The Department of Education (Department) must provide students with a place in a government school if parents desire it. Over the next 15 years, the student population in NSW Government and non-government schools is projected to grow by 21 per cent to nearly 1.5 million students. Over 80 per cent of this is expected to be in the Sydney metropolitan area.
Improving education outcomes of students is a NSW State Priority. Research shows that well designed and maintained facilities improve student learning outcomes. A strategic objective of the 2014 State Infrastructure Strategy Update is to ‘equip growing urban and regional populations with the modern schools and training infrastructure required to deliver educational service for a competitive, innovative economy’.
This audit assessed whether the Department has a strategy and implementation model to ensure it has sufficient fit-for-purpose student learning spaces when and where needed.
For much of the last decade, there has been chronic under-investment in NSW government school infrastructure and deficiencies in asset planning. Many schools have more students than can be accommodated in existing classrooms, and demountables are widely used for extended periods. The condition of classrooms has been declining due to insufficient maintenance, and many are not configured to support contemporary and desired future learning and teaching methods. At the same time, the government school student population is predicted to grow further, particularly in Sydney.
In response to this challenging situation, the Department has recently developed a School Assets Strategic Plan (Strategic Plan) designed to accommodate the expected student population up to 2031. This is the first such plan for the Department. It is a good plan. It covers the issues we would expect and has benefited from expert input and independent validation of assumptions, proposed solutions, and the likely costs.
The strategy embodied in the Plan includes elements that may be confronting for the community. To contain costs, the Department proposes several potentially controversial changes to the way schools are planned, designed, built, managed and funded. These include increasing the maximum number of students in new and redeveloped schools; stronger emphasis on redeveloping schools; smaller, more intensely developed sites; changing and enforcing school catchments; increased partnerships with the private sector and more recycling of school assets to deliver better facilities.
Even with these reforms, the estimated cost of infrastructure needed up to 2031 is significantly more than the Department has been receiving to date. Without the proposed reforms, the Department will need much more again. The Department’s funding estimates are conservative due to the scale of proposed reform, the radical change it represents, and the risks to implementation. At the time of the audit, the government had not committed to make available the funding needed to implement the Plan.
Even if the Department obtains additional funding, implementing such a major reform will be challenging. It will require effective collaboration between, and the support of, school communities, local government, potential private sector partners, the non-government schools sector and government agencies. Many risks will need to be mitigated, any of which could undermine the strategy and drive up costs.
Further savings beyond those already identified would be possible through changing operational policies on matters such as class sizes, operating hours, and single-sex, selective, sports and performing arts schools. Any changes to such policies have implications beyond just infrastructure cost and are likely to be even more controversial.