Cute asian pupil girl with backpack hugging her mother with sadness in the playground
Cute asian pupil girl with backpack hugging her mother with sadness in the playground

Fears over primary schools shortage

Australia needs an extra 697 new primary schools to cope with expected demand between now and 2028, with fears a lack of both teachers and classrooms will put education quality at risk.

The nation has already seen a five per cent increase in enrolments - an extra 200,000 pupils - across 9477 primary and secondary schools from 2014 to 2018, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Last year, there were 3,893,834 students enrolled.

Unions are calling for urgent investment if the system is going to cope over the next decade, warning of classroom overcrowding and less help for individual students if action is not taken.

Australian Education Union Federal President Correna Haythorpe said there was a huge need for capital works investment in public schools.

The Department of Education has identified the need for 697 primary schools.
The Department of Education has identified the need for 697 primary schools.

"Our schools are experiencing significant enrolment growth and yet, due to the lack of capital investment, students are crammed into outdated and overcrowded classrooms," she said.

"What's needed is much greater investment in both recurrent and capital funding so that teachers have the support they need to teach classes of a reasonable size, so that students can get the individual attention they need to flourish, and so that teaching and learning can happen in classrooms that are not overcrowded and that are properly equipped for the 21st Century."

The Department of Education and Training has identified the need for 697 new primary schools, but states also have their own forecasts.


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In New South Wales, projections made in 2016 pointed to a 21 per cent growth in student numbers by 2031, meaning schools would need to accommodate an extra 269,000 students - 164,000 of those in the public system.

Eighty per cent of that growth is expected in Sydney - the equivalent of 7200 extra classrooms by 2031.


Australian schools are experiencing significant enrolment growth.
Australian schools are experiencing significant enrolment growth.



"To address the challenge, a 10-year rolling capital works plan is underway, with existing schools to be redeveloped, the size, amenity and functionality of surrounding schools may need to be increased and school catchment boundaries realigned," a NSW Department of Education spokesman said.

"The NSW Government is investing an unprecedented $6.7 billion over the next four years to deliver 190 new and upgraded schools.

"In addition, a record $1.3 billion is being spent on school maintenance over five years - this is the largest investment in public education infrastructure in the history of NSW."

Education experts are worried about the impact of increased demand on class sizes, with the average primary school class in Australia already 14 per cent bigger than the OECD - Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - average of 21.

Queensland Teachers Union President Kevin Bates said class sizes were a big issue that had to be addressed, with a predicted 20-25 per cent growth in the education system by 2030.

He said an additional 875 teachers were brought on in Queensland after the 2016 election, but more were needed to cope with the future influx.

"Finding enough teachers and having enough classrooms are two factors which could impact the risk of class sizes growing," he said.

"Essentially, if you understand that in a whole range of areas - like health - there are huge campaigns about nurse-to-patient ratio and how vital it is … ours is no different.

"The more students you add to a class, the less able we are to help each student.

"It is demoralising for teachers, when you know you need to spend more time with individual students in the class but you can't."

Smaller class sizes are widely thought to contribute to a better learning environment.
Smaller class sizes are widely thought to contribute to a better learning environment.

Queensland Education Minister Grace Grace said an ongoing investment in more teachers had ensured the state largely met its class size targets in 2018, and the 2019-20 State Budget included a record $13.8 billion for education, an increase of 6.1 per cent on last year.

"Included in this budget allocation is funding for an additional 1000 teachers, as part of the government's commitment to employ an extra 3700 teachers over four years," she said.

"Since 2015, more than 4800 additional teachers have been employed.

"Not only have additional teachers been employed to cover for the continued growth in enrolments, the Palaszczuk Government has employed 875 teachers above growth."

She said since 2015, the government had delivered 13 new schools, with eight new schools being delivered in 2020 and a further five in 2021 in areas experiencing strong population growth.

"The government, through the Department of Education, will continue to monitor enrolments and population changes and invest to ensure our schools can continue to cater for demand well into the future."

NSW social researcher and demographer Mark McCrindle said smaller class sizes were widely thought to contribute to a better learning environment, allowing teachers to focus on individual students, but teacher quality was also important.

"Smaller class sizes can impact learning if they enable teachers to teach differently and give more individualised feedback to students to help them understand the material," Mr McCrindle said.

He said the average class size for Australian primary schools was 24 students, down from 26.5 in 2002.

"Australia expects to see a 73 per cent growth in teaching jobs by 2030 which may mean smaller class sizes in the future but (they) are unlikely to be as low as 15 in the next ten years," he said.

"The most important factor in student success is in fact the quality of the teacher rather than class size.

"Multi-age classes which are made of students from different levels is considered academically, socially and emotionally advantageous."