Independent schools have enjoyed an increasing share of enrolment growth for some time. Over the past decade, enrolments in independent schools increased by more than 25 per cent, eclipsing all other schools over that same period.
In the face of historic and projected enrolment growth, a growing number of independent schools are embracing expansion plans, whether building new facilities in the current school, purchasing and developing neighbouring land, or establishing an additional campus.
These scenarios underline the importance of master planning. Put simply, master planning provides a conceptual layout of future growth and development for the school. Typically, the process considers the architectural, pedagogy, landscape, heritage, and urban design aspirations of the site.
Design Architect, Matthew Greene, and Community Sector Lead, Alan Standen, collectively lead the master planning service for Christian School clients at Paynter Dixon. Their approach is focused on long-term solutions.
No master plan should gather dust in the drawer, says Alan. “If your document has not been reviewed and updated on a regular basis in response to enrolment growth or changes in strategic direction, the master plan will fail as a resource. A peer review of your master plan is a good option, and if the document has aged 10 years or more, it may be time to create a new master plan.”
The first priority of a master plan is to align with the school’s strategic plan which outlines long-term objectives. While expansion is a common theme, other objectives typically include:
It’s not uncommon for master planning to yield insights which refine strategic objectives. For example, Matthew explains one project that changed during consultation.
“On this particular occasion, the master planning process analysed the impact of local government planning regulations on the school’s ability to increase student enrolment. As a result, the board’s focus shifted from developing the existing campus to searching for a new site on which to build a satellite campus.”
It’s a misnomer to label master planning as a design-only process “It’s crucial to understand the business of the school, from objectives to operations, says Alan. “This includes a focus on the financial position of the school, current and projected revenue, overheads and related issues.”
Alan will typically build a capability review into the master plan. This review addresses the feasibility of proposed capital works with a clear view of cost, timing and risk.
The finalised documentation not only supports the school’s internal decision-making process, it also proves valuable in securing finance. The information is transferable to a loan application, and the narrative component also supports the negotiation process with lenders.
“We ensure there is a clear and compelling narrative to the masterplan. This living document can be updated by the school in line with business planning and the annual budgeting cycle.”
There’s a further incentive – government funding. A master plan is essential for any government grant for a capital works project lodged through the Block Grant Authority.
Stakeholder input is a key influencer of design. According to Matthew, the process can encompass the spectrum of voices. He says, “We typically hear different perspectives across cohorts, such as students, parents, teaching staff, and the school’s management.”
“The student will provide insight into the lived experience on campus while the board will provide strategic advice. Workshops are an effective medium for going down the rabbit hole with that cohort.
For example, parents may point out their frustrations with drop-off, pick-up zones which highlights traffic flow on the site. Students also provide wonderfully unfiltered feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Take furniture for example, past workshops have shown that students prioritise good ergonomics over fashion.”
The unfiltered view should be presented to the board so that pain points of the current site are addressed from the outset. Likewise, if the school has already undertaken stakeholder engagement, the architect should be able to utilise this body of insight for the master plan.
State-based legislation determines the avenues of development consent available to a school. In NSW, education providers adhere to their local government regulations but also have the option to rely on the State Environmental Planning Policy (Transport and Infrastructure) 2021.
Obtaining the appropriate level of consent can greatly benefit the capital works project. For example, an eligible project for ‘development without consent’ is able to potentially fast track the project to the start of construction.
However, regulatory expertise is required for making an informed decision which doesn’t rely on speculation. On this front, Mathew points out a common misnomer regarding the master plan.
“The school is not obliged to lodge the master plan with local government for consent. While this may appeal to the architect’s ego, it can lock the school into development as per the master plan at that point in time. We encourage clients to use the master plan as an internal document, with the flexibility to modify as needs change over time. This allows the school to seek approval for each project in a sequence of their choosing.”
The master plan must respond to all environmental factors and constraints, from bushfire measures, to preserving areas of ecological significance surrounding the site.
As Matthew describes: “We worked with a school that was adjacent to a blue gum forest with high ecological value. Our ecological consultant was able to demonstrate to local government that the pocket of trees proposed for removal were not of intrinsic value to the habitat as their canopies were not interlinked. In return, the school committed to tree planting with consultant input, focusing on improving the migratory movements of native animals.”
Safety and security have become priorities of master planning in recent years. From a design perspective, how porous is the site?
“There is a challenge to controlling entry and exit points without creating a sense of confinement. Subtle design features with relation to landscaping and sight lines are important. More schools are building shared facilities which the community can utilise, such as sports halls. The master plan should address circulation through the site and how to limit public access.”
For Matthew, the spaces between buildings provide the interesting connections from which unexpected opportunities can emerge. “This can be as simple as identifying space within a corridor where students are stopping to congregate, creating the opportunity for a break-out space.”
There’s a lot to know about master planning, concedes Matthew, which is why trust is fundamental to the client relationship. “Master planning and development are ultimately long games. It pays to partner with credible service providers who are prepared to go on that journey and work in your best interests.”
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