Editorial: Local solutions key to fitting in more pupils

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Education is just one of many sectors which will be stressed by population growth. Photo / Thinkstock
Education is just one of many sectors which will be stressed by population growth. Photo / Thinkstock

If proof was ever needed that forecast growth in Auckland's population will present challenges well beyond transport infrastructure and housing density, it is to be found in the pressure on school rolls.

Demand has resulted in some schools nearly doubling their number of pupils in the past decade, and the Ministry of Education and school boards of trustees face serious headaches in planning for a further surge over the next 30 years. Around 107,000 more school-age children are expected to join rolls in that period.

A Herald analysis of roll information for 565 schools in Greater Auckland emphasises the extent of the problem. Schools may end up having to lease commercial office space in the central business district, converting from intermediate-only to full primaries, and building on substantial parts of their existing fields.

As officials seek answers, parts of Auckland already have schools at bursting point.

Multi-storey classroom blocks taking less playground space are increasingly being deployed and new land has been purchased by the Government to house new schools. However, the land available is limited. Reaction from surrounding communities has halted at least one new school, and the creation of new institutions is costly.

Solving the existing problem in, for example, the Western Bays area around Westmere and Pt Chevalier has been handed in the first instance to the school boards and principals in that district. If they can come up with sensible changes to enrolment zones, land use, and the years of schooling offered, officials hope to extend the model elsewhere.

Which is good, as far as it goes. Yet the looming bulge across the city is not new. For a generation the ministry has been forecasting problems. There were problems in the 1990s, for example, seeking land for schools in the eastern suburbs around Meadowbank and St Johns. That roll numbers at some schools and in some areas can have grown to this point without a clear strategic plan is a poor reflection on the ministry's planning. As Public Address blogger Russell Brown observed last week, it might have been better performing the customary role of ensuring schools have classrooms and the space required to educate children from their communities than pursuing some of its "fringe" educational initiatives.

Education is just one of many sectors which will be stressed by population growth. The high-profile debate on Auckland's new Unitary Plan, with its expectation that the region's population will increase by up to one million in a 30-year period to 2.5 million, underlines the scale of change Auckland faces.

Changes to the density of housing and the need for multibillion-dollar public transport and roading solutions are the most prominent factors. Provision of hospitals and healthcare facilities, parks for recreation, and drainage and sanitation networks to meet environmental needs will also test the ability of central and local Governments to cope.

Administrators talk boldly of "future-proofing" facilities and services but these will come at a substantial cost. In some instances money alone will not be able to solve the problems. If growth in Auckland is too tightly contained by the Unitary Plan, the very unavailability of land needed for major institutions will accentuate problems in providing services to the public. The Auckland Council has reduced its intended proportion of growth within existing limits but, even so, too firm a target invites problems down the track.

Opening land and spreading the housing of new Aucklanders will contribute to the solution to crammed schools. Beyond that, policy-makers will need to be open to the local solutions from boards and principals. The central planning from Wellington has been deficient and there is urgency in ensuring Auckland families can rely on local schools to welcome and educate their children.

- NZ Herald

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