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Falling rolls improve service

We should start thinking now about the next drop in pupil numbers, says Philip Hunter. The number of births in the UK is expected to fall by 17 per cent over the next 35 years, according to the latest figures from the Government Actuary. This means that, if we can maintain the existing level of resources, we can: provide full nursery education for all who need it, reduce class sizes by several per cent throughout the system, increase higher education participation from 30 per cent to 40 per cent and invest several hundreds of millions of pounds in a programme of school refurbishment.

ls this likely to happen? As the graph shows, we have been faced with falling school populations before. Between the 1970s and late 1980s, the school population fell by just over 20 per cent. (There was a much more marked fall in absolute terms, but this was from a very short peak to a short trough so the effects on the schools was less pronounced.) Perhaps it is worth remembering what happened then.

First, there was a massive school closure programme. Many of us spent night after night attending public meetings at which parents protested about the closure of their local school. Advice from HMI and others about the viable size of schools did little to abate the verbal (and occasional physical) abuse heaped upon the officers and local politicians who attended those meetings. It was a traumatic time.

There were, however, benefits too. The pupilteacher ratio improved slightly - until the early 1990s when the cuts began. Primary schools admitted children at a younger age and the post-16 staying-on rate at secondary schools increased rapidly. Many institutions found that their pupils had a little more room and the forests of mobile classrooms were thinned out.

As numbers settled, the Government and local authorities have been able to direct more attention towards curricular and management issues. Doing so, however, has made their lives much more difficult if we are to face future school closures. We now have many thousands of powerful school governors who are not going to see their school close without an even bigger fuss than communities made in the 1970s and 1980s. Schools now have delegated budgets and staffing powers and it is no longer possible to redeploy teachers from school to school. We have published league tables of test scores which often show that children in small village schools perform better than their peers in larger cities and towns. Also, we have a generation of parents who are more articulate and knowledgeable about their rights than ever before.

So we are less likely to see a repeat of the school closure programme. If so, there will be some space to improve staffing and extend the range of teaching before and after the statutory school age.

If the Government will leave the money in the system as well as the space, we will at last have an opportunity for improvements in staffing. After all the cuts in recent years and the warnings of hardship to come, it is a strange time to be thinking of spending more on our pupils and students.

In doing so, we must be adventurous. It would be too easy to try simply to restore the cuts, expand nursery education or reduce class sizes without working out whether that is the best way to improve learning. The extra resources will not appear in one year, or even in one decade. They will appear gradually over 30 years and the temptations to do more of the same will be seductive.

We should resist that temptation and be prepared to experiment. There is plenty of scope for new teaching techniques. imaginative use of technology, different use of support staff, new organisation of school days and terms Whatever happens, we should start to think about these matters now.

Philip Hunter is chief education officer of Staffordshire County Council.

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