School Overcrowding

With a property development boom, insufficient planning and investment has left many Queensland schools bursting at the seams

School Overcrowding

This election, it’s been good to see a lot more discussion about school capacity in South Brisbane. The pressure we’re seeing on West End State School and Brisbane State High is the result of poor planning by successive governments. While it’s great to finally see the government propose a new high school (yay!) and announce that it has acquired land at Dutton Park, the fact that it has taken an extremely tight election and over a decade of advocacy from West End community groups to get to this point is a reminder of how slow and ineffective our political system is at responding to residents’ basic needs.

 

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Planning for the future 

The Greens will make property developers and big corporations pay their fair share to fund the crucial public infrastructure that our growing suburbs need.

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Giving residents a meaningful say

The Greens will be advocating for a trial of a ‘citizen jury’ to engage in in-depth decision-making around the location, capacity and design of a new school or schools.


The State Government has said that it will undertake community consultation and that if the community doesn’t support the proposed Dutton Park location, it will use the site for green space instead. No information has been provided as to how the community’s support for the site will be measured. It seems unlikely that the government would contemplate giving residents a direct vote. Residents who remember the “community consultation” process that occurred before the Deputy Premier’s approval of West Village, or the Queen’s Wharf Casino, will understandably be a little skeptical.

While there are certainly a lot of strong arguments in favour of the Dutton Park site, the decision-making process to date has not been especially transparent. I understand the local reference group (comprised of reps from each of the existing school P&Cs) was not even aware that the State Government was negotiating to acquire land at Dutton Park.

Recent statements from the State Government appeared to rule out large industrial sites within the Kurilpa Peninsula as possible school sites on the basis that companies or developers would be unwilling to give up the real estate and that negotiating for these sites would take a long time. This raises questions about how seriously other locations were considered, or whether the Dutton Park site was chosen primarily because the land was cheaper and more readily available. If the Government is unwilling to compulsorily acquire land off private corporations, has this cut short the opportunity to discuss other possible responses to school overcrowding? For example, did the government consider the possibility of multiple smaller new high schools (one in the west of the State High catchment where population growth is highest, and another towards the east)?

The State Government has suggested that the new Dutton Park High School would have a capacity of around 1,500 students on a relatively small site footprint. Innovative design solutions can perhaps address some of the concerns about density, but there’s a bigger issue we should be talking about. Current population growth projections for both the 4101 and 4102 postcodes suggest that creating 1500 new high school places within the inner-south side might not actually be enough.

BCC’s targets in the Local Government Infrastructure Plan (which has the apparent support of the State Government) indicate that by 2031, the 4101 postcode will have approximately 52,000 dwellings (currently the total number of dwellings in South Brisbane, West End and Highgate Hill is around 23,300). Meanwhile Woolloongabba is projected to grow from 6,000 to 19,000 dwellings (but much of that growth will be outside the existing Brisbane State High catchment) and Dutton Park will grow by a couple thousand. Even if the overall proportion of school-age students decreases somewhat, it’s hard to see how a single new high school at Dutton Park will accommodate that level of growth in Brisbane’s inner-south side. If the State Government is supportive of that kind of population growth over the next fifteen years, it will need to build two new high schools, or else substantially increase Brisbane State High’s ability to accommodate in-catchment local students.

We’re also seeing increasingly tight competition for places at BSHS between students who live within the school catchment, and students from outside of the catchment seeking merit-based entry. For a range of reasons, I think it’s time our community started the tough conversation about the proportion of merit-entry places at BSHS. State High has an excellent reputation (and deservedly so) which is in part driving population increases in the area, as people move to the neighbourhood to be able to enroll their children at BSHS. As real estate agents will attest, properties within the BSHS catchment often sell for significantly higher than those just outside the catchment boundaries. This demand also increases enrolment pressures on West End State School, with some parents enrolling children there in year 6 specifically so they can get into BSHS.

Merit-entry leads to a talent drain from other public schools, and encourages more students who live further away to commute into South Brisbane, thus unnecessarily increasing congestion on both roads and public transport. The high proportion of merit-based students means that there are fewer spaces for students living within the catchment. I’ve heard numerous anecdotal stories from families who are struggling to get accepted at BSHS, despite living in the catchment. Often it is lower-income families and migrant families who struggle the most to navigate the increasingly bureaucratic BSHS application process, in part because these less privileged families are renters who struggle to provide evidence of residing in the area due to a rental market where many landlords don’t provide long-term written leases.

Every political candidate will say that they believe we need to be better supporting all surrounding public high schools, like Yeronga and Coorparoo, which are currently below capacity. Local state schools should be well resourced to be the first and preferred choice for all parents and students. But as long as Brisbane State High has a large merit-based out-of-catchment intake it will - rightly or wrongly - be perceived by many parents as a higher-status, better quality school. No matter what measures the school takes, out-of-catchment parents will still feel a strong incentive to either find loopholes to enroll their children there, or to move into the catchment, thus driving up property values and forcing out lower-income renting families. Brisbane State High has a proud history as a school for all of Brisbane, but in this day and age, I think if the school is going to continue taking in students from outside the catchment, the priority should be students from low-SES backgrounds/marginalised families, rather than high-achievers who will probably excel regardless of which school they go to.

The Greens have been pushing for a new school in South Brisbane for a long time, and If elected I will pressure Labor to stick to their election commitment. Electing a Greens rep will help increase the pressure to ensure the community is actually consulted on future big decisions about the new school.  I have made it clear that a Greens MP will never work with the LNP or One Nation and will instead seek a confidence and supply deal with Labor. Part of that deal will include ensuring the funding for a new school remains in the budget.

I’ll also be advocating for a trial of a ‘citizen jury’ to engage in in-depth decision-making around the location, capacity and design of a new school or schools. We’ve proposed a trial of citizen juries for the development of neighbourhood plans (you can read more here - https://greens.org.au/qld/planning), and this question of how to address school overcrowding would be an ideal opportunity to put this into action. As a suggestion, the jury could comprise of:

  • Representatives from each of the nearby public primary and high school P&Cs and school administrations (West End State School, Dutton Park State School, Buranda State School, East Brisbane State School, Brisbane State High, Coorparoo State High School and Yeronga State High School)

  • A larger proportion of randomly selected residents from all three high school catchment areas

The jury would seek advice and input from independent experts, local councillors, representatives from the Department of Education, BCC town planners and whoever else it deems relevant. The citizen jury would consider a broader range of options to address school overcrowding issues, with options such as multiple new high schools and rethinking Brisbane State High’s enrolment management program on the table. The jury would then recommend the three best options and put these to a binding public vote by all residents enrolled in the South Brisbane electorate, administered by the Electoral Commission Queensland.

The decision of how best to address school overcrowding is clearly a big one, requiring consideration of a range of complex factors. It’s important that all affected residents are given a meaningful say in this decision, which will shape the future of our electorate for decades to come.