School places

School places: London’s challenge could soon be everyone’s

A new report reveals that a surplus of school places could cause massive disruption to London's schools, says Ian Edwards, and a policy vacuum only risks making it worse

A new report reveals that a surplus of school places could cause massive disruption to London's schools, says Ian Edwards, and a policy vacuum only risks making it worse

28 Jan 2023, 5:00

More than half of schools did not complete a government catch-up programme for reception children

With some of the best schools in the country, London’s continuing to enjoy the best results of any region in England at both key stage 2 and GCSE. Achieving this has taken decades of effort, investment and the dedication of teachers, boroughs and local communities. For our children’s sake, it is vital that we maintain the quality of our education offer in a fast-changing world. However, a new report from London Councils shows that demand for school places (particularly at reception) has dropped across the capital, bringing new challenges for the capital’s schools.  

Many primary schools in London are already struggling to balance budgets due to a combination of factors including inflationary price increases and a shortage of teaching and support staff, which has led to an increased spend on more expensive agency staff. The decrease in children starting school has the potential to impact funding further, leading directly to lower per-pupil allocations.

London Councils’ new report shows there is a predicted 7.6 per cent decrease in reception pupil numbers across London from 2022-23 to 2026-27. This means 96,424 reception pupils today will decline to 89,121 by September 2026, roughly equivalent to a decrease of 243 classes across the city.

The reduction in demand is already creating challenges for schools and local authorities, as well as families and local communities. In particular, the reduction in school finances means that schools will have to make further difficult decisions to balance their budgets. This could be reducing the number of teaching and support staff or narrowing the curriculum offer and extracurricular opportunities, which could have an impact on school standards and children’s experience of school. In some cases, unfortunately, school and local authority leaders may have to make difficult decisions to merge or close schools.  

Leaders may have to merge or close schools

We know that the main reason for this decrease in demand is the long-term decrease in birth rate across London, which is inevitably impacting pupil numbers now. For context, between 2012 and 2021, there has been a 17 per cent decrease in London’s birth rate, which translates to a reduction of 23,225 live births across the capital. The national birth rate has also fallen, though not as steeply as London’s, by 13 per cent. It is not unusual for birth rates to fluctuate but it is something schools, boroughs and government need to manage the wider impacts of carefully.

There are other factors also affecting the number of applications London schools are receiving for reception places. London boroughs are also experiencing shifts in their local child population as a result of families leaving London during the Covid-19 pandemic and following Brexit. 

Councils have a hugely important role in supporting the education system, and we will continue to work hard to minimise the impact fewer pupils may potentially have on school budgets. London boroughs are supporting and guiding schools during this period and are looking to work with government to attain greater oversight and influence of the system to allow a smoother operation with minimal disruption to children in schools with falling rolls.

The abandonment of the schools bill has left a policy vacuum at exactly the same time as schools in London are moving out of a period of growth and stability into reduction and uncertainty. In its place, we must begin to discuss an overriding education support framework that puts communities at the heart of planning.

We do not know how long this downturn in pupil numbers will continue, and it is essential that while we adjust to this emerging trend we find ways to minimise disruption to our children’s’ education. Boroughs are listening to our local schools and working with teachers and parents to find a sustainable model out of this period of reduction that brings about a better future for our schools and London’s children.

There is a real chance to nurture local and regional collaboration, to strengthen partnerships and how we share information. But this period also presents substantial risk, and our aim must be to protect and sustain our schools’ hard-won gains.

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