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, and Prahran High the following year. 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 rampant 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

2008 2012 2016 2020 % increase
Brunswick North PS 178 336 526 526 195%
Brunswick North West PS 226 230 318 453 100%
Brunswick South PS 168 250 310 328 95%
Brunswick South West PS 283 306 370 441 56%
Brunswick East PS 239 378 474 444 86%
Moreland PS 148 222 320 369 149%
Merri Creek PS 287 328 418 448 56%
Westgarth PS 416 541 615 648 56%
Northcote PS 234 304 374 390 67%
Fitzroy North PS 494 533 530 495 0%
Princes Hill PS 434 436 463 396 -8%
Thornbury PS 229 345 315 378 65%
TOTAL PRIMARY 3336 4209 5033 5316 59%
Brunswick SC 885 979 1019 1024 16%
Northcote HS 1354 1546 1650 1857 37%
Fitzroy HS 423 453 588 608 44%
Princes Hill SC 834 828 882 873 5%
Coburg HS 109 221 410 1049 962%
TOTAL SECONDARY 3605 4027 4549 5411 50%

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 approaching 1,900 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 taking Brunswick in 2018 and positioning themselves to take Richmond in 2022.

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.