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A looming schools shortage?

By Ross Elliott - posted Thursday, 5 May 2022

As our population grows, so too will demand for school places and new schools. This is going prove a significant driver of demand for space - especially in suburban centres. But first, old thinking about schools needs to change to allow for the opportunities that the future presents and to avoid an inevitable shortage of places in suitable locations.

First, some quick numbers. There are just over 25 million Aussies in Australia. Of that, some 4,030,717 were school age students enrolled in 9,581 schools. Based on that ratio, every extra million people (as for example predicted for each of our major capitals in just a few short years) will mean an extra 160,000 students. At a rough average school size of 400 students, that’s another 400 additional schools for each million of extra population.

In South-east Queensland, official forecasts suggest another 1.5 million people by 2041, which is another 240,000 school age kids in need of an additional 600 schools. That’s the equivalent of 31 new schools in SEQ each year for the next couple of decades.  Sydney and Melbourne will face similar predictions.


It’s not just students. The education sector is a major employer. It employs 1.153 million people nationally, 62% of whom are full time workers. That’s nearly one in ten of the national workforce.

It’s also the third fastest growing industry in the country, predicted to add another 150,000 jobs in the five years to 2026. Some 93% of those jobs will be in suburban places. (The fastest growth industry of all in health care and social assistance, of which 90% will be based in suburbia while professionals are second fastest with three quarters outside inner cities). The figures in red in the graph below show the percentage of these jobs in suburban areas, against the numbers of new jobs predicted (in blue).

Of those education jobs, the majority will likely be in school age education, based on current shares:

Government schools account for 65% of enrolments while Catholic schools account for 19.5% and independent schools for 15.4%. In the independent schools area, there are a plethora of smaller schools providing for particular faiths, cultures, learning needs or other specialisations. For example, more than half (54.6%) of the independent schools in Queensland have enrolments of under 500. One in ten have enrolments of less than 50, and a further one in ten enrol between 50 and 100. One in five have enrolments of 500 to 1000 and only 6% had enrolments above 1500.


So, it’s a very big industry which is growing fast in line with predicted population growth. It is going to need additional school places and many more new schools, and nearly all of these will be in suburban locations. Not all will be large schools though, many with smaller space needs. How do we meet this demand? How do find the sites?

The traditional school model that comes to mind is the large primary or secondary school with a cluster of low-density buildings and its own sporting fields. In most suburban areas slated for infill (to absorb increased population) there simply are not sites of this size anymore. The government sector is struggling to find new sites for traditional school models – even resorting to proposing they are built in known flood areas.

There are possible exceptions. For example, oversized carparks provided for at new train stations could easily accommodate a modest sized school. Being next to a train station for students and staff is both logical and appealing. In the absence of hordes of commuters embarking at outer suburban stations destined for CBD offices, why not use the infrastructure as a disembarking point for school kids? This will require new thinking – something we’re not good at. (The example below is Murrumba Downs station on the relatively new Redcliffe Peninsula line, with ample room for a school).

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This article was first published on The Pulse.

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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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