Conceivably a real problem;Hot data;Reception

7th May 1999 at 01:00
WHAT A LOT of hype about millennium babies. In this rush to conceive, has anyone considered the implications for education?

Parents' desire - inspired by the media - to give birth on January 1, 2000, bunching the bulk of the year's babies around the millennium bank holiday, may give the health service a busy time, but won't unduly affect schools except for teachers on maternity or paternity leave.

However, if the number of births in 2000 rises above recent years' totals, and then falls back in 2001, longer-term issues will have to be faced.

Over recent years, education planners have been busy revising downward the size of the primary-school population. In 1995, the Department for Education and Employment estimated that the primary and nursery-school population in 2005 would be just over 4.35 million pupils.

By 1997, however, the estimate for 2005 had been cut back by more than 300,000 children. (Happily, in the latest projection released last autumn, an extra 28,000 pupils had been restored to the total. Whether this slight increase was due to a rise in nursery numbers, as playgroups closed, or an anticipation of the millennium bulge is not clear.) If there is a one-year upturn in births, this could mean bad news for those children as they grow up. The greater the millennium baby boom, the greater their problems.

No government will easily be able to fund extra resources for one extra-large year group passing through the system. Even if teachers are available, pressure on space and books will remain.

A greater problem may arise in 2011, when the cohort will be moving to secondary schooling. If nothing much changes between now and then the number of disappointed parents will be legion unless extra places are found at specialist and selective schools, .

In the past, the "Judgments of Solomon" involved in deciding who would go to which school were the job of the education authority. Happily, one of the first acts of this Government has been to create a new tier of admissions committees and adjudicators that will bear much of the brunt of reconciling problems over the planning for school places. They will have plenty of time to ensure that sufficient school places are available for the millennium children.

If they fail, where the "M2Bs" go to primary school, let alone what the school will look like, could be a key issue in a future general election.

John Howson is a fellow of Oxford Brookes University and runs an educational research company. E-mail: int.edu@lineone.net

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