A classroom crunch is looming at Victoria’s secondary schools as a baby boom pushes thousands of extra students through the primary ranks.
Families and experts have likened the education system to a time bomb, with the state’s bulging high schools unable to cope with the expected influx.
This year there are almost 8000 more students in prep than year 7 in state schools.
And the situation will escalate, with 12,000 more babies born in Victoria last year than a decade ago.
RMIT planning expert Michael Buxton said the closure of hundreds of inner-suburban schools had combined with a decade of rapid population growth to produce a perfect storm.
“This has been a sleeper issue for a number of years and I suspect that we’re now in for a very rude awakening,” Prof Buxton said.
Nowhere is the secondary school shortage more critical than Melbourne’s inner suburbs, where families are commonly forced to send their children to schools several suburbs away once they finish primary schooling.
Principals have complained about disappearing playgrounds as portable classrooms are trucked in to deal with soaring numbers.
About 37 per cent of the new arrivals will be absorbed by independent schools, leaving the Department of Education to accommodate the rest.
While the department said it had undertaken “sophisticated demographic modelling” on future education needs, it confirmed it had plans for only four schools.
Only one – Torquay Secondary College – will be a stand-alone school for years 7 to 12. Two will be prep to year 9 and the other for special-needs students.
The department refused to reveal its enrolment growth forecasts or when the new schools would open.
“When schools reach capacity the department provides relocatable buildings (for) additional students,” spokeswoman Megan McNaught said.
But relocatables are little comfort for parents in suburbs such as Richmond, where there has not been a co-educational state high school since Richmond Secondary College closed in 1992.
The school — later replaced by Melbourne Girls’ College – was among the first of more than 400 closed by the Kennett, Bracks and Brumby governments from 1992.
Richmond High School Choices — a parents’ group lobbying for a school in the area — said 92 per cent of Richmond’s girls who finished grade six in 2009 were still in the public system, while only 61 per cent of the suburb’s boys were still receiving a state education.
“We have four primary schools all bursting at the seams and just one secondary school for girls only,” group spokeswoman Virginia Dods said.
Yarra councillor Stephen Jolly said increased urban density and the desire of families to stay in the area had made the situation “a time bomb”.
“It has been ticking away for 15 years but it has been easy for governments to just hope it would go away,” Cr Jolly said.
It is a similar story in Coburg, after the Bracks Government closed Moreland City College in 2004, leaving the suburb without a year 7-12 school.
The battle has also been raging in the inner west, where parents from Seddon, Newport, Kingsville and Yarraville have been calling for a new high school.
Templestowe’s Julie Pastore, who has a daughter in prep, said a lack of secondary schools was the topic on every parent’s lips in the middle-ring suburbs.
“We are all concerned about the great unknown — what is going to happen in six or seven years’ time,” Ms Pastore said.
Australian Education Union secretary Mary Bluett is among those who say ballooning class sizes, shrinking playgrounds and declining educational standards are inevitable unless significant resources are thrown at the problem immediately.
Opposition education spokesman Rob Hulls accused the new government of ignoring the looming crisis, saying Labor would have built seven new schools over the next three years if it was still in power.
But Education Minister Martin Dixon put the blame back on to Labor, saying the previous government had pushed for population growth but “planning wasn’t keeping up”.
Mr Dixon cited Melbourne’s southeastern growth corridor, where Pakenham Secondary College was the sole state high school.
“Out there is a situation where there is 60 per cent of students in the independent school system – way above the state average of 37 per cent,” he said.
The Coalition had committed four times as much money as the previous government buying land for schools, he said.
While Mr Dixon said he was confident in the Government’s ability to meet demand for state schooling, he admitted he had seen no enrolment growth forecasts since coming to power.
“I don’t know how much will be needed over the next 10 years … I know that based on current projections, the sorts of things we announced in this year’s budget … would be a fairly typical year based on the figures we have now,” he said.
Portable classrooms are rapidly taking over the spaces where Victorian children used to play.
At Port Melbourne Primary School – where student enrolments have leapt from 122 in 2002 to 448 this year – principal Peter Martin has grown used to the steady arrival of relocatables.
“Based on the current growth rates and unless a new school is built in the area soon, my school oval will disappear under a sea of relocatable classrooms within three years,” Mr Martin said.
With enrolments expected to reach 784 by 2015, Mr Martin is worried about what will happen to his youngest pupils once they finish grade 6.
By then his 130 grade 6 graduates will be competing with students at three other primary schools for the 150 year 7 places on offer at Albert Park College, which opened this year and is already at capacity.
Across the Yarra River at Kingsville, Steve and Jo Hansby have three children aged 5, 7 and 9 but no local secondary schools.
“Kids from the local primary schools are now going to 13 or 14 different high schools and that is fracturing the community and putting strain on families,” Mr Hansby said.
Steve and Jo Hansby – with children Alex, 9, Petra, 7, and Marcus, 5 – are concerned about the lack of secondary schools in their area. Picture: Tony Gough