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This debate pack provides background information on school rolls, including in London, why they are predicted to fall and the impact this may have in terms of school closures. 

Primary pupil numbers are falling

Nationally, after a sustained period of increasing demand for primary school places, pupil numbers are now starting to decline, which will lead to some schools having fewer pupils, ie, falling rolls. It will take a few more years for the reduced primary numbers to feed through to secondary schools.

There’s been increasing interest in the implications of falling rolls and school closures in London

Why are school rolls predicted to fall?

There are local and national factors potentially affecting demand for school places. Nationally, these include birth rates that started to fall gradually from 2013, and then more sharply from 2016. Some also cite other factors as having an effect either nationally, or locally, including:

  • changing immigration patterns
  • children and young people not returning to school and missing education, following the pandemic
  • an increase in the proportion of children in elective home education
  • socio-economic factors, for example, “push” factors like cost-of-living and housing pressures displacing people to cheaper areas.

Why do falling rolls matter? 

Falling pupil numbers can impact school budgets and financial sustainability, because school funding is strongly influenced by the number of pupils on roll.

Some local authority areas have ‘falling rolls funds’, and some schools may also benefit from other funding formula protections designed to prevent large per-pupil year-on-year losses.

Even with access to this sort of funding, schools with sustained reductions in pupil numbers could need to make changes, and in some cases, may face restructure, amalgamation, or closure.

The situation in London

In January 2023, the membership body, London Councils, published a report that warned of “a significant and sustained period of reduction in demand for reception places, which has implications for school budgets and standards”. It said, on average:

  • London boroughs are predicted to see a 7.3% decrease in reception pupil numbers from [academic year] 2022/23 to 2026/27 and London’s total reception numbers are predicted to decline from 96,424 to 89,121
  • Forecast demand for year 7 places in secondary schools across London is predicted to drop by a total of 3.5% between 2022/23 to 2026/27, representing a slower rate of decline than at the primary level. This amounts to a decrease from 92,722 to 89,510 children

Trends would not be uniform across London.  

Number of schools in London, and vacant school places

The Department for Education publishes data on the number of schools on an annual basis. The most recent is for January 2022 when there were 2,550 state- funded nursery schools, primary schools, secondary schools, and special schools in London. The highest number of state-funded schools recorded was in January 2020 (2,561 schools). The decline over this period was driven mainly by fewer primary schools, which was partially offset by increases in special schools. 

London has a higher proportion of unfilled school places compared with the national average. In May 2022, 14.5% of mainstream state-funded primary and secondary school places in London were unfilled, this rate was 15.5% for primary places, and 13.4% for secondary places. In England 12.0% of primary and secondary school places were unfilled, this rate was 11.5% for primary places, and 12.5% for secondary places

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