The 167 bus flies through the western suburbs that make up the electorate of Tarneit. It’s school holidays. The bus is full of teenagers zoning out in their headphones and young parents with their children. Rendered brick houses with rendered brick letterboxes fill the curved, curbed streets. In place of fully formed gardens there is dirt or AstroTurf and ill-placed palms.
These are the homes of the young families that comprise Melbourne’s expanding west. Off the bus the houses keep stretching around magpie-guarded corners and sparse nature strips. Then it all stops, replaced by dirt littered with earth movers and advertising for ambiguously named housing developments.
This is the seat that Sarah Connolly, the Labor candidate and front-runner for the upcoming state election, is likely to inherit. According to 2016 census data, 29.2 per cent of Tarneit’s population is 14 years old or younger. To put that in perspective, that’s more than 10 per cent higher than the Victorian state average. Add in the rapid population growth and you can guess what is on the top of the candidate’s to-do list is.
“We are going to face a shortage of schools if we don’t build more… I don’t think there is one person in the electorate who would say that’s not true,” says Connolly, sitting in a café next to a park full of young children, including one of her own. Parents are drinking coffee while their kids blow off steam. As well as being a young electorate — the median age here is 30, state wide it is 37— Tarneit is a diverse one; over 50 per cent of its constituents were born outside Australia. Parents and kids range in age and race, the houses across the creek are all brand new.
According to Connolly, “The actual demographic is thirty-something-year-olds with two children: young children.”
And that’s where her focus, and Labor’s focus appears to be, especially when it comes to the early years of schooling.
“Out here, it’s a complex issue, because we are trying to build enough kindergartens; we have something like 97 kids being born a week, that’s a lot of children.”
The government is dealing with that at the moment, or at least trying to. It has invested heavily in early education and prep to grade nine schools (P-9), building two brand new schools in the past decade: Tarneit P-9 and Dohertys Creek P-9 College. The latter is set to open its doors to students next January for the start of the 2019 schooling year.
“There’s been a lot of school building that has been happening over the last couple of years to catch up with the gap that was left, so I mean it’s great. I think they are meeting the needs and it’s been hard because so many schools have been needing to get built,” says Ian Wren, principal at Dohertys Creek.
However, children grow, and soon the pressure will be moved on to an already strained group of senior colleges in the area. Connolly acknowledges this, and while she is not privy to any plans merely as a candidate, she has faith.
“I have no doubt we will have plans in the future to build the high schools.
“My concern, if I’m lucky enough to be elected, is that we are making sure that we are purchasing the land while it’s red dirt.”
There is a lot of dirt on offer. When looking at Tarneit on the satellite setting of Google Maps, almost half of the land is undeveloped.
“When we built our house, all through there — where you see that bobcat now — that was a farm,” says Kirsty Evans, a mother of four whose eldest is on the brink of making the transition from Tarneit P-9 to a senior college. For her and her family, the feeling of uncertainty is all too familiar. Five years ago, in the lead up to the launch of Tarneit P-9, they found out that they had been moved into the catchment zone of the new school. Their eldest attended a local state school, Baden Powell, where she was quite happy. When the time came to enrol their second child, they were turned away.
“They had made their zone a lot smaller, and they wouldn’t even give me an enrolment form,” says Evans, while sitting next to the same park as Connolly had earlier in the day and staring at the construction sites.
“The period when I couldn’t enrol my son at Baden Powell, and we were told that we had to enrol at Tarneit College, Tarneit College hadn’t been built yet. ‘I’m enrolling my kids in a school that hasn’t even been built?’ It’s just unneeded stress.”
Things could be worse though, and in retrospect Evans says that the move has been good in the long run. The school’s resources are top shelf and while it lacks certain classical landscaping features of many of Melbourne’s inner-city schools, as Kirsty puts it, “trees aren’t going to help my kid learn.”
Still the family could have done without the unknown, and Evans hopes that whoever is elected can stop families who come after her from experiencing the same thing.
“Before they’ve got petrol stations and McDonald’s on every corner, they need to be getting schools in here,” she said of the new estates.
Now the Evans family face another enrolment challenge in regards to their eldest. While their children are enrolled at Tarneit P-9, they fall outside of the catchment zone for Tarneit senior. Instead, they are zoned to attend the Grange P-12 for their final years, a school receiving a portion of the $99.2 million in education spending that Labor has promised from 2015 -2019 in Tarneit. Sadly, even with the funding, the school says it is in need of more financial help.
“They need significant funding and investment to upgrade them, and a lot of that is around — I call them decrepit — demountable [classrooms] that need to be replaced,” says Connolly, “that’s something I’m going to be fighting for.”
It seems that this help may be on the way. Labor recently promised an additional 9.5 million to The Grange to deal with the demountable classrooms, as well as upgrades around the campus should they be elected this November.
Blame can be placed at the feet of many for these issues. Kirsty Evans at least partly blames inconsistencies between governments over the past decade: Labor promises and Liberal freezes.
“I guess maybe it’s just the nature of politics,” she says, with a sigh.
The state government, no matter who has the majority, is playing catch-up with an area where housing and population expansion may outrun its infrastructure. Wyndham City Council (which does not interact with student publications) is in charge of the development of the land; while the state government is in charge of educating the masses. Together, this combination could create a situation that is untenable.
Whatever the solution, the area will continue to grow, and the children will continue to need schools. For such a complex issue Kirsty Evans believes there is one simple need that must be met.
“Ultimately it just comes down to the uncertainty of what’s going to be around for your kids… You just want continuity all the way through.”