Twelve Canberra public schools are running well below capacity, including two with just 22 per cent of possible enrolments filled, prompting a leading academic to call for the system to collaborate to restore confidence in local schools.
Figures from last year show while five government schools burst at between 98 and 105 per cent capacity, a dozen others lagged with utilisation rates of between 22 and 50 per cent.
Eight of the undersubscribed schools were in Tuggeranong, two in Belconnen, one in the Molonglo Valley and the other Jervis Bay. Most ranked below the national average in the index of community socio-educational advantage with all but one listing more than 25 per cent of students in the bottom quarter.
The reverse was true in schools near or over capacity. All had ICSEAs well above the Australian average with as few as one per cent of students considered disadvantaged.
Victoria University education expert Stephen Lamb, who was commissioned to examine the performance of Canberra's public education system in 2016, said the data suggested parents were avoiding certain schools.
This led to a process of residualisation, he said, where schools that were being avoided were more likely to be attended by local children with greater needs. Professor Lamb said it also meant fewer resources were allocated to those schools, resulting in fewer specialised programs and a low likelihood the cycle would be broken.
"It is worrying because what it has an impact on is the types of resources that are available to the school, both in terms of families that are using the school and the children that are there but also, importantly, the sorts of resources that are allocated to the school for it to be able to deliver its services," Professor Lamb said.
"Schools that are more towards having a full complement of students have much larger budgets on which to plan with and to operate with."
Schools that were under capacity in 2017 included Calwell Primary (220 students and a 42 per cent utilisation rate), Calwell High (352 students, 49 per cent utilisation), Caroline Chisholm School (324 students, 38 per cent utilisation), Charles Weston School (197 students, 22 per cent utilisation), Charnwood-Dunlop School (278 students, 50 per cent utilisation), Gilmore Primary (99 students, 32 per cent utilisation), Jervis Bay School (50 students, 40 per cent utilisation), Lanyon High (333 students, 40 per cent utilisation) and Richardson Primary (136 students, 37 per cent utilisation).
Schools near or over capacity were Garran Primary (581 students, 100 per cent utilisation), Gold Creek School (589 students, 98 per cent utilisation), Hawker Primary (343 students, 98 per cent utilisation), Lyneham High (1084 students, 100 per cent utilisation) and Telopea Park School (856 students, 105 per cent utilisation).
Professor Lamb suggested public schools collaborate to attract more local families. Data released by the Education Directorate last year showed 38 per cent of Canberra's public school students attended a school outside their priority enrolment area in 2016.
"At a system level, that means thinking about where all the programs are delivered and in which settings, so being able to therefore get some schools to specialise or to be able to work with others in the delivery, so therefore there are other things that are coming into play in the way families view the use of the schools," he said.
"There shouldn't be any need, in a sense, for parents to be pursuing other sorts of schools outside the one that they have available to them because that should be the highest quality available. In an ideal world, that's exactly what would happen."
An Education Directorate spokesman pointed to "unavoidable, natural" cycles of growth and decline when asked to explain the low utilisation of some schools.
Census data shows children aged zero to 14 make up 19.6 per cent of Tuggeranong's population; the Canberra average was 17.4 per cent. Charles Weston School in the new suburb of Coombs opened mid-2016 and will likely expand as the region grows.
The directorate spokesman added: "Sometimes parents also seek enrolment outside their neighbourhood school."
The Education Directorate was also looking at its methodology for determining school capacity, he said.
Asked the directorate's plans for under-utilised schools, the spokesman said: "The government supports and invests in schools that currently have available capacity, as with every school, to make sure every student has access to a great education."