It takes years to plan, fund, build and open a new government school. Many years. Just look at the proposed opening dates for Richmond High, Prahran High and Ferrars Street Primary: 2018 or beyond. 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

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 %
Brunswick North PS 178 203 229 280 336 377 430 471 526 196%
Brunswick North West PS 226 226 212 227 230 257 278 300 318 41%
Brunswick South PS 168 195 196 223 250 232 254 282 310 85%
Brunswick South West PS 283 296 302 298 306 320 345 347 370 31%
Brunswick East PS 239 270 307 337 378 401 408 444 474 98%
Moreland PS 148 161 168 206 222 266 271 296 320 116%
Merri Creek PS 287 297 304 305 328 364 372 402 418 46%
Westgarth PS 416 428 454 508 541 584 621 592 615 48%
Northcote PS 234 243 251 281 304 309 322 353 374 60%
Fitzroy North PS 494 511 530 528 533 535 557 545 530 7%
Princes Hill PS 434 441 435 433 436 451 471 449 463 7%
Thornbury PS 229 243 284 323 345 345 369 328 315 38%
TOTAL PRIMARY 3336 3514 3672 3949 4209 4441 4698 4809 5033 51%
Brunswick SC 885 887 962 963 979 1004 1021 972 972 9%
Northcote HS 1354 1378 1450 1503 1546 1569 1618 1647 1650 22%
Fitzroy HS 423 455 462 443 453 469 501 537 535 26%
Princes Hill SC 834 822 810 846 828 834 867 868 882 6%
Coburg Junior/Senior HS 109 197 208 216 221 180 129 256 410 276%
TOTAL SECONDARY 3605 3739 3892 3971 4027 4056 4136 4280 4449 23%

Local primary schools have been experiencing a surge in numbers for several years, as shown in the table. While local secondary schools are starting to feel the upstream effects, the impact will really hit home from 2017. Brunswick North, Brunswick East and Moreland primary schools have had dramatic increases, while others are growing rapidly. This demographic change is occurring one year earlier than 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. And this is before the primary school tsunami starts from 2017.

Brunswick Secondary College will be expanding further courtesy of the 2015 state budget. But Northcote High, already with 1,650 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, Northcote and Richmond in 2018. Their platform now has a major emphasis on education, including a comprehensive New Schools policy:

“Government schools should be built when and where they are needed based on independent population projections and an open and transparent process.

Education department advice on where new schools are most needed, should be publicly available so Victorians can be informed as to how the location of new schools is decided.

Existing schools should not be closed on the basis of narrow financial or enrolment criteria.

School communities around Victoria should not have to campaign for years just to get a government school in their area. The Greens will ensure that new schools are built where they are needed based on evidence not political announcements.”

Learning from the Past urges the Victorian Government to adopt these measures to avoid a repeat of past failings. In addition, we encourage the Victorian Auditor-General to conduct an investigation into school closures and sales from the 1990s to the present day.

A High School for Brunswick East

A secondary school will be required in Brunswick East to take pressure off Northcote High School. The .id consulting projections for Brunswick East show that the suburb is the epicentre of growth in the Merri Creek Corridor. But where to build it?

The East Brunswick Village proposal may be an option, as long as a coordinated planning methodology replaces the traditional silo mentality. It’s a huge site on Nicholson Street (21,000 square metres), which Moreland City Council is yet to grant full approval. Maybe the former Moreland High School site could be used as part of a broad solution. Why not bundle them together: build apartments and commercial… build a school… create public open space….

Who will show leadership here? Government? Council? The private sector?