The number of state nursery and primary age pupils in England is set to fall by 13 per cent over the next decade, according to official data, as schools warn cuts to per-pupil funding will leave them struggling to stay open.
The population of primary and nursery schools has been declining since its 2019 peak due largely to dropping fertility rates, Department for Education data showed. The drop is expected to accelerate from 2024 onwards.
The government predicts the number of students aged between three and 11 years old to fall by 13 per cent by 2032, or 578,623, compared with today.
The drop in pupil numbers could lead to cuts in per-pupil government funding and pile pressure on schools already facing financial pressure, forcing some to cut costs and staff, and — in the worst case — close altogether, according to education experts.
“The main issue for schools is that their funding is on a per-pupil basis, so when they have falls in student numbers the overall pot of money goes down but their costs don’t fall in the same way,” said Jon Andrews, head of analysis at the Education Policy Institute think-tank.
London will disproportionately be affected by falling pupil numbers. Over the next decade, the number of 5-year-olds in the capital is forecast to fall by almost a tenth, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Several planned primary school closures and mergers in inner London have already been triggered by families leaving the city in search of cheaper housing and childcare, as well as Europeans moving away during the coronavirus pandemic.
Across England, the number of unfilled primary places has doubled over the past decade, according to government data. There were 130,776 unfilled primary school places in the 2023-24 academic year, compared with 65,649 recorded in 2014-15. Unfilled places arise when capacity is higher than the number of pupils on roll.
“The impact of falling pupil numbers in the primary phase is a concern for many school leaders,” said Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT.
“We know that in certain parts of the country, including in some inner cities, this is already beginning to affect school budgets.”
London Councils, a body representing 32 boroughs and the City of London Corporation, found that total reception numbers in the capital are predicted to decline from 96,424 to 89,121 from 2022-23 to 2026-27 — a 7.6 per cent decrease.
“Some of them have really considerable vacancy rates,” a London Councils spokesperson said. “At the highest end, you’ve got a vacancy rate of over 50 per cent and this is most challenging for the smaller primary schools.
“We are already seeing local authorities and schools reducing classes and class sizes. We’re seeing some school mergers too.”
Helen Davis is one of a number of parents threatening to take legal action against Hackney Council after it announced it was considering closing or merging six primary schools.
The council said the decision was a “direct result of the significant decrease in pupil numbers which has caused some schools to face serious financial and sustainability pressures”.
Hackney Council said the six schools had missed out on more than £4mn worth of funding in 2022-23 due to empty places.
Across the borough, 58 schools lost £30mn in government funding in the same period “compared to what they would be entitled to if running with all classrooms full”, they said. In this academic year, there were 634 vacant reception places — or about 21 classes.
Local authorities are responsible for ensuring there are a sufficient number of pupil places available in their areas. However, they only have control over admissions in locally maintained state schools, not state academies or free schools.
“Part of the problem is that they are limited in the number of schools [councils] can make these decisions over,” said Andrews.
“What the government needs to do is make sure local areas have those powers to do the proper planning they are supposed to be doing.”
Davis said: “Hackney Council are just picking off the ones they can address themselves, so that’s the council-maintained ones. This is a really serious issue, we should have the ability to choose where we send our children.”
In 2024-25, every primary school is set to receive £4,655 per pupil under the national funding formula (NFF), under which the government determines how core education funding is allocated.
However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that school spending per pupil in 2024 will remain 3 per cent below 2010 levels in real terms once actual costs are accounted for.
“Either government and local authorities will have to fund schools to have lower class sizes, or they will need to decide whether they are not financially sustainable. At the extreme end, they will have to close,” said Luke Sibieta, a research fellow at the IFS.
“The cost of having a teacher in the class is still the same, whether you have 25 or 30 students in a class,” he added. “So the actual costs in schools don’t decline that quickly and it might be very difficult for schools to cut their costs in response to cuts in the pupil numbers.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Next year, school funding will be at its highest level in history — in real terms per pupil, following the additional £2bn of investment for both 2023-24 and 2024-25 in the 2022 Autumn Statement.
“It is for local authorities and academy trusts to balance the supply and demand of school places, in line with changing demographics, as they have done for many years.”