Large fall in demand for London primary schools places forecast

Large fall in demand for London primary schools places forecast

Demand for primary school reception places is falling significantly across the capital, according to new forecasts from the cross party London Councils group published today.

It warns that the drop in pupil numbers, predicted to be of almost eight per cent by 2026/27 – more than 7,000 children or 243 classes – will put increasing pressure on budgets and could mean mergers or even closures for smaller schools in particular.

London’s declining birth rate is the main reason for the decrease in demand for school places, the analysis finds. It fell by 17 per cent between 2012 and 2021 with 23,225 fewer births, dipping significantly below the national average in the past two years in contrast to earlier trends.

It’s a dramatic reversal of the “baby boom” the city experienced from 2001 which added more than 100,000 under-fives to the population, prompting the then Mayor, Boris Johnson, to boast of a London 2012 conception bonanza. Other factors include the impact of Brexit on migration patterns and families leaving the city for good during the Covid-19 pandemic, the report suggests.

All but three of the 32 London boroughs are expecting reduced demand for primary places of more than four per cent, the analysis shows. It’s a variable picture though, with increases expected in Kingston – strongly bucking the trend with a predicted 15 per cent rise predicted – Waltham Forest and Havering.

At the other end of the table, Lambeth predicts school rolls falling by just over 15 per cent and reductions of more than 10 per cent are anticipated in Lewisham, Hounslow, Merton, Hackney, Enfield, Ealing and Hillingdon.

When measured on a London sub-regional basis the figures vary too, with significantly less pressure from falling rolls in south-west London, which are forecast to be down by 4.3 per cent compared to a drop of more than 10 per cent in the north-west of the city.

A knock-on impact for secondary schools is predicted, with Year 7 numbers expected to drop by 3.5 per cent between 22/23 and 26/27. Demand for education and training for 16 to 18 year-olds is also thought set to reduce in the medium to longer term.

Predicting school place demand is not an exact science, and the picture is further complicated by significantly higher than average “in-year” admissions during the 2021 school year. These were up by 5,658 for primary schools and 5,029 at secondary level due to refugee family arrivals as well as higher rates of moving between boroughs during and post-Covid.

However, the current trend could have a major impact on individual schools across the capital because the majority of school funding is allocated on a per pupil basis.  “A decrease in pupil numbers means a decrease in the funding a school receives,” the London Councils report says. “Many primary schools in London are already struggling to balance budgets this academic year due to a combination of factors, including inflationary price increases and a shortage of teaching and support staff.”

That means difficult decisions, from narrowing the curriculum offer to cutting staff, while in some cases “school leaders and local authority leaders will have to make difficult decisions to merge or close schools”.

The report calls for government funding to keep up with inflation in order to help schools manage changing demand, and suggests local authorities should have more power to manage pupil numbers across all schools in their area, including free schools and academies.

London boroughs would be supporting schools experiencing decreasing demand, said London Councils executive member for children and young people Councillor Ian Edwards. “London still has the best performing schools in the country and it is vital we ensure our schools thrive in this difficult climate.”

The London Councils report follows Centre for London analysis of 2021 Census data showing a decline in the number of households with at least one dependent child, particularly in central and inner London. Action is needed to prevent inner London becoming increasingly “child-free”, the think tank warned.

The London Councils report can be downloaded here.

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