School squeeze

The Government made plenty of noise a shade over two months ago when it unveiled a package of investment into school infrastructure around New Zealand.

Cynically labelled by some as a "lolly scramble", the package totalled $396million, dishing out $693 for every pupil at every eligible school, up to a maximum of $400,000.

That meant new outdoor courts for some schools, replacement heat pumps for others. Happy days.

There was not quite as much noise emanating from Wellington last week when the New Zealand Herald revealed the school building programme had fallen well behind the rate of population growth, that overcrowding was really more of an issue than ageing playground equipment.

The newspaper reported National education spokeswoman Nikki Kaye being told by Education Minister Chris Hipkins that no fewer than 508 state and integrated schools — or more than a fifth of the national total — were "over-capacity".

As a result — and this is something we have already seen in the South — schools were resorting to desperate measures to create learning spaces for their pupils. Gymnasiums, libraries, halls, common rooms and even areas of playing fields were being converted into temporary classrooms.

That is obviously not an ideal situation. We expect our children to get a good education in the public system, and that does not only mean good teachers and supportive environments; it means a safe, comfortable place in which to learn.

When a school bulges at the seams, it places unacceptable pressure on everyone inside it. Crabby teachers, cramped pupils, budget-conscious principals — it is a recipe for stress.

So, when Mr Hipkins declares the Government is on track to eclipse $1billion in school building investment in the current financial year, it makes one wonder: where is it all going?

Interestingly, some principals feel Labour has been so keen to get its own education plan in place, it ignored sensible developments that were scheduled under National.

Waikato Principals’ Association president Hamish Fenemor told the Herald that National promised 200 more prefabs over two years, but that was stopped after Labour took power in 2017. There was now "no rhyme or reason" to the school building plan, he said.

School overcrowding is an issue most obvious in Auckland, understandably. But the South, even with its vastly lower population, is not immune.

In recent times, we have seen King’s High School being told to operate an enrolment zone as its roll exploded; Taieri College has soared to record numbers; Cromwell College has boomed; and less than a year ago, Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult called for the Ministry of Education to be more proactive in managing the "tidal wave" of pupils coming into the area. The Lakes district had gone from 2972 pupils in 2020 to 5027 in 2019.

Education is a cornerstone of a thriving society. And with population growth showing no signs of slowing — the Government’s own estimate is 100,000 more pupils by 2030 — it is vital we find a place for all of our school pupils.


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