Newcastle and Hunter schools facing population "crisis" as enrolments surge | interactive, video

A looming public school infrastructure “crisis” could leave the Hunter’s independent and Catholic schools straining without significant investment, according to a leading educator.

A Fairfax Media investigation has revealed the region desperately needs new schools to cope with an unprecedented enrolment surge.

The swelling has already seen public schools turn away younger siblings, independent schools put newborns on waiting lists and Catholic schools embark on a bold new building plan.

Hunter Region Independent Schools (HRIS) spokesperson Paul Teys said the state government must build new public schools and invest in non-government schools to avert disaster.

“There is a serious problem for the state government in terms of population growth,” Mr Teys said.

“We’re talking hundreds of new schools needed for 2025 and the government is not planning for it.

“They’ve got a crisis on their hands - and they’ve got the blinkers on.”

The NSW budget stated public schools were experiencing a “once in a generation spike in enrolments” and were projected to grow by more than 45,000 pupils over the next four years.

The government allocated an extra $942 million to meet growth and bring spending on new schools, upgrades and facilities to $2.6 billion for the next four years.

In the Hunter, only Bolwarra Public has major work scheduled before next July.

Fairfax analysis of Department of Education figures shows the region’s public primary enrolments grew by 2409, or 5.8 per cent, between 2012 and 2016.

Among the 168 public primary schools, 16 per cent had enrolments rise by more than a fifth this year compared to 2012. Laguna Public School grew by 77.5 per cent, Lochinvar by 75.8 per cent and Islington by 74.7 per cent.

A Department of Education spokesperson said growth in Hunter enrolment over the next four years could not be “exactly quantified, but is not expected to be a large portion of the 45,000 statewide - the large majority of this growth will be in the greater Sydney area”.

During the past decade the department has closed seven Hunter schools including Gateshead West Public, which merged with Gateshead to become Wiripaang.

It has opened only two: Ashtonfield, which has the sixth biggest student population among the region’s public primary schools, and Woodberry Learning Centre.

The department attributes the rising numbers to birth rate, demographic changes and parental choices.

A spokesman said the department monitors demographic changes and plans accordingly to ensure schools can cater for changes in local enrolments. Critics believe some schools are already facing overpopulation and want action now.

Greens education spokesman David Shoebridge said the lack of new schools or upgrades for the Hunter was in line with an “ongoing pattern of government neglect”.

“This is not a spike, it’s an ongoing surge in public school enrolments,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“In the next five years we will be needing new primary schools and investment in existing classrooms and that surge is going to be finding its way to high schools.”

Growing pains: Rutherford Public students, Alyssa Forth, 11, Kody Dawson 5, Sierra Grace 5, and Will Gibson, 12. Picture: Simone De Peak.

Growing pains: Rutherford Public students, Alyssa Forth, 11, Kody Dawson 5, Sierra Grace 5, and Will Gibson, 12. Picture: Simone De Peak.

The Greens are seeking support for an inquiry into planning for public primary school capacity, which they hope will cover Newcastle.

Newcastle East parents have already called for another school to be built in that catchment. It is one of many schools that has told out-of-zone parents it can no longer accept younger siblings.

Hunter Region Independent Schools’ Mr Teys said “all sectors have to take up the slack for population growth”, with independent primary enrolments also rising.

State investment in the non-government sector has dropped in recent decades, Mr Teys said, a trend that would need to change to accommodate growing student numbers.

“We [the independent sector] do have a role to play but I don’t think government has realised yet what that looks like in terms of investment and funding,” he said. “If we need to build schools, we need substantial investment of capital.”

Mr Teys said Hunter Valley Grammar School, where he is principal, has reached capacity after enrolling about 40 more primary schoolers this year than it did in 2012.

“Unless parents move quickly on an enrolment at least 12 months out they could miss out,” he said.

“Parents wanting to have a child enter kindy should make an application soon after the child is born.”

Hunter Catholic school populations have also risen steeply, with the diocese’s 44 primary schools now 559 students larger than in 2012.

Director of Schools Ray Collins said the diocese’s newest school -  St Aloysius in the growing Maitland suburb of Chisholm -  was sitting at 327 students just 18 months after opening.

Expansion will be considered as it nears capacity at 420 students, a milestone looming sooner than expected. New primary schools have been flagged at Medowie and in western Maitland but about half the diocese’s primary schools are full, landlocked and unable to expand.

The population wave in primary schools is yet to hit the region’s public high schools, which have 398 fewer students than in 2012.

Eight schools have lost more than 100 students in that time and only four have grown by more than 10 per cent.

The thin edge of the public school wedge is Rutherford, home to the region’s largest primary school, with 797 students. Some projections have the school reaching 1000 pupils in coming years.

Principal Andrew Brown said his school had 32 classes and was one or two students away from being able to apply for another teacher.

“It’s all related to development around the area - it’s expanded exponentially in the past couple of years,” Mr Brown said.

“But the school is not bursting or cramped or overcrowded.

“It is about being creative with space. We’ve been able to secure extra land that’s not being used from our neighbours, the baptist church, for playtime.

“The assets management team has been working with us to manage the change.”

A kilometre away, Rutherford Technology High’s enrolment has dropped 155 during the past four years.

It recently opened a $19.8 million suite of classrooms and learning spaces to replace 16 ageing demountables and prepare for the oncoming surge.

Principal Michael Whiting attributed the recent drop in numbers to smaller primary school cohorts and the mining decline.

“But this year we’ve got around 190 in year seven and we’re starting to grow again,” he said. 

“We’re predicted to hit 1300 in the next five years.”

