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It takes years to plan, fund, build and open a new government school. Many years. The new Richmond High and South Melbourne Primary finally opened in 2018, while Prahran High is still under construction. Yet these schools were top shelf election promises, finally acknowledging the parent driven campaigns for new schools in the overcrowded inner suburbs.

So what about those inner areas with rampaging development, surging primary school enrolments, insufficient secondary schools, but no parent campaign as yet? If a proactive, coordinated planning methodology was in place, there would be no need for Learning from the Past to shine the spotlight on the Merri Creek Corridor. But as things stand, it won’t be long before Northcote and Brunswick residents turn the blowtorch on the bureaucrats who’ve let them down.

The ‘Merri Creek Corridor’ is neither a suburb nor a council. It has no official status and does not appear as a planning zone in its own right. It is loosely defined as the suburbs of Brunswick East, Northcote and North Fitzroy, connected by Merri Creek. But it falls under the spotlight via the Education Act, for this is the Northcote High School zone. Northcote High is already significantly overcrowded and set to experience new population pressures in the coming years.

School Enrolments

2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 %
Brunswick North PS 229 280 336 377 430 471 526 553 538 135%
Brunswick North West PS 212 227 230 257 278 300 318 364 412 94%
Brunswick South PS 196 223 250 232 254 282 310 318 330 68%
Brunswick South West PS 302 298 306 320 345 347 370 404 437 45%
Brunswick East PS 307 337 378 401 408 444 474 457 461 50%
Moreland PS 168 206 222 266 271 296 320 323 317 89%
Merri Creek PS 304 305 328 364 372 402 418 440 442 45%
Westgarth PS 454 508 541 584 621 592 615 647 650 43%
Northcote PS 251 281 304 309 322 353 374 377 382 52%
Fitzroy North PS 530 528 533 535 557 545 530 532 528 0%
Princes Hill PS 435 433 436 451 471 449 463 453 432 0%
Thornbury PS 284 323 345 345 369 328 315 326 357 26%
TOTAL PRIMARY 3672 3949 4209 4441 4698 4809 5033 5194 5286 44%
Brunswick SC 962 963 979 1004 1021 1010 1019 1026 1026 7%
Northcote HS 1450 1503 1546 1569 1618 1647 1650 1749 1792 24%
Fitzroy HS 462 443 453 469 501 537 588 602 629 36%
Princes Hill SC 810 846 828 834 867 868 882 867 885 9%
Coburg HS 208 216 221 180 129 256 410 532 697 235%
TOTAL SECONDARY 3892 3971 4027 4056 4136 4318 4549 4776 5029 29%

Local primary schools have been experiencing a surge in numbers for several years, and local secondary schools are starting to feel the upstream effects. This demographic change is consistent with projections foreseen by Paul Weldon of the Australian Council for Educational Research. Weldon’s report predicted that Victoria would see major increases in the number of students entering secondary schools from 2018.

The Merri Creek Corridor has only three relevant secondary schools: Brunswick Secondary College, Northcote High School and the emergent Coburg High School. Despite Coburg High becoming a new destination for Year 7 students from 2015, it barely altered the Northcote High School zone.

Northcote High, already with 1,800 students, remains the local school for a rapidly growing catchment. How will the school grounds and adjacent parkland cope with 2,000 or more students in the foreseeable future? Relocatable buildings are straining at the edges of the school boundary, a stop gap solution to over-crowding. This cannot continue indefinitely.

Planning for a new high school in the Merri Creek Corridor should start now.

Development Boom

Counting cranes is no longer a CBD specific past-time: the inner north is now a development hot spot. Low, medium and high rise buildings are replacing old housing and factory stock with the corresponding population increase.

The Merri Creek Corridor has been experiencing a development boom for several years, but this is about to escalate. The number of projects under construction, or about to commence or having achieved planning approval is staggering. Families with children are moving in to the Merri Creek Corridor. The primary schools are barely coping with much larger enrolments, and the few secondary schools will be next.

The Urbis planning consultancy reported “a thumping 6,000 apartments being built or in pre-sales across 50 projects in the inner north”. Learning from the Past has conducted its own research using data from Moreland, Darebin and Yarra council resources. We rejected aerial photography on privacy grounds, opting to personally walk the streets to examine building developments across the Corridor. The result: 8,000 dwellings, be they apartments, townhouses or houses.

To repeat: 8,000 dwellings.

The Politics

The inner north was once Labor Party heartland. Government schools were not election issues: the Liberal Party would never win those seats; the Labor Party would never lose them. In the 1990s too many schools were closed in the area, particularly secondary schools, without harming the electoral standing of the Kennett Liberal Government in the slightest.

In the years preceding 2010, the Brumby Labor Government slapped down the High School for Coburg campaign. Then something new happened: in losing the 2010 election, inner northern seats swung sharply to The Greens. This continued apace in 2014, when the seats of Melbourne and Prahran fell to The Greens, with new school provision emerging as an issue.

Formerly safe Labor seats in the inner north are now marginal, with The Greens aggressively positioning themselves to take Brunswick and Richmond in 2018.

Learning from the Past urges the Victorian Government to ensure that schools are built when and where they are needed based on independent population projections, thereby minimising the need for local communities to campaign for years just to get a government school in their area. Ideally, the Victorian Auditor-General would conduct an investigation into school closures and sales from the 1990s to the present day, but this may fall outside the parameters of VAGO’s powers.