HUNTER schools need to more consistently enforce their enrolment policies to help alleviate overcrowding, according to Minister for Education Rob Stokes.
Mr Stokes told the Newcastle Herald his department had asked principals to work more closely together and have “clear agreements” about accommodating out of zone enrolments.
“When we have schools which are operating above capacity and there is strong demand continuing in that school from out of area enrolments, we actually have to be real and say ‘We have to identify what that reason is’,” Mr Stokes said.
“Largely I suspect it’s reputation, it’s not based in reality.
“So we need to demystify that, but also make sure there is agreement between local principals before out of area enrolments are accelerated, because otherwise it does not matter how many classrooms we build if we don’t also engage with enrolment policy.
“The heart of public education is there are local schools in local communities to serve local families and when that’s breaking down you can’t win that challenge.”
Several Hunter schools have already amended their enrolment policies and closed places to new out of zone families, with plans to soon ban even the younger siblings of current students.
Belair has 530 students this year. Its enrolment ceiling is 502 and includes a buffer of 19.
Biddabah has 438 students. Its enrolment ceiling of 392 includes a buffer of 12.
Hamilton South has 419 students. Its enrolment ceiling of 366 includes a buffer of 14.
Newcastle East has 247 students. Its enrolment ceiling of 211 includes a buffer of 14.
The Junction has 608 students. Its enrolment ceiling is 548 with a buffer of 42.
The Herald reported in May this year the Hunter had topped the state for its proportion (41 per cent ) of public high schools either full or exceeding capacity, based on their number of permanent classrooms.
A NSW Opposition freedom of information request showed 10 Hunter schools installed at least five demountable classrooms, in the absence of permanent infrastructure. Rutherford Technology High had 15.
The department said at the time it was preparing for major upgrades to Hunter Sports High School, Bolwarra Public School and the Hunter School of Performing Arts.
It said nine schools were being upgraded as part of the Secondary Schools Renewal Program, including Cardiff, which is expected to be completed this year.
It also announced in the same month Rutherford Technology High would receive $1.8 million, Irrawang High $1.1 million, Cessnock High $1.05 million and Hunter River High $1 million for maintenance.
Mr Stokes said the government wouldn’t let a school operate at an unsafe level.
“One of the fundamentals of public education is it’s open to all comers, so we will always find room in a local school and if that requires putting up temporary accommodation to accommodate unprecedented or unexpected demand we’ll do that,” he said.
“However we do need to look at where that unexpected demand is then sustained and you’ve got demountables on a site for extended periods of time.
“We need to build more permanent classrooms and we’re doing that across the state.
“But the second thing is we need to be clear and consistent in relation to enrolment policy.
“We can’t have, for example, a principal accepting out of area enrolments from an area without consulting the principal of the school in that area, so they need to talk to one another.
“As a department I’ve asked for that to be enforced a bit more so there’s some clear agreement.”
Mr Stokes said the innovative major upgrade to landlocked Newcastle East – which involves building a new structure with four classrooms over the top of the covered outdoor learning area – was the kind of “out of the box” solution that could be applied across the state.
“The lessons we can learn from it are not necessarily replicable in Newcastle but they’re replicable in many parts of Sydney where you have these constrained sites, historic buildings and very engaged local communities,” he said.
“There are no fixed rules, every site is different, every school community is different and that is why our method with school infrastructure is to have a project control group locally so the school can be co-created with the community.”
Mr Stokes said the department would continue to build schools to meet growth.