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Education | Infrastructure

Predicting demand for schools – insights from a demographer

1 Nov 2022, by Amy Sarcevic

Accurately forecasting demand for schools is an increasingly complex (yet ostensibly simple) task.

While birth rates give some indication of how many children there will be, they can’t tell us exactly which school they will attend. Nor do they take into account how many children may enter the country with their migrant families.

In fact, with interstate relocation on the rise – and changes to migration policy during COVID-19 – birth rates are becoming less reliable as predictors for school demand at a local level.

Despite this, Demographer Dr. Kim Johnstone – a speaker at this year’s NSW School Planning Conference – is confident in her estimates.

“What I tend to do as a demographer, is set a population framework to look for well-established population patterns, so that even when things like birth rates go up and down, the predictions are quite robust,” she said, ahead of her speech at the conference.

Monitoring people’s movements

As part of this framework, Dr Johnstone uses sophisticated data to model geographical distribution.

This data is particularly important she says, with younger generations (the critical age for starting families) also the most geographically mobile.

“We are now, for the first time, able to hone in on a small geographical area and show the changing distribution of where children will be located over the next twenty years. This projection is based on multi-factorial data that takes into account COVID-19 and a range of other influences,” she said.

“This is really important because schools are very local, meaning relocation has a profound impact on demand. If people stayed where they were when they had their babies, things would be easier, but many move away – some into green-field areas – and we need to model these movements accurately.”

One notable observation from Dr Johnstone’s modelling is that families usually stay put after having their first child, but move to an area that affords them more living space following child two or three. Those living in Greater Sydney tend to relocate elsewhere in NSW, while people from regional NSW often move overseas.

“Understanding the factors that influence people’s propensity to move is key in honing our predictions,” Dr Johnstone said.

Monitoring population drivers

Population drivers like fertility and overseas migration are also paid close attention in Dr Johnstone’s modelling.

“Now more than ever we need to monitor fluctuations in population size and demographics. Changes to migration during COVID-19 primarily affected younger generations, so we need to keep an eye on the number of younger people living in NSW.

“The numbers of younger women living, or intending to live, in Australia are often more powerful predictors than fertility rates. The spike in birth rates we saw over the last 5-10 years was primarily driven by the volume of young female residents,” she said.

Other factors and model outcomes

Dr. Kim Johnstone is the Manager of Population Insights and Economics at the Department of Planning & Environment.

Presenting at the NSW School Planning Conference, she will give more insight into the drivers affecting school demand, along with insights from the NSW Population Projection, prepared by the Department of Planning and Environment.

Joining Dr Johnstone on the stage are Australia’s leading architects, academics and industry voices.

This year’s event will be held November 8th at the Radisson Blu Plaza Sydney.

Learn more and register your place here.

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