That compares to rising Catholic and independent secondary enrolments, with a net gain of 411 Catholic students across 12 high schools. The first new Catholic high schools in the Hunter for 30 years, Chisholm’s St Bede’s Catholic College and an unnamed Medowie school, open in 2018 and 2020. Lochinvar’s All Saints College St Joseph’s Campus and St Mary’s at Gateshead will cater through to year 12 from 2018.

Mr Collins said the diocese was responding to demand, with the expansions also reducing the burden on students travelling long distances.

Port Stephens MP Kate Washington said half Medowie’s secondary students attend schools in the already over-capacity Tomaree, Maitland or Newcastle.

“It’s an hour each way by bus to Newcastle and that’s the life of a lot of kids.”

Ms Washington praised the diocese for investing in Medowie but pointed to a “dire need”  for a public high school to cater for growth in primary cohorts.

“The department really has to look at what’s happening on the ground and show it is addressing priorities for the future and there has been no sense that’s happening here,” she said.

HRIS gained 903 secondary students, growing six per cent between 2012 and 2016.

Mr Teys said it was common for families to send their children to a public or Catholic primary school near home, but look further afield to the Independent sector for high school.

Why the numbers are down

HUNTER schools that have experienced changes to their student population have offered a number of reasons for the variation – but all expect future growth.

Argenton Public School has educated up to three generations of its surrounding families, but has seen its numbers in the past four years dwindle by 53 per cent to 25 students.

Principal Leanda Guy pointed to changing demographics and said most of the homes in the school’s small enrolment zone housed empty nesters or former Argenton pupils now in high school.

“It’s just starting to turn over, only now are we starting to see a few homes go up for sale, lease and rent,” she said.

“We’re expecting a larger kindergarten class next year and are expecting to grow to 33, that will keep us at two classes.”

Mrs Guy said the school’s size provided a “family-like atmosphere” for students.

“For some children who have anxiety issues or learning or behavioural problems, a smaller number allows us to cater for specific needs.”

Lake Macquarie High principal Brendan Maher started in his role in November and said while he couldn’t explain why the school had shed 133 students, it was “addressing that aggressively”.

The school will launch the Lake Macquarie Area Collegiate next month, which will help its teachers share knowledge with feeder primary school colleagues to build science, technology, engineering and maths skills from years three to 10.

He said he also expected numbers to increase as families moved into Bunderra at Boolaroo and Billy’s Lookout at Teralba.

Principal of the fast-growing Callaghan College Wallsend, Paul Tracey said there had been a “population explosion” in western Newcastle between Wallsend and Minmi.

“It’s an innovative school doing really good things and people are talking with their feet,” he said.

“The Educator magazine named us last year as one of top 40 innovative schools in Australia.

“In 2013 we were recognised as one of Pearson Education International’s top three 21st century schools worldwide and shortlisted as a finalist for its School of the Year Award.”

Mr Tracey said the school was almost at capacity.

Right decision: Catherine and Mark Stace said St Mary's at Gateshead was the "best place" for their sons Izaac, 13, and Lucas, 10. Picture: Jonathan Carroll.

Right decision: Catherine and Mark Stace said St Mary's at Gateshead was the "best place" for their sons Izaac, 13, and Lucas, 10. Picture: Jonathan Carroll.

The long drive for the right school

CATH and Mark Stace never had any doubts about where their sons Izaac and Lucas would go to school.

Mrs Stace relished her education at St Mary’s Gateshead in the 1980s and always hoped her children would follow in her footsteps.

“It’s a lovely place to be, the ethics and passion and experience that the staff exude permeates the whole school,” Mrs Stace said.

A lack of public transport from their “isolated pocket” of Murrays Beach means Izaac, 13, has to wake at 6am and either walk or get a lift along five hilly kilometres to the bus stop, where he starts a 45 minute ride past two public high schools.

The Staces are one of many families choosing to look beyond geographical convenience to the non-government sector.

A Newcastle Herald investigation has revealed that while enrolments in the region’s public, Catholic and independent primary schools have increased by more than a combined 3100 over the past four years, secondary public school numbers are slightly down.

A Department of Education spokesperson attributed the change to fluctuations related to “demographic changes and parental choice between schools within and between the government and non-government sectors”.

Catholic schools are up 411 since 2012 – St Mary’s has grown by 100 students, or 19.27 per cent and there is a waiting list for year seven next year – and independent secondary enrolments have grown by 903.

“No matter how challenging the public transport is, it’s worth it,” Mrs Stace said.

“Going to a closer school would make life a lot easier, but we value St Mary’s reputation and it’s turned out better than I could have ever imagined it to be.

“It’s the values they promote, the discipline, the safe environment, the level of pastoral care.

“Kids who come through could have placed at Hunter Sports High, Merewether High or Hunter School of the Performing Arts, but they choose to go to St Mary’s.”

The Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Schools Office’s decision to expand St Mary’s from years seven to 10 up to year 12 has saved Izaac an even longer journey to St Francis Xavier’s at Hamilton in the future.

The Catholic sector is the only one in the region to announce an expansion plan, which also includes changes to All Saints St Joseph’s Campus at Lochinvar and two new high schools in Chisholm and Medowie.

Director of Schools Ray Collins said the plan catered for current and future growth and aimed to reduce the number of children travelling long distances to attend Catholic schools.

He said it was also necessary to ease pressure on All Saints College St Peter’s campus at Maitland and San Clemente at Mayfield, which have recently been forced to turn students away.

Hunter Region Independent Schools spokesman Paul Teys said state government capital investment in the independent and Catholic sectors had “dropped significantly” in the past 20 years, which had been a disincentive to grow.

“If we want to expand, to lighten the load, we have to raise our own income to do that,” he said.

Mr Collins said about 60 per cent of the funds to build the diocese’s new schools came from an annual family levy that was introduced in 2003 and is now at $672.

He said the diocese was “very grateful” to the government for contributing to its capital programs but acknowledged “more would be better”.