, oval upgrade and change rooms at Melton Secondary College, pleas for a new performing arts centre have fallen on deaf ears and the old 1970s-buildings are “well and truly past their use-by date”.

“They’re no longer fit for purpose,” he said.

“Tell me any industry or business that’s still operating out of the same premises 40 years on, with no upgrades — they wouldn’t be around now, would they?

“It’s clearly a disgrace and an absolute travesty that the investment hasn’t even been able to keep pace with what’s going, let alone trying to track in front, which is what should be happening as good communities grow.”

This story was produced in collaboration with ABC News and is one of a five-part special series focusing on key education issues in the lead up to the Victorian election. More episodes.

 

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This story originally appeared on ABC News – Victorian secondary schools face population squeeze as baby-boom generation comes of age

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