The majority of NSW’s new school builds over the last three years have been determined by government promises and election commitments, rather than priority projects identified by the education department’s infrastructure arm, an audit has found.
NSW Auditor-General Margaret Crawford said new school builds and upgrades led by School Infrastructure NSW had not all met the highest needs of the state’s students.
In her audit, released on Thursday, Ms Crawford called on the education department to commit to a 10-year project priority list.
Of the school projects funded by the government in last year’s budget, eight had already been announced, four were for new non-priority projects, and two were new priority projects determined by School Infrastructure NSW.
Thirteen of the 40 new school projects funded after the state election in the 2019-20 budget were priority builds, while 27 were not. And in the 2018-19 budget, just one new build was a School Infrastructure NSW priority.
Forty projects from that year were already announced and two were new projects that had not been labelled priorities.
“School Infrastructure NSW has been focused on delivering existing projects, election commitments and other government announcements,” Ms Crawford wrote in her report.
“This has diverted attention from identifying and delivering projects that would have better met present and future student and classroom needs.”
The audit is the first to examine the state’s delivery of school builds since School Infrastructure NSW was established within the education department in 2017.
School Infrastructure NSW last year told the government it would not meet forecast classroom needs beyond 2023 - such as accommodating 180,000 new student enrolments and upgrading 34,000 teaching spaces by 2039 - despite the government’s record $7 billion spend on school builds over four years.
“Given limited resources, planning for projects should be led by strategic, state-wide prioritisation to select the most effective investments before projects are funded or announced,” Ms Crawford wrote.
But NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said governments were elected to deliver for their local communities and made decisions based on a range of factors.
“School Infrastructure NSW suggests areas for priority predominantly based on Sydney growth corridors,” she said.
“The people of NSW do not expect new schools and upgrades to occur only in Sydney’s growth areas. Given that we are responsible for students right across NSW, we need to make sure we invest in school infrastructure right across the state.”
She said her government had also invested in regional schools and delivered projects that responded to natural disasters.
Labor’s education spokeswoman, Prue Car, said the audit had confirmed the government was not building enough classrooms for NSW students.
“The Liberals are failing families in growing suburbs like Gregory Hills and Marsden Park who are still waiting for promised schools that never came,” she said.
Ms Crawford’s report was also critical of the department’s business cases, saying several failed to identify a school project’s proper scope, risks or estimated cost.
School projects that ran over budget
Arthur Phillip High School and Parramatta Public School: $100 million to $325 million due to failures in early design development and contractor procurement.
Ashtonfield Public School: $13.9 million to $15.3 million due to the requirement of additional space identified during concept design.
Jordan Springs New School: $37.3 million to $55 million due to need for a larger school and land acquisition costs.
Fort Street Public School: Requested additional funding due to the cost of moving students to another school so construction could take place and site condition costs.
NSW Auditor-General’s “Delivering School Infrastructure” report
These problems were heightened when the government announced school projects in advance, because the department became less likely to scope alternative options.
Ms Crawford found the Chatswood schools cluster upgrade had been constrained for that reason.
The government announced Chatswood Public School, which is over capacity and on a small block with limited play space, as the site for new development. Four other local schools were later found to be more suited to meet growing population demands, but they were not recommended by the department.
Several business cases also appeared to have been reverse-engineered to fit to a pre-announced funding amount, leading to “gold plating” or missing components.
In her recommendations, Ms Crawford said the education department should keep a 10-year priority list, improve the quality of its cost benchmarks, and consult with NSW Treasury to embed a cost-benefit analysis framework for future school investment.
Ms Mitchell said the department would implement the recommendations by April 2022, six months after Ms Crawford’s preferred deadline.
“Several recommendations reflect work already under way ... This report provides another opportunity to further improve our processes,” she said.
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