Schools, pupils and their characteristics 2021: 5 things we learned

schools pupils characteristics

The secondary and special school populations continue to grow in England, the latest data shows, with a slight decrease in the number of primary pupils and a big fall in those attending pupil referral units.

The Department for Education has published its annual schools, pupils and their characteristics data collection, which is based on the January census.


1. Secondary and special school numbers keep rising

As of January this year, there were 8,911,887 pupils in all schools, including both state funded and independent schools.

This is up by 21,500, or around 0.2 per cent, on the previous year. The rise has been driven by increases in the state secondary pupil population, which grew by around 2.5 per cent from around 3.41 million to 3.49 million, reflecting the continuing move of a population bulge through to secondary level.

The state special school population increased by 4.7 per cent from 128,146 to 134,176.

The number of pupils in state primary schools decreased from around 4.71 million to 4.7 million, a fall of around 1.2 per cent, while the number of pupils in independent schools fell by 1.3 per cent from 576,857 to 569,366, continuing a trend seen since 2016.


2. PRU population down 17%

The number of pupils in pupil referral units fell by 17 per cent from 15,396 in January 2020, to 12,785 in January this year. The DfE said PRUs “typically have high mobility with pupils having shorter spells than in other schools”.

This year, 72.9 per cent of pupils in PRUs were boys, and 53.1 per cent were eligible for free school meals, up from 46.6 per cent on last year, and compared to 20.8 per cent for the whole school population.

The DfE said a further 9,200 pupils had a “dual subsidiary registration” in a PRU, meaning they also have their main registration in another school.

At the same time, there was an increase in pupils attending local authority-funded alternative provision of around 10 per cent, from 29,496 to 32,436.


3. Increase in independent and special schools

Despite the continuing decrease in the number of pupils in independent schools, there was an increase of 1.5 per cent, or 35 schools, in the number operating between January 2020 and this year.

There were also 12 additional special schools as of this January, an increase of 1.2 per cent. Overall, there were 53 more schools operating in January 2021 than in the previous year.

As of this January, 37 per cent of primary schools and 78 per cent of secondary schools were academies.


4. Slight increase in pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds

In 2020-21, 33.6 per cent of pupils in all schools in England were from a minority ethnic background, up from 33.2 per cent last year.

In primary schools, the rate remained the same at 33.9 per cent, while there was a slight decrease at secondary level from 32.2 per cent to 32.1 per cent, and an increase in special schools from 30.2 per cent to 30.5 per cent.

The proportion of pupils with a first language other than English fell slightly from 19.5 per cent to 19.3 per cent following “steady increases in recent years”.


5. Average infant class sizes continue to shrink

According to the DfE data, the average size of an infant class in 2020-21 was 26.6 pupils, down from 26.9 in 2019-20.

This continues a trend seen since 2016-17, when the average size was 27.4.

There is a legal limit of 30 on the number of pupils who can be in an infant class, but there are exemptions in “limited circumstances”.

The DfE said today that the number of pupils in infant classes of more than 30 pupils decreased from 65,400 to 54,200 this year. However, there has also been a decrease in the number of infant pupils overall, from 1.62 million in 2019-20 to 1.57 million in 2020-21.

There was also a decrease in the average class size at key stage 2, from 27.9 to 27.6, but an increase at secondary level, from 22 to 22.3.

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