Rising population puts strain on Auckland schools

40 Auckland schools are currently over maximum capacity, a Ministry of Education report says. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Education Minister Nikki Kaye has downplayed concerns about Auckland’s rising population putting strain on the city’s schools - but has hinted at a new real-time data system to get a better handle on rising rolls.

The Ministry of Education’s Auckland Schooling Network Annual Plan, released to Labour under the Official Information Act, says “unprecedented and sustained population growth” in New Zealand’s largest city is putting pressure on schools as they try to house increasing numbers of students.

“Demands on the network are actual, current and region-wide, with growth expected to continue and intensify in the long term,” the plan says.

It says 40 Auckland schools are currently over maximum capacity and 130 are over 85 per cent capacity - most with rolls that are continuing to grow.

While population pressure is most obvious with primary schools, due to their traditionally lower rolls and smaller sites, the capacity issues would “naturally flow on” to secondary schools.

More strain may be on the way: according to the plan, the Auckland Council is projecting another million people - including 107,000 school-age children - in the region by 2040.

The plan outlines a range of measures to ease the pressure on schools, including new or tighter zoning restrictions, building new schools, and the development of a five-year “network plan”.

Across all of New Zealand, 214 schools are at capacity with another 488 at risk of becoming overcrowded.

'Chronic underfunding'

Labour leader Andrew Little made hay with the report, saying it showed the government had failed to invest swiftly enough in new classrooms and other school buildings.

“Overcrowded classrooms are causing many schools to teach students in libraries, gymnasiums, school halls and outside spaces because there are simply too many students.”

Little said the Government had spent only $107 million of a $350m package for Auckland school funding announced in 2014.

Education unions shared Little’s concerns, with NZEI Te Riu Roa President Lynda Stuart saying the overcrowding highlighted the “chronic underfunding” in the education sector.

“The population growth data has been available and obvious for a long time, but the government has been far too slow to release funds for new schools and buildings.”

Data 'misconstrued' says Kaye

Education Minister Nikki Kaye sought to downplay the report, saying the information was out of date and in some cases painted a misleading picture about the situation at schools.

“Many of those schools are coming forward and saying: ‘We’ve got classrooms, we’ve got an enrolment scheme change’ and so they’re saying either the information’s wrong or they’ve had a change in that area.”

Kaye said the figures also failed to account for property owned by school boards, adding it was wrong to conflate a risk of overcrowding with actual overcrowding.

“For instance, if you have 85 per cent utilisation, you don't want to have schools where you’ve got loads of vacant classrooms: there is actually kind of an optimum level in terms of utilisation, and all it is is a trigger to enable good discussions around enrolment schemes or classrooms.”

However, Kaye conceded there were some cases where schools had been “caught out” by failing to project accurate growth or accepting out-of-zone students.

“In those situations, I think we’re moving faster than ever to deploy modular classrooms or have decent conversations earlier...

“Where we find situations where schools have been caught out, we go and deal with it.”

Better data?

Kaye hinted at improved data collection of school rolls, saying one of the issues with the report was that roll returns only came in every six months.

“It is important that we have a much more kind of real-time view of what's happening around students…

“One thing I have definitely found is when you’re dealing with 2500 schools, and you’re dealing with population changes and out-of-zone kids, I think you can have more information.”

However, she stuck to the script when asked whether further changes around migration were necessary to ease demand on the school system.

“I’m very confident in not only the investments we’ve had in the past but also the way we’ve improved our systems, combined with more improvement in terms of forecasting, that we can manage this growth - I'm not actually concerned about that [immigration].”