Babies and budgets

In the week that the Chancellor delivered his 2013 budget the DfE published new projections for the size of the school population. The DfE now has some idea of what the school population is likely to look like into the early years of the next decade, taking us past the 2020 point for the first time. On present predictions, the birth rate is likely to peak in 2014, meaning that the total headcount of pupils aged less than 5 in maintained nursery and state-funded primary and secondary schools is projected to reach a peak of 1,086,000 million in 2019; a 14% increase since 2012.

In 2010, the number of pupils in primary schools began to increase as the birth rate upturn started to have an impact on schools. By 2016, there are projected to be 4,462,000 million pupils in state-funded primary schools, an increase of 9% from 2012. By 2021, the number is projected to increase to 4,808,000 million, 18% higher than in 2012, and a figure not seen since the early 1970s.

Secondary school pupil numbers aged up to and including 15 are projected to rise again from 2016 onwards. By 2018, they are likely to have recovered to 2012 levels. The total size of the secondary school population will depend upon where those extra young people remaining in education until eighteen after the leaving age is raised decide to continue their studies; many will no doubt opt for the further education sector as it offers a wider range of learning opportunities to that of many school sixth forms.

The education of all these extra pupils must be funded. Recent debates have been about school places, but soon it will switch to the additional costs of extra teachers and the other resources that will be required for their education. Assuming that the increase in primary school numbers will be around 700,000 by the end of the decade, such an increase will require an extra £2.1 billion per year, even if only £3,000 is spent on each new pupil. In practice, the average spend across England is nearer £4,500 per pupil, so that would mean more than £3 billion extra may be needed each year even before factoring in the regional differences in the growth in pupil numbers since the average spend per pupil is £1,000 higher in London than for England as a whole.

In the budget Red Book, the Chancellor estimated spending on Education as a whole would increase from £51.4 billion in 2012-13 to £53.8 billion in 2014-15, possibly more than might be required during that period to fund the extra primary pupils. But, don’t forget that there is general cost inflation to take into account; schools pay more for their energy bills just like the rest of us, and there is the salary bill to take into account. The one per cent increase on an average salary bill of say of £166 billion adds £166 million to the annual teaching wage bill, plus the net effect of salary progression for those teachers not yet at the top of their pay scales. Add the cost of support staff of around another £80 million, and the annual age bill increases annually by close to £250 million a year before any more staff are employed. If non-pay inflation is only 2% that can add a further £140 million to expenditure even in a mild winter, meaning close to half of the increase over the two years is absorbed in rising prices and wages. Add in the net effect of academies whose expenditure isn’t contained in most DfE figures and the margin for new spending on the extra pupils entering schools becomes even tighter.

This is one of those classic dilemmas where politicians at Westminster can happily say one thing about protecting spending on education while their activists at the grassroots level are experiencing a very different reality. In this case, protecting may not mean improving. It probably won’t protect expenditure per pupil while numbers are on the increase and that will be hard to understand at the school gates.

Personally, it seems like a time for humility. Education has done well compared with many other government departments in this age of austerity, but the increased demands on its services means that the benefit probably won’t be felt in many schools. There’s also a message here for the teacher unions, and their leaders, during this conference season: be realistic not dogmatic. 

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