Anyone previously unfamiliar with the Bay of Plenty suburb of Papamoa will have certainly heard of it now, thanks to the oily mess left on its beaches by the grounded vessel Rena.

Rewind 20 years and it was a secluded coastal settlement to which Mount Maunganui-ites would drive on a rainy afternoon for want of something better to do. Today’s Papamoa is almost unrecognisable – its residential development stretches back towards the Papamoa Hills and right along the coast towards Te Puke. In the last 12 months alone, a Pak ‘n’ Save, Four Square, primary school and college have opened, work has begun on the $455 million Tauranga Eastern Link roading project and numerous houses have been built, filling the vacant sections like a ‘paint by numbers’.

In spite of its recent growth, some might find it hard to fathom that by 2051, Papamoa East is predicted to be a city the size of Nelson with a population of 40,000. And overall population growth translates into corresponding growth in the school-age population. The Ministry of Education predicts that by 2021 there will be 2200 additional school-aged students living in the area.

These numbers and predictions are not pulled out of thin air. Population projection models from Statistics NZ and Tauranga City Council’s SmartGrowth strategy have been used to inform decisions to build new supermarkets, schools and highways, among other infrastructure.

The Ministry of Education is one party making such decisions. The ministry developed the Mount Maunganui-Papamoa Area Strategy Plan in response to the population growth in the area and concluded that additional schooling provision in Tauranga is therefore required to accommodate the increasing student numbers. The strategy plan showed that overall, the student numbers in the coastal strip are projected to grow by 1000 year 1–6 students, 600 year 7–8 students and 600 year 9–13 students by 2021.

After extensive consultation and evaluation, it was decided two new schools needed to be built to meet this demand. Consequently, by 2000 the ministry had purchased two school sites in Papamoa in preparation for the need for a new primary school and secondary school on the coastal strip.

Nearby secondary schools Mount Maunganui College and Te Puke High School were also redeveloped from 2000 to improve existing facilities and provide additional student capacity until a new secondary school could be established in Papamoa.

Fast-forward to 2011, and both Golden Sands Primary School and Papamoa College are open. The timing was largely thanks to the government’s decision to fast-track the opening of new schools as part of an economic stimulus package announced in 2009. The two Papamoa schools were selected as part of the fast-track package and the timing of their opening was brought forward to 2011.

To create a good flow of students to Papamoa College, the ministry also decided, again after considerable community consultation, that two existing full primary schools (years 1–8) should become contributing primary schools (years 1–6). Such decisions aren’t taken lightly. The ministry’s plan notes, “The provision needed to address the demand for future student places while managing localised growth areas, cope with the effects of changes on current schools, effectively manage travel times and access to schools, and provide educational pathways for students within the area.”

Eduational pathways also need to reflect the local environment. Tauranga City Council intends Papamoa East to be developed as a “live, work, play” environment, in accordance with sustainable urban development principles. And schooling needs to fit into this bigger community picture.

There are certainly many factors to consider, not least the considerable investment. Yet if we step back to look at the even bigger picture, future development along the proposed Tauranga Eastern Corridor – in the form of residential, commercial and industrial development – is expected to contribute around $8.5 billion to the western Bay of Plenty economy.

The scary part about investing in infrastructure to cope with future growth is the risk involved. How far down the track does the ministry look when making decisions to restructure the education network for an area?

Case in point: the development of a town centre likely to be named Modena Beach is proposed as part of the Papamoa East urban growth strategy. Some might argue that the ministry is short-sighted in not factoring Modena into its school building plans. But in actual fact, the ministry has considered Modena. It acknowledges that an additional new primary school site may be required in the medium term, as newer neighbourhoods are created and in the longer term, further planning for the educational network will be undertaken as council plans are realised for the development of the Modena town centre. Opportunities to purchase further new school sites will become available in time, subject to the Tauranga City Council’s rezoning of the area.

Given the nature of demographic growth and timing of residential development is largely developer driven and influenced by economic conditions, it is probably prudent for the ministry to move one step at a time, albeit one step ahead of growth, in order to avoid system failure.

The ministry therefore must proceed boldly ahead with plans for new schools but, somewhat paradoxically, with a degree of caution. In the case of Papamoa, the ministry has striven to provide a school network with enough flexibility to cope with different rates of growth and changing demographic age profiles. The network should be able to expand and contract as individual school capacity is needed to meet local demands.

For the moment, life is peachy in Papamoa. The two new schools are performing well in their first year of operation and certainly appear to fit the “live, work, play” environment that Tauranga envisions for this rapidly growing part of
New Zealand.

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