London’s state schools will break up for the summer holidays next week after more than a full academic year disrupted by Covid-19. Reception class children will return in September to become Year 1 children. How many of the school places they vacate will be filled?
Figures released at the end of May said that as a whole around 6,500 fewer children had enrolled for reception classes in the capital’s primary schools by the January deadline for academic year 2021/22 than had for the current one – a substantial fall of 6.7 per cent.
The picture for Birmingham was even more striking – a year-on-year percentage fall of 9.5 per cent, while for Bristol it was 6.8 per cent. So, it’s not just a London thing. But what might the drop tell us about changes to the size and composition of the capital’s population as a whole?
London Councils, the cross-party body that represents all 33 of the capital’s local authorities, has attributed the fall in reception class applications to a combination of families leaving the city because of Brexit, leaving it because of the pandemic, simply not getting round to enrolling their children because of Covid’s general disruption to normal life, and to a continuation of a fall in London’s birthrate that has become established in recent years.
It is thought that some elements of this mix could turn out to be smaller than the overall January figures indicated, as some of the households that have left might have done so only temporarily. There could also be more reception places claimed rather late than is usual.
Also, and as ever, the London picture is as varied as the vast city itself. And it may be that it is far less dramatic in Outer London in general than in Inner and Central London.
For example, Bromley Council says its primary schools haven’t really seen any change. Havering reports only “a slight decline”. Waltham Forest says it is already very close to having the number of enrolments it forecast and expects to reach that total “as late applications are submitted before September”. Not much difference if any, then, for those three east Outer London boroughs.
It’s a slightly different story across the metropolis in Richmond, where they had 2,232 primary first entry applications for September 2020 and have had 2,048 so far for September 2021. The borough’s head of admissions attributed this change to lower birthrate and also “we believe families leaving the area because of Brexit and families not applying on time due to Covid concerns”. Late applications are still coming in though.
Sutton? Applications were down by 83 year-on-year, or 3.1 per cent. Numbers have have falling since 2017, the council says. Barking & Dagenham? As of last week they were a heftier 6.2 per cent down, though they say they like to have a 3-5 per cent shortfall as this gives a bit of scope for parental choice.
The east London council says the impact of Brexit on exchange rates and immigration status prompted many local EU families to leave Britain and that Covid has prompted outward domestic migration. On the other hand, Barking & Dagenham continues to be both the cheapest London borough to buy or rent a home and a location to which other boroughs export their homeless families. These in-factors are thought likely to compensate for those moving outwards and abroad.
So there have been falls in several of the suburban boroughs, but none of those On London received figures from reported reductions as great as that 6.7 per cent for London as a whole.
However, some Inner London boroughs have been experiencing much larger reductions. Interestingly, that is not the case with Tower Hamlets, which says it has seen a small reduction of 2.5 per cent compared with last year and describes this as “not significantly out of step with our pupil projections”. But elsewhere primary classes are merging within schools, primary schools are merging with each other and there have even been primary school closures.
Hackney has a surplus of around 500 primary school places, and future closures have not been ruled out. Camden is presiding over a closure and a merger. Southwark, where one is being axed, picks out housing affordability as a bigger contributory factor than it would be in many Outer London boroughs.
Not long ago, London Councils was forecasting a large increase in demand for school places for all age groups. Now, it anticipates that falling rolls could lead to a funding cut of £34 million. Within that pan-London scenario it looks as if there might be significant differences between what’s happening in different parts of the capital.
In the early days of the pandemic, comparisons were made with London’s experience of World War II. After that conflict there was a big fall in population, but most of the loss was from the inner city rather than the suburbs. It’s still too early to be sure how many Londoners there currently are and how many there will be in the near future. But perhaps in one respect the city’s history is about to repeat itself at least to some degree.
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