Considering Growing Your School? Context is Everything and Data Can Help!
Updated: Jul 29
This article appeared in the recent edition of the Associate magazine, an ASBA publication published twice a year. ASBA (The Association of School Business Administrators) is the peak industry body for business managers and administrators employed in non-government schools throughout Australasia.
Yes, it was written pre COVID-19. However, it still holds some key tips and messages for school leaders - and should help get the conversations started - or progress it - around data, and what it means in context for a school's critical decision-making. It includes some population facts and figures for school leaders and a case study that highlights the power of data in context. It looks at the types of information you can collect, the insights to be gained and from where you can get the data.
School leaders today, more than ever, are having discussions about whether they should grow their schools to capitalise on changes in Australia’s population in terms of size and socio-demographic, and cultural profile. Considered growth options may include a second location, more classes per year level, moving from single sex to co-education or changing their student cohort to reduce debt and maximise full paying families.
To facilitate this decision-making, however, school leaders need to understand what the changes in Australia’s population size and make-up look like in their school’s catchment area, and what this could mean for their current and future school community. Context is everything!
In this article, we introduce School ABC and its current challenges related to growth to highlight the scope of information and insights that a school can now access to help its leadership understand the key considerations and implications of a growth pathway, and in doing so help them to better understand their ‘context’ for critical decision-making.
First things, first, however, we set the scene for Australian schools.
Setting the Scene
From a big picture perspective, few people in school leadership and management roles would be surprised to learn that Australia’s population is growing. In January 2020 our country’s populations was 25.5 million people, compared to 21.5 million in 2011 representing almost 20% growth. By 2030, Australia’s population is expected to grow another 18% and reach 30 million people (Australian Bureau of Statistics).
However, there are some important caveats about the nature of this growth, which are critical to understand in determining the opportunities it can present for individual schools.
Australia’s population growth is not evenly distributed across our country, which means some areas are growing and others are not, or they are growing at a much slower rate.
Australia’s population growth is the result of both natural increases and migration. Since 2010, almost 60% of the country’s population growth has occurred from net overseas migration. This means population growth is not evenly spread across ages and gender, and equally as important for schools, these population changes often bring new languages, ideas and cultural perspectives (Australian Government, September 2019), which can completely alter a school’s community.
The population of a State or local area can also be affected by interstate migration, which may not affect the country’s overall population, but may affect the socio-demographic profile of a community.
For example, the NSW population increased by 15% over the 2007-2017 decade, with a particular growth skew to metropolitan areas. This represented just over 1 million people. However, at the local level the picture was very different. State electorates in NSW like Camden, increased in population by 59%, from 61,000 to 97,000 people, while other areas like Lismore only grew by just over 1% (Angus, 2019).
And while the number of school aged children (5-17 years) in Australia increased by 174,000 during the 2011 and 2016 Censuses (which translates to approximately 300 schools), this was again not evenly spread across the country (Allen, 2017). In short, population growth and change does not mean the opportunities will be the same for all areas and subsequently schools. In some areas, the number of school children may stagnate or even decline. See Figure 1, for a summary of the potential impact of Australia’s changing population.
Figure 1: The Potential Scope of Population Change in Australia
What Does This Mean For A School Considering Growth?
Introducing School ABC. School ABC is loosely based on a primary school in a real Australian metropolitan area experiencing significant, but unevenly distributed population growth. Figure 2 shows a summary profile of the School.
Figure 2: Summary Profile of School ABC
More About the Challenge Facing School ABC’s Leadership The School leaders have noticed enrolment enquiries have increased over the last few years, especially for reception and the early years. This is probably the result of a number of factors including some urban renewal. They have managed to cater for some of that growth in their existing classrooms. However, the existing classrooms are now at capacity and the School’s wait lists are growing.
Investing in new classrooms will mean an influx of new students rather than the steady stream of individual new students the School is accustomed to managing. While this will address the growing waiting list, they also know that such growth can mean more than an increase in students; it can potentially result in a change in the profile of a school’s community, which can mean changes in terms of what is offered by the school and the overall school culture.
What Information Should School ABC Know? So, what information does School ABC need to help them better understand if they should invest in building new classrooms?
Figure 3 shows the types of information School ABC should collect about its School catchment and the School community, and the resulting types of insights, which will help the School leaders make a more informed decision about whether to invest in the build of new classrooms.
School ABC recognises that collecting information only about the School catchment or only about the School community, would not provide the necessary insights to make an informed decision, thereby increasing the risk involved. They also recognise that the information collected will build on their existing knowledge of the School. While collectively the leaders know a lot about the School community and the School’s catchment, there are still substantial gaps and a lack of evidence that can be used to understand the considerations and implications of capital expenditure in the form of new classrooms.
Figure 3: Types of Information and Insights Needed to Help School ABC Make an Informed Decision
Where Can School ABC Get the Information?
Now we know what type of information the School needs, we can consider the different data collection points and sources.
In the last twenty years, significant improvements in software, internet speeds and accessibility has facilitated data collection for businesses, including schools. Figure 4 shows the key data collection points (controlled by the School) and external data sources available to School ABC to help them collect/access the required key information about their School community and their catchment.
Figure 4: Data Collection Points and Sources Available to School ABC
How did School ABC Collect their Information?
