John Howson Calculates cost of falling rolls

14th November 2003 at 00:00
One of the reasons often cited by the Government for reductions in the budgets of some schools is that the number of pupils is falling. This is indeed true. After a period of rising rolls throughout the 1990s, many primary schools are now faced with a period of declining numbers. Secondary schools will start experiencing the phenomenon shortly. If the last period of falling rolls is any guide, one outcome will be school closures and mergers. However, more parents will be able to secure the school of their choice and appeal rates will diminish.

One important difference between now and the 1980s, when rolls last fell, is that schools these days are responsible for their own budgets. The income a school receives is provided in large part by the application of a pupil-age based formula. A school receives more cash for key stage 1 pupils, but class sizes are not allowed to rise above 30. Thus, the loss of pupil numbers can have a big impact on a school's budget and in turn on staffing.

Overall, the DfES believes that pupil numbers in primaries will fall from a peak of more than 4.3 million in 1999, to around 3.8m in 2011; a drop of some 452,000 pupils. In the secondary sector, government statisticians expect school rolls to peak in January 2004, at slightly more than 3.3m, and then to fall to under 3m by 2016. This is a loss of around 359,000 students. It is also possible that the trough in the secondary sector will not have been reached by 2016, but will occur nearer 2020; much will depend upon how many pupils remain in school after age 16.

Government statisticians do not expect exactly similar patterns of decline across England. The demographers seem to think that the largest declines in percentage terms will be in the urban areas of the North of England and parts of the Midlands. The South, and London in particular, will witness only a relatively small decline in pupil numbers over the next decade. The demographers estimate that the number of five to 14-year-olds in London will be around 38,000 less in 2013 than in 2003. This is a decline of around 4.5 per cent. However, in the North-east, there is expected to be a decline of more than 39,000 youngsters in these age groups; this represents a decline of more than 10 per cent in the forthcoming decade. Within the regions there is likely to be internal migration away from heavily built-up areas and towards market towns and smaller settlements on the fringes of our cities.

Much depends upon whether the Government spends the same amount of cash on schools as at present, or the same amount per pupil. The latter alternative will see money lost to schools, as happened this year, as the cash generated by the school population reduces. Under this scenario, there will be fewer teaching posts. How many fewer is difficult to calculate as each school will be affected differently. With a funding system originally designed for rising rolls, the outcomes can be uncertain and unexpected, as the Secretary of State found earlier this year.

What is clear is that unless more under-fives are enrolled in schools, posts for primary school teachers will be hard to come by for the next few years. The statisticians are predicting little or no upturn in the five to nine age group anywhere in the country by 2013, although they do see an upturn in the nought to four age group in some regions around 2012.

For secondaries, the prospects for a decline in overall teacher numbers is high. However, there is a certain amount of slack in the system based on the number of untrained and temporary teachers currently working in schools.

Fortunately, these demographic changes are taking place at a time when schools will naturally be losing teachers through retirement. Indeed, if the funding holds up, many new teachers will still be required despite the falls in pupil numbers.

Overall, prospects for those who can find work as teachers is good; whether the jobs will be there may differ across the country, and will depend upon how much money goes into education and how the Government distributes it.

John Howson is a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes university and a director of Education Data Surveys

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