Hard News by Russell Brown

91

Schools: can we get a plan up in here?

The Herald has published an infographic that neatly illustrates the growth -- and in some cases decline -- of Auckland's school rolls. In my neighbourhood, Point Chevalier, it illustrates a problem that neither the Ministry of Education or Auckland Council wants to deal with: there is not enough capacity for children to attend a local school. Not now, and especially not in future.

Western Springs College, our local high school, has doubled its roll in the past decade, from 676 students in 2003 to 1319 in 2013. It's a level of growth exceeded only by a handful of schools in developing suburbs to the city's far southeast.

And that's not even where the real problem is. The real problem is that the local state primary, Point Chevalier School, cannot reasonably fit any more children on its existing site. The Herald graphic has its roll as 676 in July last year, but it's projected to reach 733 by year's end -- that's how fast the roll is growing. Children are now literally running into each other on the playing field. The ministry now wants back the land it leases to the local kindergarten.

But it's about to get worse. This is a suburb which, under the Unitary Plan, will stand to gain hundreds more families in coming years. It's an expansion of which, as you'll probably recall, I'm broadly in favour. But local schools are crucial infrastructure for families, and there has been no sense of purpose at all about the provision of that infrastructure.

A consultation exercise about the prospect of converting the suburb's small intermediate school came to nothing. The ministry says it's waiting on the Unitary Plan to be finalised. The Council says providing schools isn't its job.

"It's an absolute disaster in planning," Cameron Greig, who runs the Point Chevalier Hub website, told me.

When Point Chevalier School added a new classroom block four years ago, it asked the ministry for funding for a two-storey block, having conducted a survey that showed likely future roll growth.

"And the ministry just wouldn't listen," Cameron told me. "They said we deal with demand now, not future demand."

The ministry, he says, has made it clear there will be no land purchases in the area. The Council, which owns most of the open land in the area, isn't talking about parting with any of it. And it's a problem which applies to some extent across the whole Western Bays area. The state primary in nearby Westmere has seen 51% roll growth to 639 in the past 10 years. It, too, is eating up its own meagre footprint.

To be clear, these are (mostly) not poor suburbs. They've gentrified hugely in the past 20 years. And that only adds to the problem. The cost of land has become such that even conventional private childcare facilities are in danger of becoming uneconomic.

The Herald has followed up with another story today, noting an apparent roll drift from lower to higher decile schools, prompting Act's David Seymour to send a dispatch from libertarian la-la land, in which he compares schools to the purveyors of haircuts and flat whites. The private education market just needs to be unleashed, he insists.

And yet it seems reasonable to wonder if the ministry should have spent less of its time on such fringe adventures in recent years and more on the customary role of meeting the needs of growing local populations. Frankly, if associate education minister Nikki Kaye does any more hand-wringing about the matter, her fingers will fall off.

The council doesn't want to own the problem either, and perhaps that's understandable. But the bottom line is that someone needs to start thinking beyond the next year or two, because there's a trainwreck a-coming if no one does.

There is some hope. At the urging of the boards and principals of Point Chevalier, Western Springs and Pasadena Intermediate, the ministry has facilitated a reference group which (at the further urging of those three schools) will cover all educational facilities in the Western Bays, including early childhood and integrated Catholic schools.

The reference group met this morning and appointed Mike Dreaver of Grey Lynn as its coordinator. The best immediate option is for the Point Chevalier kindergarten to move to a new site on the grounds of Western Springs College, but it seems clear there's a bigger job yet to be done. It's a relief that these facts now seem to finally have been officially acknowledged.

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