School ABC did not have all the skills in-house, but together with some outside expertise, they drew on data collected from a range of the School’s data collection points and some external data sources to help them make an informed decision. Their approach included:
Engaging both current and past parents through focus groups, exit interviews and a short survey at a parent information night to understand what parents valued most about School ABC. This included analysing the “unstructured” or open-ended responses that often have been overlooked using a variety of informative techniques.
Analysing the school’s enrolment data and aligning it with lifestyle and socio-demographic profiling data, SEIFA and census data to develop a detailed profile of the School’s current families.
This was compared to the analysis and profiling of the potential new cohort of families in the catchment. This allowed the School to understand the size of the potential market, key socio-cultural and demographic differences between current and potential families, and the potential impact on the School’s culture.
What did School ABC Discover?
Below are some of the key findings from analysis and interpretation of the data they collected or sourced:
About School ABC’s Community and Catchment
The population in the School’s surrounding area has increased by approximately 2% each year over the last five years. This includes an increase in primary school aged children. Prior to this there was a significant spike in growth due to a new property development.
Forecast growth is set to continue although it will be at a slightly lower rate than the past 5 years.
Over the same period, the percentage of school aged children attending Independent schools from the area has decreased by 15%, yet School ABC has not been affected by this trend and has developed a waiting list.
The decline in Independent school sector attendance aligns with a decline in the proportion of women (age range relating to parents who send their children to School ABC), who have attained Bachelor Degree level education or higher.
There has been a steady growth in the proportion of women (of an age range relating to parents who send their children to School ABC), with lower level education attainment.
The income levels of people in the area have been maintained, although the proportion of those with higher incomes has declined slightly. The income levels, however, align well to a low fee paying school.
Note: A range of other factors were also noted but have been omitted from the case study for the sake of brevity.
About School ABC’s Community
The key factors for selecting the School were small school size, lots of play area, easy access to vacation care and a caring community where everyone knows everyone. Going back to smaller class sizes was also something that the current parents desired.
The past parents were also helpful in providing significant insights about the factors that mattered to their families in relation to schooling.
Naturally the community was concerned about the potential fee ramifications if changes were made at the School. The analysis was able to shed new insights about the propensity of families to meet their fee payments and this has resulted in some new policies and marketing directions for the School.
The typical performance measures considered by the School (e.g., attendance, NAPLAN) had remained stable the last two years. However, the School was surprised to discover that there were some factors (e.g., the value basis that has underpinned much of the School’s marketing endeavours), that had become less important to parents than other factors. There was also evidence that the School was underperforming on some of the factors that parents now believed were important. This information has contributed to a re-think of the School’s strategic planning and marketing.
To aid the decision-makers task, it was important that the findings were presented in an accessible way to ensure that it was easily understood as there was a lot of new information to be considered. For example, maps, graphs and infographics were used to convey much of the information.
What did School ABC Decide: To Build Extra Classrooms or Not To?
The School’s management took their recommended course of action to the School’s board. The board was not only given the recommendation, but also a presentation on how and why the decision was reached and the key implementation considerations. This provided the board members with a sense of confidence and comfort in the knowledge that it was an evidence based decision-making process. Everyone was satisfied that they had never been better prepared for such a critical decision in the life of the School.
The decision was made to invest in additional classrooms. It was also decided to implement a reduction in class sizes – which was in keeping with the desires of the School’s parents.
Although there has been a decline in the proportion of students attending Independent schools in the School’s catchment, the School’s management team and board were confident that the continued demand for places at the School would continue for a variety of reasons, but specifically:
The continued interest from parents in having their children attend the School (i.e., waiting lists)
The fee structure is consistent with the economic profile of the community (i.e., it was affordable)
The School was performing well in many of the factors that parents (present and past), identified as important in their decision to send their child/ren to the School. The School management was also committed to improving their perceived underperformance in any of the key factors important to parents.
Apart from the immediate needs of addressing the decision to expand the number of classrooms, the information presented provided an important contribution for the School’s strategic planning and marketing.
The School’s management and board noted that the reliance on solely population forecasts would not have been sufficient for them to make a decision. They now have an improved understanding of the scope of information they can access about their School community and its catchment, and the critical role it can play in helping them manage the School. They’ve also discovered that this information is not difficult to access. Consequently, they have decided to monitor some of the new information on a more regular basis. They truly understand that context is everything and data can help. ________________________________________________________________________
 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2020, Population Clock, accessed in January 2020 from: https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs%40.nsf/94713ad445ff1425ca25682000192af2/1647509ef7e25faaca2568a900154b63?OpenDocument
 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2020 (ABS.StatBeta) Population Projections 2017-2066, accessed in January 2020 from: http://stat.data.abs.gov.au/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=POP_PROJ_2011
 Australian Government 2019, Planning for Australia’s Future Population, accessed in January 2020 from:https://www.pmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/publications/planning-for-australias-future%20population_0.pdf
 Angus, C., 2019, Trends in NSW population growth, NSW Parliamentary Research Service e-brief, accessed in January 2020 from: https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/researchpapers/Documents/Trends%20in%20NSW%20population%20growth.pdf
 Allen, G., 2020, Where are school-aged kids located? Top 10 growing and slowing suburbs, Id Population Experts, accessed in January 2020 from: https://blog.id.com.au/2017/population/demographic-trends/where-are-school-aged-kids-located-top-10-growing-and-slowing-suburbs/