As super-sized schools continue to grow – are they better or worse at meeting educational needs?

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

The number of super-sized schools with 2000-plus students is growing. But is being a small fish in an increasingly big pond a positive for Australian students? Despite the marketing promises that many large schools make – promoting themselves as offering more opportunities and greater choice of subjects and activities – many families prefer the tailored attention small schools offer.

In Victoria, the number of schools with more than 2000 students has more than doubled in the past decade. In other capital cities and regional centres, too, bigger schools are becoming more common. It’s a trend that some experts say poses significant challenges for school leaders, with the issue of providing enough space to learn, as well as being able to nurture the social connections that come from feeling seen and known, as opposed to being lost in a large crowd, proving problematic for some students.

Super schools in growth corridors

Data from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) reveals that the number of Victorian schools with total enrolments of 2000 or more students has risen from 13 in 2012 to 34 in 2022. Many of these campuses are located in the rapidly booming growth corridors in Melbourne’s south-east and west. One example is Alamanda K-9 College in Point Cook, in the Victorian capital’s outer west, which listed 3351 enrolled students in 2022, less than ten years after opening in 2013.

With 56 schools in the state already enrolling between 1500-2000 students in 2022, seeing more schools reach the 2000-plus mark will happen soon. One of those is Cranbourne East Secondary College, which had 1829 enrolments in 2022 and is projected to peak at around 2100 students during the next few years. Independent school Bacchus Marsh Grammar also has a growing student population – jumping from 1523 enrolments in 2012 to 3262 in 2022.
Elsewhere in Australia’s major cities and regional centres, it’s a similar story, with more super-sized schools continuing to expand in some of the nation’s booming growth suburbs.

In New South Wales, 2023 enrolment data at the start of this year showed Riverbank Public, in the north-west suburb of The Ponds, hit 2074 students, closely followed by Castle Hill High with 2049 students, and Cherrybrook Technology High with 2044 students. Across the state, independent schools are some of NSW’s biggest, with Knox Grammar in Wahroonga and Malek Fahd Islamic School in Greenacre – both kindergarten to year 12 schools – topping 3100 students each.

Larger schools demand effective management

For families worried about sending their children to larger schools, advocates for the super schools say, if they are set up properly, big schools could offer smaller hubs that would help students build close links with the local community.

According to Grattan Institute education programs director Jordana Hunter, well-managed larger schools can provide both teachers and students benefits. But. she said, principals of large campuses need leadership training and support to ensure effective management of the many moving parts.

Many families believe small schools are best

For many families, though, small schools offer a level of individualised visibility and attention they say is hard to match.

In a recently published paper examining the benefits of small schools in the US school system, a comprehensive review of the literature on the benefits of small (or smaller) schools, as compared to large- or middle-sized schools, in six key areas that are of national concern and of concern to every parent and school leader: (a) safety, (b) teaching conditions, (c) academic performance, (d) culture of connection and inclusiveness, (e) learning choices and curriculum, and (f) costs of schooling. The research shows, the paper reports, that small schools have very strong advantages in all areas, except for cost. However, the paper also concludes that “the issue of cost is inconclusive and in dire need of additional research”.

Bigger is definitely not better at independent girls’ school, Fintona, in Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs. Parents committed to the small school environment sing the praises of smaller classes that mean more personalised attention – as well as greater opportunities for leadership positions and genuine connections between staff, students and families. With 50 per cent of the class of 2023 achieving 95+ ATAR results this week, the academic achievements of this small school speak for themselves.

Another small independent girls’ school, Shelford Girls Grammar, also shone, when yesterday’s ATAR results were announced, with 54 per cent of students achieving a 90+ result, to help pave the way to the university courses of their choice.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]