How to insulate schools from booms and busts

Questioning our assumptions a decade ago could have saved a lot of money and pre-empted the developing crisis of falling rolls

Questioning our assumptions a decade ago could have saved a lot of money and pre-empted the developing crisis of falling rolls

1 Mar 2024, 5:00

Regrets, I’ve had a few, and not too few to mention either.

One of my biggest regrets is not realising just how short-lived the baby boom would be. I joined the Department for Education in 2012. Children starting school that year, born roughly in 2008, numbered 785,000 across the UK – 120,000 more than just seven years before – and the number was still rising. By 2010 we had more children being born than in any year since 1972. And it was still rising. Like everyone else, I thought we needed to build, baby build. 

And I was wrong, or at best half-right. The number of children born has fallen dramatically since 2012. Not just back to the 665,000 of 2010 either, but to an unprecedented low of 605,000. And the numbers are still falling. 

We built loads of extra school places in the early 2010s. Treasury wasn’t happy when we told them how much money we needed. They prevaricated at first. I asked them in a meeting what their ministers’ proposed alternative was: educate only some children, or some at weekends and in the holidays, or perhaps in shifts? They admitted we needed more classrooms, and we worked harmoniously thereafter. 

Now we have too many classrooms. Numbers are already falling in primary schools, and they will fall another tenth by 2028. We won’t have the money to cut class sizes, so we will have spare classrooms. Secondary school pupil numbers are about to decline and we will have the same issue in due course.

If we’d seen what was coming, I think we would have installed a lot more temporary classrooms. Now if you are my age, a “mobile” brings back some bad memories. We had one in my school, Chatham’s St Michael’s Roman Catholic Primary School, sited on what is now the car park. Single-glazed, the walls and roof had about as much insulation as the windows. Freezing in winter, stifling in summer: it was awful. 

That just isn’t true today. My daughter was in a newly-built demountable classroom for a year when she was in primary school. It was very good, perhaps the best classroom she had at primary school. Certainly the loos were the best in the school. 

We were not clairvoyant and could never hope to be

If we had built a lot of classrooms like these in primary schools, we could have literally moved them to secondary school sites when they were no longer needed in the primary school (which would be exactly the moment they were needed at the secondary). Kids get older quite predictably, one year every year. 

I realise that not all classrooms are the same (and they would have needed larger loos). But we could have designed one that would work both for a primary school, and for teaching humanities in secondary schools. They would probably work in further education and on university campuses for many classroom-based subjects too. 

Hindsight is easy, so I want to draw a more general lesson. It is no good looking back and asking the question why we didn’t spot that a decade-long trend of pupil numbers rising annually by an average of 14,000 would turn into a decade-long trend of even sharper decline. We were not clairvoyant, and we could never hope to be clairvoyant in future.

What we could have done, however, was to ask ourselves: “What if we’re wrong?” We could have done some scenario planning as to what decisions we were making that we would regret if the world turned out differently.

We would have spotted that we would end up with a surfeit of classrooms in many primary schools, while secondary schools would still be expanding. Then we could have gone on to ask how we could mitigate against that. Maybe some bright spark – and there are many in the department – would have thought of using portable classrooms. That would have saved us a lot of money later on. 

We should always learn from our mistakes. What I have learned is to imagine the consequences of being wrong. If only I had learned that lesson a decade earlier.

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