School Planning, Design and Construction Conference

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Planning for the future is the great work of state governments. And what could be more important than planning for the future education of our children. 

Prior to my election as Labor Leader in January last year I served as shadow minister for Planning. It was in that role that I developed a keen interest in planning the schools that our rapidly growing population will need.

Smart societies invest in their schools.

Education is essential to economic prosperity and to social mobility.

Planning in education matters. We must plan for the future, and in order to plan effectively, we need to understand the current situation in NSW schools.

Many of our public schools are already stretched to, or over, capacity.

We recently obtained documents under Freedom of Information laws which show that 37 per cent of NSW schools are currently either at, or above, 100 per cent capacity. Some schools are at 200 per cent capacity.

Some examples: Orange Grove Public School is operating at a whopping 164 per cent. Bondi Public School is operating at 141 per cent.

Cramming our children into overcrowded classrooms is not a conducive environment for learning.

As I am sure most of you are aware, the consequence is that our schools are being forced to use demountable classrooms to manage the booming school population in NSW. This is not a solution.  

Demountables take space from kids. Kids need to run around and in many schools crowded with demountables, we now see staggered playtimes.

And added to the overcrowding and demountables, we also have a $732 million maintenance backlog in our public schools.

The bill is growing faster than the Government can fix it.  For some schools at the current rate of spending it will take decades to clear the backlog.

So whilst we must adequately plan for the future, we also need to look after the children in our schools now. Our principals and teachers should be focusing on our children’s education, and not be side-tracked by leaky taps and worn carpets. 

Our children deserve the best possible learning environment – not over-crowded classrooms, and not demountables.

And we are experiencing an explosion in the school age population.

We will have to find the classrooms for an additional quarter of a million students in NSW schools by 2031. Of those, 165,000 will be attending a public school.

Earlier this year the Department of Education revealed that there is a $10.8 billion shortfall when it comes to funding the school places needed in the next fifteen years.

However, if you look at how much the Government is actually spending on new schools and upgrades of existing schools - and assume that rate of spending will continue into the future - it will take 45 years for this Government to deliver the new schools we need in 15 years’ time.

That means that it will take until 2061 to deliver the school places needed by 2031. A mere 30 years behind schedule.

As well as not adequately planning for new schools, the Government has failed to deliver on the new schools it has in fact promised.  

A new school at Wentworth Point has been promised in five budgets in a row. Construction has not yet commenced. Families have now been told it won’t open next year as was promised – putting even more pressure on nearby Newington Public School.

A promised school in Jordan Springs has not had a dollar put towards it.

In these fast growing suburbs, families with children should not be forced to choose between moving to another suburb, or a long commute to a school further afield. 

The Government’s predilection to selling off public land wherever possible is short-sighted and reduces options for building new schools and expanding existing ones.  

The sale of the Lidcombe Motor Registry in my electorate is a good example. The government should have given the land to neighbouring Lidcombe Public School to help them house a growing school population.

The soon to be vacated Powerhouse at Ultimo and Sydney University’s Cumberland campus should be priority sites for new schools.

So what is the solution? How do we plan new schools properly?

We need immediate action given the immensity of the challenge.

Here are five ideas from the Labor Opposition.

First I believe the Government should immediately audit all public land in NSW, across all government departments and agencies. An audit will allow us to identify suitable locations for new schools and expansions of existing schools in the areas of greatest need.

We know that the single largest expense when it comes to building new schools is acquiring the land – the Education Department has estimated it at $6 billion between now and 2031.

That is why we should take unused, and underused, government land and turn it into schools. It will save money in the long run.  We should not be selling off land which could be used for new schools. It just isn’t worth it – the education of our kids comes first.

Second, Labor proposes that we give the Greater Sydney Commission the power to require government departments and agencies to hand over land identified as being suitable locations for both new and expanded schools.

We would elevate the Greater Sydney Commission from an agency within the Planning Department to a powerful body at the centre of government.

An empowered Greater Sydney Commission should be tasked to deliver the schools we need in the suburbs where they are most needed.

This change, on its own, would mean an unprecedented prioritisation of school building by the government of the state.

Third, we also need a uniform planning code for schools – to assist the Catholic and independent sectors when they are seeking to build new schools. The education of our children should not be held up because of red tape regarding planning. Non-government schools should not face extortionate demands from local councils for infrastructure contributions.

A uniform planning code will also ensure that new schools have the best possible facilities. It will ensure every school has proper provision for cars and parking, as well as drop offs and picks ups.

Fourth, the Labor Government I lead will make it the policy of the state that every new school must include childcare or before and after school care facilities on site.

Co-locating schools and child care centres will end the “double drop off” for many parents.

Fifth: Our schools should not operate just from 9am to 3pm. They should be modern, multi-purpose education precincts, making the most of the land they sit on.

Schools will always have the education of our children as their priority, but they are also important facilities funded by taxpayers – and we should therefore leverage our investment in school infrastructure for the wider community. They are public infrastructure which is of course well utilised during term, but often lies empty after the last bell rings, on the weekend and during holidays.

Schools should not just be locked up from 3pm to 9am. Rather, local schools should be encouraged to make their facilities more accessible out of hours to the wider community - to share or hire out their assets to local communities at times when they would otherwise be empty.

Communities across NSW are desperate for access to good facilities – whether that is the playing fields, halls, community spaces or classrooms.

The funds that schools raise from hiring out these facilities can be used by the schools to enhance the educational opportunities for students.

Some schools already do this very effectively, but we need to reduce the barriers to encourage more schools to share their facilities with the wider community outside of school hours.

We need big and bold thinking when it comes to school planning. And we need a clear vision for the future.

That is certainly what I want to deliver for NSW, and that is why conferences like this are so important.

I believe we can and must do better in this important area.  Planning for the future education needs of our state will ensure that we have both equity and excellence in education.

We need to secure the future of our state’s schools now.