While staff costs drive upwards of 75 percent of a school budget, your student enrolment numbers drive just about 100 percent of everything in the budget.
In 2016/17 the average total recurrent income per full time equivalent independent school student across Australia exceeded $20,000.  With a national average enrolment of 525 students per school, a margin of error of just one percent in projected enrolments translates to $100,000 per year – again on average across Australia.  While the average measure has limitations, here it is used to convey context – enrolment projections, if not accurate, carry a big risk.
What priority is given by the school governors to projected enrolments? What are the objective and subjective drivers of enrolment projections? What is the balance between those objective and subjective levers? 
Perhaps, as with most things in life, there are no easy answers or solutions. How do we mitigate this risk?
Data from developers and local or state governments might be available. It generally has built in and substantial growth bias. After all, who wants to be last on the league table? The census data is at best, almost two years old when made available and can quickly become dated in areas of rapid population growth. See below for the development of the township of Googong (near Canberra) via the Google Earth timeline feature. How would you accurately forecast enrolments for a 2015 school start-up?
The traditional ‘rule of thumb’ approach allows you to ramp up year level occupancy percentages over time, retaining all students as they transition to the next year level, year upon year, until 100 percent occupancy is achieved across the school. This approach requires many assumptions – are the numbers of potential students there; does their age profile match what we need; what will be the enrolment churn rate – and hopefully, with luck, you might get some of these assumptions right.
While this data appears objective, (it is numbers after all), there are many underlying subjective views from developers or local governments, and decisions that potentially degrade its accuracy and more importantly, erode the confidence that can be placed in the data.
Can we overlay these approaches with some science? Of course, we can – the science of math and statistics.
Age profiles of school catchments are based on census data. Annual statistical updating of this core data-set will add objectivity – add certainty – through improved understanding of population growth (or lack of it) in the catchment. This can be driven by actual awareness of student enrolment data for the small SA1 spatial areas in Australia or using tools such as Google Earth Pro to review development ‘on the ground’ and adjust underlying population data accordingly.
Can the updated census data be further refined? Yes, an analysis of school sector enrolments (Independent, Catholic and Government sectors) provides per capita enrolment benchmarks, providing an objective means to define market-share assumptions.
Enrolment projections developed in this manner can be added to other scenarios already prepared by schools to provide a series of projections that can be risk assessed and rated – from low to high risk and likelihood.
How do you prepare enrolment projections for greenfield sites; for catchments with stagnating numbers of school aged children; where your changes in enrolment numbers have drivers that require some discernment via an analysis of market share changes or annual student churn?
Realistically it cannot be left to chance. A school should seek the most objective view – one where the science of statistical math is mixed with the art of common sense, industry knowledge and local awareness – to produce the most relevant and the most meaningful enrolment projections. The alternatives can be anything from a guess, perhaps sometimes a lucky guess, a reverse-engineered solution to answer the question or just hope, backed by prayer. It does not have to be this way.
At EducationGeographics we already assist several client schools (and their leaders and governors) that are grappling with the business risks of getting enrolment projections reasonable and relevant, eliminating chance as much as possible, and getting the correct balance between the science and the art of their student enrolment projections.
Written by: Director – Education Geographics (Dashboard Design)
 See Independent Schools Council of Australia (ISCA) website (School Funding and School Statistics) <https://isca.edu.au/>.
 See ISCA website (School Statistics)
 See John Somerset, Defining a Financially Sustainable Independent School in Australia, Independent Schools Queensland (Research Paper, October 2018). Governors of schools have a statutory and/or fiduciary responsibility to ensure the financial viability and sustainability of their schools (Corporations Act 2001 (Cth), Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Act 2012 (Cth)). There is also a responsibility under the conditions of Commonwealth Government recurrent funding legislation to ensure financial viability and sustainability. Enrolment projection data is a core issue for School accreditation and the regular review of accreditation compliance, and for BGA capital assistance grants.