Rise in School Population

Critical Mass: how will schools accommodate the rising pupil population?

In a time of rising demand for teachers, are we at crisis point? Or can schools adopt inventive strategies to accommodate the ongoing swell in pupil numbers?

The baby boom of the early 2000s is currently causing a demographic bulge in British state schools. Secondary school teachers are anticipating its full impact this decade, while primary school teachers have already felt the effect

With a shortage of teachers across the country and more families facing uncertainty about placing their children in schools of their choice, addressing this urgent demographic challenge is a crucial undertaking.

Understanding the growing pupil population

Nursery and primary school populations have been rising since 2009. In the first three years of the 2010s, the number of primary schools with more than 1,000 pupils grew by 60%.

This demographic bulge experienced in primary schools will, inevitably, soon move to secondary schools.

Over the next two years, every region in England can expect a 3% increase in the number of pupils. While this sounds negligible, by 2027, the state secondary school pupil population is set to increase by 14.7%, which equates to almost 418,000 more pupils than today.

Between 2018 and 2019, the number of pupils in state-funded secondary schools grew for the fifth year in a row. Overall, there were  84,500 new pupils in the school system — 69,500 pupils in secondary schools, 10,800 in primary schools and 6,500 in special schools. Curiously, independent school pupil numbers were actually down by 900.

Clearly, state-funded secondary schools are feeling the full brunt of the demographic bulge.

Demographic change

The general cause of the growth in pupil numbers is the baby boom of the early 2000s. But the fact that independent school numbers remain steady demonstrates that issues of class and race cannot be entirely disregarded.

According to the most recent Department for Education (DfE) report, the number of pupils of minority ethnic origins (defined as non-white British) is rising year-on-year. In 2019, 33.5% of primary school pupils were of minority ethnic groups (up from 33.1% in 2018). In secondary schools, the figure stood at 31.3% (up from 30.3%).

Broadly speaking, this means a third of all pupils belong to minority ethnic groups. Of these, the largest minority is British Asian, followed by white non-British and Black British. What’s more, around 1 in 5 pupils are exposed to a non-English language at home — a figure that has been steadily rising since 2006.

Interestingly, the report suggests that the direct immigration of pupils born outside the UK has had little effect on the school-age population.

Instead of direct immigration, the report goes on to say that the birth rate — particularly that of children born to non-UK born women — has a much larger effect on the pupil population. This can be attributed to non-UK born women tending to have higher total fertility rates (TFR) than UK-born women (the TFR for women born outside the UK was 1.99 children per woman in 2018, compared to 1.63 for UK-born women).

The teacher shortage: compounding the problem

Though alarming, rising pupil numbers are not the biggest cause for concern. The real issue is that teacher numbers are not keeping apace.

On the surface, the outlook may not be so bleak. According to an analysis by the Education Policy Institute, the number of teachers at state-funded schools in England has increased by 12% since the turn of the century. However, as the report goes on to say, “in recent years, the number of teachers has been relatively flat while pupil numbers have been increasing due to a population bulge that started early in the new millennium.”

In today’s highly competitive talent market, attracting and retaining teachers is as difficult as ever particularly in key subjects such as maths, science and modern foreign languages. The figures are damning: the DfE has failed to reach its recruitment targets for secondary teacher trainees for seven years in a row.

Though the causes of this recruitment slump are manifold, a lack of sufficient funding appears to underpin them all.

Measured against inflation, teachers are paid almost £3,000 less than a decade ago. Between 2010 and 2017, the average primary school teacher salary fell by £2,900 (7%). The average secondary teacher salary didn’t fare much better, falling by £2,700 (6%). While teacher starting salaries are set to become more competitive and rise to £30,000 by 2022-2023, unions feel that the changes will do little to address the real-terms pay decrease of the last decade.

Meanwhile, teacher spending has not been consistent with overall education spending. Between 2002/03 and 2016/17, per-pupil expenditure in schools grew by 42%. Per-pupil spending on teachers grew by just 17%.

Despite government pledges to give English schools a £14bn cash injection for the next three years, research conducted by the School Cuts coalition of unions concluded that four in five state schools are worse off in 2020 than they were in 2015.

The impact: over-capacity schools

When pupil growth outpaces that of teachers, class sizes can become too big to sustain — putting a strain on resources and making it difficult for teachers to teach effectively.

According to DfE data, the average secondary school in England now has 948 pupils. Primary schools have an average of 281. Special schools are up to 114.

Without enough teachers, class sizes in all secondary schools have risen for four years running. DfE data also suggests that 8.4% of all secondary school classes now have between 31 and 35 pupils. Given that the UK’s secondary class size average of 26.7 (as of 2017 data) is the third-highest in the OECD, these ongoing trends look disquieting for teachers.

Again, a lack of investment seems to be the issue. According to Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the increase in class sizes “is a direct result of real-terms cuts in school funding”.

The response: greater autonomy for local authorities?

Nationally, the increase in the number of unfilled school places demonstrates that local authorities are already planning for the influx of extra pupils.

Throughout the 2017/18 school year, 59,000 extra primary school places and 37,000 extra secondary school places were added to schools.

In 2018, there were 467,000 unfilled places in primary schools and 638,000 unfilled places in secondary schools — both up from 2017 (by 0.2% and 3%, respectively).

Meanwhile, 79% of primary schools and 85% of secondary schools had one or more unfilled places.

By 2019, the proportion of infant pupils in large classes (of 30+ pupils) had fallen for the fourth year. 4.5% of infant pupils were found to be classes of more than 30 pupils.

Despite these trends, the construction of hundreds of new schools is required to properly accommodate the coming increase in the pupil population.

According to research by public sector procurement specialist Scape Group, 640 new schools and 12,835 new classrooms will be needed to keep up with demand. To ensure that the new development of new buildings benefits schools without disrupting the education of pupils, Scape Group Chief Executive, Mark Robinson argues:

“We must collectively focus on delivering a strategy and solutions which not only provide high-quality, modern spaces for teaching and learning but also offer our colleagues in local authorities cost certainty, value for money and timely delivery.

“It is vital that we focus on solutions that will allow us to create additional school places quickly and resourcefully, without compromising on quality. Offsite technology is one answer.”

Instead of piling money into more free schools and academies (both of which incite fierce debate around issues such as rising inequality and allocating taxpayers’ money), Scape Group suggests that the government should deploy resources to existing school structures.

Further recommendations include a fairer education funding model for local authorities, as well as more collaboration between developers, local schools and local councils. As Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Chair of the Local Government Authority (LGA) Children and Young People Board elaborates:

“Councils need to be allowed to open new maintained schools and direct academies to expand. It makes no sense for councils to be given the responsibility to plan for school places but then not be allowed to open schools themselves.”

Though the problem is national, it is inherently local. According to LGA analysis, 15 councils will face a secondary school place shortfall in 2020/21 — unless further secondary school places are created. By 2025, this is predicted to rise to 71 councils.

The solution may also be local. At the launch of its educational reforms in the summer of 2019, the Scottish government declared that “more decision-making powers than ever before are now in the hands of schools.”

These reforms include giving schools decision-making powers over learning, teaching, the curriculum, staffing and budgets, as well as creating new guidelines for local authorities to enhance and improve the management of resources. An additional £5 million of funding has also been allocated towards regional educational programs.

By giving councils the autonomy to open new schools themselves, Bramble suggests that the government could help abate the school places crisis in England, for now at least.

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